No. 12 Duke baseball drops its first game, but takes series against Akron on Santucci master class

Graduate transfer Ben Miller fires a throw across the infield against Akron.
Graduate transfer Ben Miller fires a throw across the infield against Akron.

The college baseball season is extremely long, and seeing mid-major schools take a game from top-ranked teams is relatively common. The best teams, though, are always able to flush such losses and move forward, not letting the upset hinder the remainder of the weekend. The Blue Devils did just that against Akron.

After suffering its first loss of the season in a 4-3 defeat Saturday afternoon, now-No. 12 Duke bounced back to take down the Zips 7-2 Sunday. Coupled with their 6-0 dismantling Friday, the Blue Devils were able to take the series and get back on track before their weekend matchups become conference clashes starting next week.

“I thought that Akron played us tough all weekend, and they were really well prepared,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “They’re a very well coached team.”

The opener might have been the most complete game of the weekend for Duke (10-1). Junior left-hander Jonathan Santucci has quickly established himself in the tier of elite Friday starters across the country, but his performance against the Zips (3-7) was his best work yet. The Leominster, Mass., native struck out a personal-best 14 batters in just six innings, paving the way for Duke’s shutout victory. Santucci has yet to give up a run through 17.0 innings of work, and his 16.4 strikeouts per nine innings rank 11th in the country.

“Santucci’s performance on Friday was terrific,” Pollard said. “Just pounded the zone, worked really fast [and] got them really defensive.”

Following the seemingly effortless opening-game win, the Blue Devils showed their first signs of weakness Saturday in their lone loss of the season to this point. Duke hit the ball hard, but a small-ball approach leading to a three-run sixth inning allowed Akron to take a lead it would never relinquish.

Sunday, though, was a different story. The Blue Devils slowly established their superiority throughout the course of the rubber match, eventually breaking through offensively in the middle innings and putting together a comprehensive performance on the mound to secure the victory.

Neither side mustered together much offense through four innings, leading to a narrow 1-0 lead for Duke. One swing of the bat from graduate transfer Zac Morris changed that, though, as the leadoff hitter powered one over the wall for a two-run shot. Fellow graduate transfer Ben Miller followed it up with a left-field homer of his own and suddenly the Blue Devil lead was four.

Freshman two-way player Kyle Johnson made his first career start on the mound Sunday, and he looked stellar throughout the outing, striking out five in four scoreless innings. The highlight of the Leesburg, Va., native’s debut start came in the second inning, as he mowed down three straight Akron hitters on strikes. Two of the batters were caught looking while a third went down on an unconfident swing as a result of a demoralizing offspeed pitch from Johnson. 

“The team dynamic is just like a family, so we're all really close,” Johnson said after his start. “It's just really fun going out here and playing out here with all my friends.”

Although he didn’t allow a hit through the first three innings, Akron starter Spencer Atkins lost the zone a bit in the fourth. An infield single and three walks allowed Duke to push across a lone run to open the scoring, with freshman outfielder AJ Gracia drawing the free pass to pick up the RBI. Atkins was able to zone back in, though, striking out two consecutive Blue Devil hitters to escape the bases-loaded jam.

The first reliever out of the bullpen for Pollard was junior Ryan Higgins, who made his fifth appearance of the young season. The New Canaan, Conn., native posted a scoreless frame but then ran into some trouble in the sixth to allow Akron’s only runs of the game.

A leadoff walk and a double down the right-field line put two runners on for the Zips, who were able to capitalize by virtue of a run-scoring groundout and an RBI single off the bat of Andrew Horvath. Sophomore hurler Edward Hart entered the game for the Blue Devils and picked up the final out of the frame to limit the damage to two runs.

Duke responded after giving up their first runs of the contest, tacking on scores in each of the next two innings. Junior designated hitter Andrew Yu hit a sixth-inning fly ball just deep enough to right field, allowing Devin Obee to tag up from third base and dive safely into home as Horvath mishandled the throw. In the seventh, first baseman Logan Bravo notched his first hit of the day with an RBI single and Obee contributed a sacrifice fly of his own to score the final run of the game.

The Zips threatened in the opening frame as a leadoff infield single, a wild pitch and an error on the throw down to second led to Akron center fielder Ian Pennington standing on third base with nobody out. Freshman left fielder Macon Winslow kept the game scoreless, though, fielding a pop fly and firing it home before Pennington could tag up and cross the plate. The outfield assist held up after review and set the tone for the Blue Devils to control the game. 

“Really big play by Macon Winslow to make the throw to the plate,” Pollard said. “I thought Kyle [Johnson] really settled in [after that] and was really, really good from that point forward.”

Graduate student Charlie Beilenson continued his excellence on the mound, working the final three innings for Duke in scoreless fashion with relative ease. The right-hander racked up six strikeouts and allowed just two hits.

The Blue Devils will return to action with a pair of midweek games, taking on Appalachian State Tuesday and Georgetown Wednesday. Both games are at Jack Coombs Field and will start at 4pm.


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