In a regional, the team that wins its first two games gains a huge advantage, gaining rest and needing to win just one of its next two games. On Saturday, the Blue Devils did just that.
A day after demolishing UNC Wilmington 12-3, Duke outlasted No. 4-seed Rider in a nailbiter that ended 2-1. Despite tallying just five hits in the game and going 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position, the Blue Devils came through when it counted, scoring the decisive run in the top of the ninth inning.
“That was an unbelievable baseball game against a really good team. They're well coached, they're tough, their guys are veterans, they don't give into the moment,” head coach Chris Pollard said after the game. “But I thought our team was up to the challenge.”
LSU transfer Giovanni DiGiacomo was the catalyst late, leading off the last inning with a stand-up double. A bunt from freshman Tyler Albright moved him to third, and graduate student Damon Lux manufactured a run thanks to a sac fly. In a game that saw a total of just nine hits between the teams, it appeared as though a one-run Duke lead could stand up, especially with flamethrower Fran Oschell III throwing.
Oschell, who leads the team in ERA at 0.76, cruised through the eighth inning with two strikeouts. However, the Broncs did not go easily in the ninth. Two walks and a ground ball put runners on second and third with two outs, and redshirt junior Jordan Erbe stepped to the plate.
The shortstop nearly walked off the game for Rider, ripping a line drive that landed just foul down the right field line. Then, Oschell fired back with a high fastball that Erbe swung through, sealing the victory for the Blue Devils.
“It's so cool to see how far he's come,” Pollard said of Oschell’s growth. “In this 15 months since the fall of his freshman year to go from a guy we weren't sure was a fit to play in a small role last year, to now being one of the best relievers in the ACC, if not the country.”
The entire Duke pitching staff slowed down the Broncs, totaling nine strikeouts without allowing an earned run. Freshman Andrew Healy, who has been sitting for rest since May 13, started the game with two quality innings, and freshman Owen Proksch, junior Adam Boucher, graduate student Charlie Beilenson and Oschell anchored the bullpen.
Rider’s lone run came unearned in the sixth, when Beilenson gave up a leadoff walk to senior Scott Shaw and catcher Alex Stone allowed a passed ball. After a single from junior Brian Skettini, a fly ball to left was enough for Shaw to score and even the game at one.
However, all other jams the Blue Devils got into were handled to perfection. Rider ended with seven runners stranded and went just 2-for-13 with runners on.
“[The bullpen has] been the glue for us all year,” Pollard said. “We've been incredibly unconventional. So many different guys have stepped up.”
The Broncs stayed in the game because Duke too struggled to capitalize. In the seventh, two walks and a single from junior Luke Storm loaded the bases for the top of the order. Instead of blowing the game open as they did against the Seahawks, both sophomore Alex Mooney and freshman Andrew Fischer struck out.
There was a similar story in the fourth, with graduate student MJ Metz – who hit three home runs Friday – and Albright striking out with runners in scoring position.
For most of the game, though, the Blue Devils were ahead thanks to a first inning shot from junior Jay Beshears. Just minutes into the game, the second baseman crushed a hanging breaking ball over the left field fence to give Duke 1-0 lead.
Duke will need more of that power as it continues to the regional final, where it faces No. 1-seed Coastal Carolina, who defeated Rider 13-5 in an elimination game. Pollard will have fresh arms in freshman closer James Tallon and sophomore Ryan Higgins, both of whom have not yet thrown this weekend.
“It'll be all hands on deck,” Pollard said. “We'll need guys to step up, and I think guys are up to that challenge.”
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Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.