No. 7 Duke baseball unloads the bullpen, races past Liberty behind standout days from Miller, Gracia

AJ Gracia hit a three-run homer against Liberty.
AJ Gracia hit a three-run homer against Liberty.

No home-field advantage, no problem.

After defeating Liberty 4-2 in a Feb. 21 matchup in Durham, the Blue Devils took Tuesday’s sequel in Lynchburg, Va., to complete the season sweep. It was workmanlike for No. 7 Duke; third baseman Ben Miller continued his sublime season at the plate, right fielder AJ Gracia contributed a towering three-run homer and nine members of the heralded Blue Devil pitching staff combined to put out the Flames as the Blue Devils nabbed a 9-4 midweek victory.

“I'm proud of our club. It's a tough place to play and they had a nice crowd tonight,” Pollard said. “They've got a lot of really good arms, they ran out there at us and I thought we had a really good offensive approach.”

Three straight Liberty runs to tighten things up late in the game demanded a response from the Blue Devils (21-8, 6-6 in the ACC). One swing of the bat from Gracia provided not only a response, but also the dagger.

The freshman got every last bit of a Ben Roberts fastball, depositing it into the parking lot beyond the right-center-field wall to restore the cushion for Duke in the eighth inning. The three-run shot was the Monroe, N.J., product’s eighth of the year — four shy of breaking the freshman record of 11 set by Andrew Fischer a year ago.

In each of the first two innings, the Blue Devils put traffic on the basepaths and threatened to plate the game’s first run. A two-out rally in the opening inning flamed out before Duke could produce something to show for it, but with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the second, Miller provided the spark.

The red-hot graduate transfer roped a bouncer down the third-base line that caromed off the glove of Cam Foster, who couldn’t make the tough play. With runners moving on the pitch due to the full-count, Devin Obee rounded third and headed for home as Foster fumbled with the ball, following Chase Krewson across the plate to give Duke an early 2-0 lead.

“He's maybe the smartest hitter that I've ever been around because he just has an innate ability to kind of climb into a pitcher's head and think along with him,” Pollard said. “He does a great job of hunting different pitches based on the count.”

In the fourth frame, after the Flames (13-15) cut the early Duke lead in half with a run of their own, it was Miller time once again. The Durham native put another single through the left side beyond the outstretched glove of the Liberty shortstop, scoring two more to bump his RBI total to 32 on the year and make it a 4-1 game.

The Flames threatened to roar back with a late-innings push, scoring two runs in the sixth inning and another in the seventh to make it a 6-4 game and to put a scare into the seemingly cruising Blue Devils. The momentum shifted upon preseason All-American Fran Oschell III’s arrival to the mound for the sixth. The 6-foot-7 righty has struggled to find his groove this season — his ERA ballooned to 7.36 following Tuesday’s contest — and that continued against Liberty.

Two walks and a single loaded the bases, but the junior had two outs and a chance to escape the inning. Flames first baseman John Simmons barrelled a ball to center field, though, clearing the fence on a hop for a two-run ground-rule double.

Another run-scoring double in the seventh inning — this time off sophomore left-hander Owen Proksch — cut the deficit to two. Fortunately for Duke, a subsequent flyout to Tyler Albright in left field ended the inning and halted momentum of the Flames.

Oschell and Proksch were just two of the nine arms to appear in the contest for the Blue Devils. Sophomore Gabriel Nard threw two scoreless innings and picked up the win and closer Charlie Beilenson extinguished a perilous situation in the eighth before posting a scoreless final frame.

“We have a lot of depth, that's certainly one of our strengths,” Pollard said. “We knew coming into today that we didn't want to use anybody more than two innings. We wanted to get a lot of guys work and we were able to do that. Guys were efficient, so it was kind of mission accomplished.”

Graduate transfer Zac Morris got in on the offensive fun at the top of the order as well, blasting a ball the other way into the gap in right-center field for a two-RBI single. The bases-loaded knock came in the top of the fifth and extended Duke’s advantage to 6-1 as the second baseman reached the 30-RBI mark on the season.

For the second consecutive game, freshman Kyle Johnson pitched a clean inning as he continues to work his way back from an injury that forced him to miss three weeks. The two-way player struck out two as he returned to the starter role that he held for two appearances prior to suffering the injury.

“If he feels good, he's likely going to work his way back in the rotation this weekend,” Pollard said. “Obviously he'll be on a pitch count, but we'll get him back in that weekend role and start building his pitch count up.

The win moved the Blue Devils to 7-1 in midweek games on the year, with the lone loss coming in a two-game split with Rider.

Duke will return to the confines of Jack Coombs Field for a conference series against Miami this weekend.


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