For The Blue Devils’ first NCAA Super Regional last year, they flew cross-country to California. This year, they’ve flipped the script.
After being held scoreless for the first five frames, No. 8-seed Duke took a thrilling 4-2 victory against Charlotte, pushing itself to the next round of the tournament, which will bring No. 9-seed Stanford to Bull City. D’Auna Jennings starred offensively, going 4-for-4 and scoring twice, while designated player Kelsey Zampa drove her in and scored a run herself in just her ninth start of the year. Despite some wildness and winding at-bats, the pitching staff also got it done, allowing six walks but just two hits.
In the early frames, 49ers pitcher Sam Gress was locked in, not facing more than four Blue Devil batters in any inning before the sixth. In the bottom halves, things didn’t start so surely for Duke.
After closing out the first inning 1-2-3, Duke starter Jala Wright got in a jam quickly in the second. She walked the first batter she faced, mostly missing down in the dirt, before throwing eight straight balls to load the bases. This brought head coach Marissa Young out for a pitching change, subbing in Cassidy Curd.
Curd collected a much needed called strike with her first pitch, but her next sailed high above the reaching glove of catcher Kelly Torres. After collecting the ball off the backstop, Torres ran it a few steps back towards home plate before underhanding it to Curd, which left just enough time for Charlotte left fielder MaKalah Mitchell to score off the wild pitch.
Curd closed out the inning after that, and mostly silenced the power-laden Charlotte lineup for the rest of the game with her signature high heat, finishing with ten strikeouts. When she issued a four-pitch walk of her own to bring the winning run to the plate in the bottom of the seventh, however, Young didn’t hesitate to sub in Lillie Walker, who closed things out for her fourth save of the year.
“I think all of us do a really good job backing each other up,” said Curd on the pitching staff. “If something's not working, like today; I just ran out of gas. Lillie had my back no matter what happened in the dugout. Same thing, vice versa.”
Duke’s batters worked their way onto the scoreboard in the sixth. Jennings started things off when she reached first on her third hit of the day, a bouncer over the head of the 49ers’ shortstop. The freshman slap-hitter went 0-for-2 in the Regional opener against George Mason, including getting called out due to exiting the box on one swing, but she was keyed in against Charlotte. After Deja Davis laid down a textbook bunt for a single, Jennings turned on the jets to score when Aminah Vega singled to center.
“I think a big thing for me has always been like my timing piece,” said Jennings on her performance. “When we first played George Mason, I was caught out of the box. I went back in the lab and figured out what I needed to do to make my adjustment. Once I figured out the timing, my footwork, it’s pretty much back to normal. I was just thinking about seeing the ball out in front, using my chop, reading the defense, beating the shift and just doing my job — not trying to do too much.”
Up until the sixth, the 49ers had been held hitless, and had only reached base via walk. Curd was stellar, but this was her third appearance against the Charlotte lineup on the season, and a few batters fouled off multiple pitches from her, including Mitchell. While the Niners boast the tenth highest rate of home runs per game in the nation, Mitchell had never hit one before Sunday in her Charlotte career. After fouling off four and bringing the count full, she lined a belt-high pitch to the opposite field for a four-bagger to put the 49ers ahead again.
“It's tough when you've played a team [three] times in a season — you know each other kind of inside and out,” said Young.
But Duke wouldn’t be held back for long, as some nifty base running allowed it to go ahead for good in the top of the seventh. Gisele Tapia fouled off five pitches before starting things off with a double to the right center gap, bringing Zampa to the plate. After fouling off two of her own, she sent a grounder up the middle under the glove of Gress. Tapia rounded third, scoring easily, and Zampa advanced to second on the throw.
After yet another Jennings single, Davis bounced a grounder to Gress. Zampa ran on the contact and would’ve been out at home easily, if not for catcher Lexi Winters obstructing the plate due to kneeling in the baseline before receiving the ball. Vega’s groundout allowed Jennings to score for the final run of the day.
Duke takes on Stanford, who it bested 4-2 at the Mark Campbell Invitational in February, in a best-of-three series starting Friday at Duke Softball Stadium.
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