Morris, Stone lead No. 6-seed Duke baseball to ACC tournament win against Virginia Tech

Zac Morris hit two home runs against Virginia Tech.
Zac Morris hit two home runs against Virginia Tech.

Last time Duke took the field in Charlotte for the ACC tournament, it did the improbable, winning four games in five days to cap off a 12-game win streak and secure the program’s first ACC title in 60 seasons. Although on a much smaller scale, the Blue Devils once again overcame the odds at Truist Field, this time bouncing back from a five-run deficit to take its first game of the 2024 conference tournament.

After surrendering five runs to No. 10-seed Virginia Tech in the bottom of the second inning, No. 6-seed Duke faced a steep battle to keep its conference championship hopes alive. The Blue Devils quickly charged up that mountain, responding with a six-run third inning to take a lead that they never relinquished. Two home runs from Zac Morris led the Duke offense and a nine-out save from Charlie Beilenson locked down the 11-8 victory Tuesday night.

The offensive output allowed the Blue Devils to win the first game of group play in Pool C. To advance to the single-elimination semifinals, Duke will also need to defeat No. 3-seed N.C. State Thursday night. 

“[Head] coach [Chris] Pollard always talks about sticking to the process and at that particular moment, sticking to the process which is winning one pitch at a time,” Morris said of the Blue Devils’ resilience after trailing early. “Getting some guys on base and then hopefully we can drive some runs in.”

Following a demoralizing second inning that found them trailing 5-0, Duke needed a spark. Speedy center fielder Devin Obee provided it with a stand-up triple to the opposite field gap in right-center to lead off the inning. After Wallace Clark walked on four pitches, the Blue Devils had runners on the corners with the top of the order still to hit.

Despite finding himself behind in the count with two strikes against him, Morris poked a slider to left field. The ball carried to the very top of the wall, where it caromed around between wall, glove, and railing before falling into the field of play. Despite some initial confusion, the umpires soon signaled that the ball had cleared the yellow stripe and the second baseman had notched a three-run homer. After a lengthy review and a desperation challenge from Hokie head coach John Szefc — who argued that Morris passed Clark on the basepaths which would have turned the third run into an out — the blast was upheld and Duke was back in it, now trailing 5-3.

“On top of what he's meant from an offensive and defensive productivity standpoint, the toughness, the spirit, the energy that he's brought to our program have meant as much…as how he's played,” Pollard said about Morris.

The Blue Devils weren’t satisfied with just three. The moment the chaos surrounding Morris’ shot subsided, All-ACC first-teamer Ben Miller lined the first pitch he saw the other way for a double. Freshman AJ Gracia was hit by a pitch to put two runners on, and two batters later, graduate transfer Logan Bravo lined a first-pitch single into the outfield to score Miller. Bravo eventually moved up to second base, setting the table for left fielder Chase Krewson to knock in the go-ahead, two-RBI single to center. When the inning was all said and done, Duke had batted around the order and had amassed five hits, a walk, a hit-by-pitch, six runs and most importantly, a 6-5 advantage.

“I thought the two two-out at-bats by Logan Bravo and Chase Krewson back-to-back in the third to give us the lead really gave us a lot of momentum,” Pollard said. “And then I thought another big moment in the ballgame was Chase Krewson throwing the runner out at the plate when it looked like they had tied the ballgame back up.”

The play the Blue Devil skipper referenced came in the top of the fifth inning. With one out, a Hokie on second base and the score still 6-5, transfer hurler Tim Noone faced Virginia Tech center fielder Ben Watson. The lefty slapped a grounder through the left side that Krewson fielded cleanly and fired home. His throw reached catcher Alex Stone just in time for the senior to simultaneously pick the ball off a hop and tag the runner out before he could swipe his hand across the plate, preventing the Hokies from knotting the score at six.

“It was a terrific play on both ends. It was a great throw, but a terrific tag,” Pollard said. “How often do you see that swipe tag need to be made, and that ball kicks just a little bit out of the glove because you're moving towards the tag? Strong hands by Alex Stone right there in that moment.”

Following an impressive May 17 outing against rival North Carolina in which he surrendered just one run in four innings with no free passes awarded, junior hurler Ryan Higgins was awarded the start against Virginia Tech. It initially appeared he may continue his success from his final regular-season start with a three-up, three-down opening inning. Things got ugly in the second, though, as the righty lost command and struggled to find the zone.

Higgins issued four consecutive one-out walks to give the Hokies an early 1-0 lead. Recognizing the must-win nature of the contest, Pollard went to the bullpen quickly, bringing in sophomore James Tallon to attempt to clean up the bases-loaded, one-out mess.

The southpaw secured a second out, but the towering fly ball took Gracia all the way to the right-field wall, allowing Sam Tackett to trot home from third base and double the Hokies’ lead. Duke narrowly avoided the grand slam and the 5-0 deficit — but only momentarily. Three pitches later, Carson DeMartini deposited a fastball over the seats in right field to give Virginia Tech that substantial early margin.

“It wasn't the best game or the cleanest game we've played all year,” Pollard said. “We gave up a lot of free offense to a good offense. Virginia Tech can really hit and really generate offense and we gave them a lot of base runners but we were tough enough to stay in the fight.”

That fight included important scoreless fifth and sixth innings provided by Duke’s bullpen, led by Noone who posted an impressive line with 2.1 innings pitched and just one hit conceded. With the clean frames, the Blue Devil offense looked to capitalize and add some insurance runs. Stone, who has been red-hot through the final stretch of the season, stepped up.

Unlike Morris’ third-inning wall-scraper, Stone’s blast could be filed into the no-doubt category. The captain got every bit of a hanging Jordan Little curveball, sending it out of the park and onto the roof of a team bus parked beyond the left-field concourse. The solo shot put Duke up 7-5 in the sixth.

An inning later, Morris added on. As though he was irritated by the controversy surrounding his first homer, the VMI transfer’s second of the night was much more convincing. The seventh-inning, two-run dinger put the finishing touches on the Blue Devils’ nine unanswered runs and gave the designated home side a more comfortable four-run cushion.

“I was sitting on the fastball and just reacted to the slider and was seeing the ball well,” Morris said. “It was just one of those days for me.”

“I’d be lying to you if I told you I thought he was gonna be this productive offensively,” Pollard admitted.

When sophomore reliever Gabriel Nard faced some trouble in the seventh, it forced Duke to turn to its trusty closer Beilenson early. The elite closer worked out of the inning with only one run scoring on a sacrifice fly, which was attributed to Nard. The Blue Devils responded immediately once again, as Bravo and Clark each added an RBI in the bottom half.

Despite giving up a two-run homer in the eighth, Beilenson was eventually able to secure the victory that Duke hopes will be the first of many in a long postseason run.

The Blue Devils will take on the Wolfpack in an elimination game Thursday night at 7 p.m. with a chance to advance to the weekend’s four-team single-elimination bracket.


Share and discuss “Morris, Stone lead No. 6-seed Duke baseball to ACC tournament win against Virginia Tech” on social media.