No. 13 Duke baseball hangs on for close midweek win against Liberty in home opener

Gabriel Nard pitches against Miami last season.
Gabriel Nard pitches against Miami last season.

Turf usually burns, but the Flames were extinguished Wednesday afternoon at Jack Coombs Field.

At the home opener of the 2024 campaign, No. 13 Duke edged Liberty 4-2 in a competitive contest to improve to 4-0 on the season. The Blue Devils were propelled by an offensive explosion in the third and fourth innings and a nice all-around showing from the bullpen, as head coach Chris Pollard used five different arms in the matchup. 

“I think I speak for our entire program, we're really excited to be back here at Jack Coombs Field. I thought we had a great atmosphere today. I thought it was a really nice college baseball crowd for a midweek game on a cool February day,” Pollard said. 

Starting on the mound for the Blue Devils in their first midweek contest of the season was Babson transfer Tim Noone, who was one of the top pitchers in Division-III before coming to Durham. The graduate transfer was efficient in his first outing, relying on a high-80’s fastball and a deceptive curveball to work his way through the Liberty order. 

The bottom of the third showed the first true signs of the Duke bats warming up, as back-to-back singles were roped by junior Wallace Clark and redshirt senior Zac Morris to put the Blue Devils in business. Graduate Ben Miller fulfilled his end of the bargain, crushing a ball to dead center that bounced off the wall and brought Clark around from second base to tie the game. 

The fun did not end there, as graduate first baseman Logan Bravo came to the plate with no outs and the bases loaded after senior catcher Alex Stone was hit by a pitch. Just as he did often in Conway, S.C., the Harvard transfer delivered, sneaking a ground ball into left field that brought home Morris and Miller. However, Liberty shut the door after Bravo’s single, as AJ Gracia, Devin Obee and Macon Winslow went down in order to end the inning and take Duke into the fourth up 3-1.

The offense did not slow down in the fourth inning, as the bottom of the order — beginning with Tyler Albright who ripped a double down the left-field line — was able to successfully chase Liberty starter Nick Moran out of the game. Moran’s successor in Ryan Butler did not fare much better, as he hit his first batter in Clark and surrendered an RBI single to Morris to extend the lead to three. 

“I just felt like there in the third and fourth, we kind of let them off the hook a little bit. We had a chance to sort of deliver a knockout blow. We didn't do it, and they kind of hung around in the ballgame and against a really good club like that, you got to try to put it out of reach when you can,” Pollard said.

After three consecutive outs to begin the contest, the Flames got hot in the second inning. A one-out double by Camden Troyer got the visitors their first knock off of Noone, and a double by Brian McClellin that went over a leaping Albright and hit off the left field wall was enough to give Liberty (3-1) an early 1-0 lead before Noone escaped the inning. 

Duke threatened to score from the get-go, as Miller was hit by a pitch in his first at-bat before advancing to second on a wild pitch and third base on an infield single by Bravo. However, the home team could not capitalize, as Gracia popped up to center field to keep the game scoreless through one inning. 

Noone made his exit after three innings of work and was relieved by Gabriel Nard. The sophomore was excellent in his two innings of relief, fanning three batters and allowing zero baserunners while preserving the three-run lead. Next up was freshman arm Kyle Johnson, who was making his second outing of his Duke career after throwing three scoreless innings against George Mason in Conway. After a smooth first inning of work, Johnson gave up his first earned run in the top of the seventh. Noah Rabon hit a double that resulted in an odd bounce off the wall. Albright mishandled it to advance Rabon to third, and Troyer grounded into a fielder’s choice that was enough to make it a 4-2 game. 

After Butler exited the contest, things died down for the Blue Devils on offense. Much of this was due to the work of Talor Grubbs, who threw an impressive 2.2 innings for the visitors, only allowing two hits and zero runs over his outing to keep the Flames within striking distance. However, the work put in during the earlier innings was enough to keep the games out of reach. 

With a two-run advantage heading into the final inning, Pollard turned to ol’ reliable: Charlie Beilenson. After closing out the Indiana and Coastal Carolina games this past weekend, the graduate student did the job once again, sitting down the heart of the Liberty order to clinch the win for the home team and pick up his third save of the season. 

“Liberty is one of the best midweek teams on our schedule. They're one of the best mid-major programs in the country. They're exceptionally well-coached and you saw today, that's a really quality club,” Pollard said. “So it's a good win and it's the kind of team we have to have on our schedule to build the kind of resume that we try to build. Also, these kinds of games make us better for ACC play.”

Up next, Duke will play its first true series of the season as it hosts Northwestern at Coombs Friday through Sunday. 


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