Tournament first-timer George Mason did not let the experienced host Blue Devils get by easily.
No. 8-seed Duke battled the Patriots for a full seven innings in order to come away with its tournament-opening 2-1 victory at the Durham Regional Friday afternoon. Sophomore Ana Gold’s 19th home run of the season broke a 1-1 tie in the sixth and freshman southpaw Cassidy Curd recorded the final four outs to avoid facing elimination Saturday.
“Really excited to get the first win under our belt here today,” head coach Marissa Young said. “Obviously we would have liked a little more offensive production, but it's great to fight and to grind that one out.”
An hour-long rain delay set back the first game of the tournament’s opening day, but as soon as the game was underway a pitching duel was sparked to life. Duke’s Jala Wright and George Mason’s Aly Rayle took turns shutting down their opponents’ chances, sending a 1-1 game to the sixth.
Blue Devils reliever Lillie Walker put two runners on in the top half of the inning via the walk, and with an even count and two outs, Young yanked Walker in favor of Curd to finish off Charlotte Montgomery. The Patriots center fielder, who ignited the prior inning’s game-tying rally, struck out looking on Curd’s first pitch.
Sophomore star Ana Gold led off the bottom of the sixth with a 2-2 no-doubt homer to straightaway center, reclaiming command of a ballgame that moments prior looked to be slipping out of Duke’s grip.
“I don't want to say I'm ever trying to hit the ball out, but really just trying to barrel up a ball,” Gold said. “And if it goes, then it goes.”
Amid Gold’s program record-shattering season with the long ball, it has gone a ton. Few were bigger than her latest.
For Curd and the Blue Devils, there was no fear in re-entering the circle for the top of the seventh — the Blue Devil ace was untouchable. A pair of called-third-strikes closed the afternoon and propelled Duke to the winner’s half of the regional bracket.
Duke struck first, tacking on its first run courtesy of Gold’s heads-up base-running. After she drew a walk, stole second and then took third and touched home on two fly balls to the deeper part of left field, the Blue Devils were in the driver’s seat. Yet a bases-loaded opportunity later in the inning went for naught as Kristiana Watson struck out to end the frame.
“That's our typical way of scoring: we do a lot of move ‘em score ‘em in practice…. Hopefully we can do a little bit more of that tomorrow,” said Young.
The Blue Devils collectively picked up just three hits prior to Gold’s blast, with none leading to a score. The 15th-highest-scoring team in the nation went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position while batters routinely lifted fly balls for easy outs. Rayle and Wright went toe-to-toe for the first four-plus innings, sharing near identical lockdown stat lines along the way.
Wright allowed a hit in both the second and fourth innings as she maintained a shutout by keeping the ball on the ground and refusing to allow multiple runners on board. Montgomery reached on an infield single in the fifth before Haley Taormina drew a two-out walk and Nicole Bechtel smacked the run-scoring single to right. Walker soon entered the game to kickstart the left-hander dominance from the Duke bullpen — George Mason failed to record a hit against Walker or Curd.
“That first game getting the nerves out — getting out there — was a really good job by all three [Duke pitchers] and that will put them in a good spot tomorrow,” Young added.
Rayle followed the game-tying half-inning with a dominant one-two-three frame of her own, giving the visiting squad a shot to pin the Blue Devils against the ropes late in a game they were expected to win handily. The sixth brought some tension to Duke Softball Stadium, but upon Curd’s one-pitch-and-get-off-the-field, momentum had returned to the home side.
The Blue Devils next face Charlotte Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.