The Blue Devils have had issues holding onto close leads late this season. And facing one of the best pitchers in the country, giving up just a couple of late runs was enough to seal a loss in the first game of the Super Regionals.
No. 8 Duke dropped the first game of the NCAA best-of-three Super Regionals to the ninth-seeded Cardinal 3-1 Friday, holding a 1-0 lead through four innings before the Cardinal scored three runs across the fifth and sixth. A matchup between two of the National Freshman of the Year finalists lived up to its billing through those first four frames, but Stanford phenom NiJaree Canady held the Blue Devils to just two baserunners after the first.
“These are the toughest ones to lose: you have opportunities and you’re right there, you feel like you’d beat yourself,” said Duke head coach Marissa Young. “But I’m super proud of the way that the team came out, attacked first and continued to compete and still had an opportunity to come back in the last inning. That’s all you can ask for.”
For the first time in the Blue Devils’ six-year history, the entire softball world had its eyes on Durham. A 19-3 record from the beginning of April through Selection Sunday, including a one-run loss in the ACC championship, earned Duke the right to not only host its second Regional, but its first-ever Super Regional. That blazing close to the regular and ACC seasons made the Blue Devils one of the hottest teams in the country, going up against a Stanford squad that had gone 5-9 against ranked teams over that span before blitzing Florida in the Stanford Regional. The marquee matchup was in the circle, between two of the three best freshman pitchers in the country, Blue Devil southpaw Cassidy Curd and the righty Canady.
After retiring the first 12 Cardinal batters, Curd’s perfect game bid ended in the fifth inning with a walk on a couple of close calls in Stanford’s favor on the outside corner. Curd responded by inducing a pop-up and a grounder to third, but Aminah Vega dropped the throw from Ana Gold. Curd’s no-hitter ended two pitches later, when Cardinal Kaitlyn Lim, who had just one extra-base hit in her previous 25 games, laced a double into left-center field. Both runners scored, and Duke trailed Stanford for the first time in the teams’ nearly 11 head-to-head innings together since the opening frame Feb. 11.
Curd was chased in the sixth by a soft liner up the middle, a sac bunt, a productive out, and a low liner in the four hole that a diving Vega couldn’t get secured, leading to another Cardinal run that increased their lead to 3-1. An insurance run in most cases wouldn’t be the end of the world. But against Canady, it was a true dagger. Gold and Vega each made loud contact in the bottom of the inning, but were 30 feet short of the wall.
“[Canady] throws really hard, she throws up in the zone, which makes that velo even harder and she has great spin,” said Young. “So really deciphering what pitches are going to stay down and what are going to elevate, even when you get a good piece of the barrel, she throws so hard [that] it’s tough.”
Curd had opened the game with high heat on three-straight pitches, inducing three-straight whiffs from Cardinal leadoff hitter River Mahler. Two-hitter Taylor Gindlesperger struck out with a pair of whiffs on two more fastballs, and Aly Kaneshiro followed with a lazy flyout.
Curd’s second inning was even more dominant. She threw 14 pitches, eight of which earned called strikes or whiffs, and struck out the side despite falling behind the third batter 2-0. Her final pitch of the inning hit 75 mph. A couple of excellent throws by third baseman Gold — one charging on a shallow bunt, another ranging to her left in the five hole — helped retire the side in the third.
“My adrenaline’s pumping,” said Curd, “and I say all the time, in my head, ‘it’s my nine versus your one.’ And my money is on my nine every single time.”
Canady looked ready to match Curd from the jump, freezing Blue Devil leadoff hitter D’Auna Jennings on a strikeout and getting ahead 0-2 on Deja Davis. And then Duke did what only four other teams this season could: it earned a run off of Canady. Davis smacked a single into center field, Gisele Tapia followed with another 0-2 hit to left and, after a shallow flyout by Gold, Vega dropped another hit into center to bring Davis home.
Canady’s second and third innings were more like those of a pitcher who entered the day with a 0.46 ERA in 106.1 innings. She retired all six batters she faced, got ahead with two strikes on four of them, recorded three strikeouts, and only allowed one ball out of the infield. Duke worked a couple leadoff runners on in the fourth with a walk by Gold and a hard hit by Vega that bounced off the Stanford second baseman’s glove. But Canady induced a bad bunt from Julia Boyet and back-to-back strikeouts by Kelly Torres and Francesca Frelick to get out of the jam.
Claire Davidson led off the home seventh, rocketing a double off the top of the wall to bring the tying run to the plate. But pinch hitters Kamryn Jackson and Kristiana Watson both fell behind 0-2 swinging out of their shoes trying to tie the game before watching strike three on the outside corner. Left fielder Kelsey Zampa, who had spent most of the season as Duke’s designated pinch runner before starting the past two games, grounded out to third to seal the loss.
Game two is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon, though the weather report makes that incredibly unlikely. The Blue Devils will be hoping that the rain forecasted for Saturday and Sunday will let up enough to allow an opportunity to at least tie the series up.
“I think we just go back to our experiences in the ACC; we've been here before, of dropping a first game in a three-game series and being able to respond and still come out on top, and that's what we're hoping to do.”
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