QUEEN CITY KINGS: Duke baseball overpowers Florida State 16-4 for ACC Championship

<p>Ben Miller launched one of two grand slams for the Blue Devils in the contest.&nbsp;</p>

Ben Miller launched one of two grand slams for the Blue Devils in the contest. 

Last time the Blue Devils participated in the conference tournament in Charlotte, they narrowly defeated N.C. State 1-0 for their first ACC Championship in 60 years.

This year, Duke left no doubt.

Six different Blue Devils tallied RBIs, five different hurlers pieced together a successful bullpen day, and two gargantuan grand slams powered the Blue Devils to a 16-4 victory against Florida State for the program’s fifth ACC title. The Seminoles jumped ahead early, but Duke fought back immediately and gained a lead that it only tightened its grasp on throughout the contest.

“I'm exceptionally proud of our team,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “We played a really complete game, we played a really, really complete tournament, just so proud to be a part of this program.”

Trailing 2-0 for the second consecutive night, the Blue Devils broke through in a big way once again. While Duke employed the long ball to post a six-run eighth inning in its semifinal victory against Miami, it used a more traditional approach in the second inning of the title game.

Two singles and a walk quickly loaded the bases with no outs for shortstop Wallace Clark, prompting a mound visit from the Seminole dugout. On the next pitch, though, the Oklahoma transfer was plunked by a pitch for the 23rd time this season — second-most in Duke history — to make it 2-1. Following a call to the bullpen, freshman designated hitter Kyle Johnson roped a double down the left-field line, bringing home two more with two runners still in scoring position. Fellow freshman AJ Gracia cleaned up the scraps, knocking a base hit to center to score two and give the Blue Devils a 5-2 lead.

“It comes from the locker room, that's not something that we can instill as coaches,” Pollard said of the team’s resilience. “We coach X's and O's. They have to decide if they're going to be tough. They have to decide if they're going to be together. And it starts with them developing a care for each other, which this team has.”

Duke was seemingly far from satisfied with its three-run lead after two. Clark’s 24th hit-by-pitch — placing him in a tie for ninth in the nation — led off the fourth, and two five-pitch walks loaded the bases for first-team All-ACC third baseman Ben Miller, who stepped to the plate in a bit of an uncharacteristic slump. The Durham native, who hovered over .450 as recently as April 20, had just four hits in his previous 31 at-bats. But that didn’t matter, as Miller blasted a grand slam over the lawn in left field, blowing the game open and giving Duke a 9-2 advantage.

“Baseball is a really funny game,” Miller said. “Coach [Pollard] has said it before, once you think you got it figured out, it humbles you pretty quickly, and that's happened to me here over the last few weeks. Coming into today, I was feeling a little bit better, but still doubting myself a little bit. I had a few good at bats to start off the game just feeling like my old self and then, honestly, just a sigh of relief.”

Despite surrendering nine unanswered runs, the Seminoles refused to go quietly. Owen Proksch took the mound for the Blue Devils, but the sophomore conceded a double to Marco Dinges and a two-run homer off the bat of Jaime Ferrer that may have reminded the team clad in blue that it was still early. Although Duke still held a 9-4 lead, it was only the fourth inning, and no deficit is insurmountable for Florida State thanks to its explosive lineup.

But the barrage continued in the sixth frame. Three station-to-station singles put ducks on the pond with one out, and Chase Krewson watched four pitches go out of the zone for a run-scoring walk. Then came the big blast. Junior Devin Obee clobbered a grand slam to left, and although it didn’t travel as far as his monstrous homer Saturday, it landed in nearly the same spot as Miller’s four-run dinger earlier in the game. The five-run inning made the lead 14-4, and the double-digit advantage put Duke twelve much-more-comfortable outs away from an ACC title.

“Just trying to be as relaxed as possible, trying to let the ball get deep, and just let the ball get to me instead of trying to do too much,” Obee said. “I'm pretty powerful, so I just gotta let it come to me and then everything will happen by itself.”

The final nine outs became even more comfortable after Miller went yard again, smashing a two-run homer to left center in the seventh to put the Blue Devils up 16-4 and bump his RBI tally on the day to six.

Sophomore left-hander James Tallon took the mound first for the Blue Devils, making the first start of his career as the opener of a planned bullpen day. Before the southpaw even recorded an out, though, the potent Seminole offense made its mark.

Leadoff hitter Max Williams fought off a two-strike pitch to center field, dropping it between a triangle of Duke fielders to reach safely. Two pitches later, Cam Smith shot a ball to the opposite field corner that easily cleared the right-field fence and suddenly Florida State led 2-0. Tallon recovered nicely, working three quick outs to limit the damage and eventually finishing with a line of two runs surrendered in three innings of work.

“This was my first college start, I was just grateful to be out there and I wanted to do everything I can to make it last as long as possible,” Tallon said. “So [the home run] happened, and I was kind of out there thinking to myself, like, ‘good, glad it happened, I just want to get back out there, do my thing.’ So I went back out there the next two innings and was just like ‘I'm gonna be myself, I’m gonna do everything I can to make sure that I get two zeros on the board and do everything I can to put my offense in a position to win.’”

Florida State also put a runner in scoring position with two singles in the bottom half of the fifth, but Tim Noone extinguished the flames before any damage was done. Despite traffic in both innings, Noone pitched two crucial scoreless innings in the fifth and sixth.

Junior righty Jimmy Romano executed the set-up role, tossing two scoreless innings before handing the ball over to star closer Charlie Beilenson. The final out of the eighth inning was Duke’s flashiest of the day, as Krewson gunned a Seminole base runner at home for his second outfield assist of the tournament.

Beilenson pitched a clean ninth to end the dominant showing. 

“The ability to dogpile on that field at Truist Field in Charlotte in 2021 was the best baseball experience I've ever been a part of and I want you to have that experience too,” Pollard recalled telling his team prior to this year’s tournament. “I want you to be able to go out there and celebrate bringing a trophy back to your university.”

The Blue Devils now await their NCAA tournament fate. Duke hopes to be one of the 16 regional hosts, which will be announced Sunday evening at 8:30 p.m., before the full field of 64 teams is revealed Monday at noon.


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