No. 3 Duke baseball drops first series to Clemson after falling Sunday in extra innings

Graduate Zac Morris swings during Duke's sweep of Northwestern.
Graduate Zac Morris swings during Duke's sweep of Northwestern.

It took some extra baseball, but the Tigers clawed out a top-3 series win in Durham.

In a high-stakes Sunday matchup, No. 9 Clemson knocked off No. 3 Duke 8-6 in a 10-inning thriller to give the Blue Devils their first Sunday loss of the year. Despite having 17 hits, the home team could not find a way to prevail, going an abysmal 0-9 with runners in scoring position. 

“What a series, two really good teams going back and forth," said head coach Chris Pollard. "I thought both teams competed at a really high level, credit Clemson, they played really, really well.” 

The Tigers pounced first in the rubber match, as graduate left-hander Tim Noone hit Will Taylor with a fastball and then surrendered a home run to Blake Wright to give Clemson an early 2-0 lead with only one out. However, the Babson transfer locked in from there, making an excellent snag on a line drive that was smoked right back at him and struck out the five hole hitter to exit the inning.

Duke (15-5, 3-3 in the ACC) answered back swiftly in the bottom of the first, as Ben Miller cranked a homer to cut the lead to one, his eighth of the season. Noone struggled with control once again in the second, hitting the first two batters he faced to set Clemson (17-2, 2-1) up once again. After a bunt put runners on second and third, Ryan Higgins came in for the Blue Devils, and the junior extinguished the flames, picking up back-to-back strikeouts. 

The Blue Devils had some life in the third, fourth and fifth, but runners were stranded in scoring position by the heart of the order in all but the fourth inning.

Clemson got off to a hot start in the top of the sixth as Higgins walked the first two batters, and that ended the day for the righthander as he went 3.2 scoreless innings on the day.

“I thought Higgins pitched great, he had three pitches in the zone, his fastball was live, he got swing and miss on the slider, got swing and miss on the change. I thought it was a really, really good outing when we needed it,” Pollard said.

Jimmy Romano was next to take the ball for the Blue Devils, and the junior captain was unable to produce another scoreless inning, as the runners advanced on a passed ball and Jarren Purify delivered for the visitors, as he lined one into center that was just deep enough to score the runner from third and put Clemson up 3-2. The Tigers looked primed to add another courtesy of Andrew Ciufo, but shortstop Wallace Clark made an incredible leaping grab to close the door on the frame. 

“You can't spend a ton of time talking about hitting with runners in scoring position, those things kind of ebb and flow, you try to have good at bats and you try to put good swings on the ball and not get too caught up in whether or not you're hitting with runners in scoring position,” Pollard said.

Duke’s bad fortunes showed its head again in the bottom of the sixth, as another two-out rally that saw two runners reach base via singles was ended abruptly by an Andrew Yu strikeout. Owen Proksch entered in the seventh, and the sophomore hurler brought similar fire as he did to last Sunday’s clinching win over Wake Forest, striking out two batters including a backwards K on Wright who Proksch stared down as he entered the dugout. 

Pollard’s team continued to put good swings on the ball after the seventh-inning stretch, as Zac Morris roped a double into right center that barely stayed in the yard. Alex Stone came up with a chance to tie the game back up with two outs, but the catcher was retired via strikeout after crushing two foul balls that were near home runs, allowing Clemson to retain its 3-2 lead. 

After two more Proksch outs, Duke turned to its shutdown closer once again in Charlie Beilenson to try and keep Clemson at bay. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, the Los Angeles native gave up his first runs of the season in this one, surrendering a ground-rule double that made it 4-2 and a single off a come-backer that careened off his leg to make it 5-2. 

Just like Saturday, Duke refused to disappear, finding a way to once again manufacture runs en route to tying the game back up in the bottom of the eighth. Logan Bravo led the way with a single and AJ Gracia cranked one to deep right field to cut the lead to one. After a Devin Obee single, Pollard made two crucial substitutions, inserting Chase Krewson and Harrison Rodgers into the contest. Both players did their jobs admirably — Krewson with a single and Rodgers with a sacrifice bunt — to put two runners in scoring position with one out. A Clark sacrifice fly was deep enough to tie the game back up at five, and Beilenson trotted back on the mound looking for redemption. 

Both teams rolled out their closers for the ninth, as Clemson turned to Rob Hughes. Beilenson handled his half of the inning, setting down three batters in order. Hughes got into trouble after giving up a one-out single to Stone, and a ball roped down the right-field line by Gracia looked like it may have ended the series, but the relay from right was perfect and the teams headed to extras. 

The subpar outing from Beilenson by his standards carried into the top of the tenth, as Jake Obertop nuked a home run that gave the Tigers their fifth hit of the day and a 6-5 lead. After an infield single, Jacob Hinderleider sank the knife in, pushing a bomb out to right field to put the visitors up 8-5.

A late Duke comeback bid put one more on the board for the home team, but Morris grounded out to end the game and give the Blue Devils their first series loss of the year. 

Noone got the start for the Blue Devils, making his fifth start of the season. However, this was the graduate student’s first weekend start, as he usually fills the midweek starter role for Pollard’s squad but took the mound Sunday with Kyle Johnson unavailable. 

Duke’s Friday strategy all season long has been to ride ace Jonathan Santucci as long as possible before giving way to Beilenson. This plan paid dividends once again this weekend, giving the Blue Devils a 5-2 win to open the series as Santucci went five innings with 11 strikeouts and Bravo provided the offense with two homers.

Saturday was not as fortunate for the home team, as starter Andrew Healy was chased out of the game early and the bullpen conceded an 8-2 lead to the Tigers. Despite a furious comeback bid in the seventh that saw the Blue Devils plate five runs, it was not enough, as they stranded two runners in the bottom of the ninth to fall 8-7 and set up a pivotal game three. 

Duke will host Towson Tuesday before traveling down the road for another ranked series, this time against No. 16 N.C. State. 


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