Six-run eighth inning propels Duke past Miami in ACC tournament semifinals, into championship game

Junior center fielder Devin Obee hit a monster home run in the ACC tournament semifinals for Duke.
Junior center fielder Devin Obee hit a monster home run in the ACC tournament semifinals for Duke.

The Blue Devils appear to be peaking at the right time. 

After a two hour weather delay, Duke took the field for an ACC semifinal matchup with Miami. A late comeback bid helped the Blue Devils secure another win in Charlotte, strengthening their resume ahead of Selection Monday and earning a spot in Sunday’s final. Despite being tied in the seventh inning, Duke pulled away, riding a pair of eighth-inning home runs to take a 8-2 victory.

“If you had told me a month ago, that [we'd] be heading into the championship game on Sunday, and oh by the way, Jonathan Santucci hasn't thrown a pitch and Kyle Johnson hasn't thrown a pitch. It just speaks to these guys, their character, their fight and their want to for each other. That piece of it I'm really proud of,” head coach Chris Pollard said after the game.

After star reliever Charlie Beilenson continued to work his way through the Miami order, there were two final lightning strikes of the evening. First, freshman AJ Gracia worked a walk, bringing senior catcher and captain Alex Stone to the plate. He delivered the first crack of thunder, cranking a home run to center to give Duke a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth. 

Three batters later after a Logan Bravo single, junior center fielder Devin Obee delivered maybe the most impressive play of the tournament thus far. His no-doubter left the stadium, traveling 455 feet over the scoreboard and emphatically sealing the Blue Devils' berth to the final. A few more hits pushed the lead to six, stopping the Hurricanes in their tracks. 

“I just feel like sometimes it takes us some time. Sometimes it may be early, sometimes it may be in the middle of game, but we know that at some point, we're gonna break big and it's going to be a really big inning," Obee said. "And when it is the big inning, it's going to be a huge inning.”

The seventh-inning stretch seemed to energize the bottom of Duke's order, as a grounder up the middle from Obee and a rope down the right-field line from junior shortstop Wallace Clark gave Duke runners on second and third with one out. 

Pollard elected to pinch hit Jimmy Evans for Kyle Johnson, and the Tufts transfer — who has just 11 at bats this season — delivered, skying a sacrifice fly to left to knot the game at two. Evans picked up another hit in the eighth, bringing his season average to 6-for-12.

Just like Tuesday’s game against Virginia Tech, Pollard started junior Ryan Higgins on the mound. The New Canaan, Conn., native struggled against the Hokies in pool play, allowing four runs in just over one inning pitched.

However, those struggles seemed to be behind him early on Saturday. Two straight flyouts to freshman Chase Krewson — who continued to have a spectacular weekend defensively in Charlotte — and a strikeout of star freshman third baseman Daniel Cuvet gave Higgins a scoreless frame early.

After Higgins worked three scoreless, he issued a walk that was followed up by an opposite field homer muscled out by Cuvet to give the Hurricanes a 2-0 lead. From there the bullpen game truly began, reliever Gabriel Nard entered the contest. 

The main story early on was the dominance of Hurricane starter Herick Hernandez, who was masterful in the first few innings against the Blue Devils. The junior entered Saturday with a 6.47 ERA, but a casual viewer would have never known. The Hialeah, Fla., native had a dangerous lineup dumbfounded, racking up nine strikeouts through four innings to keep Pollard’s squad hitless and scoreless. 

“We talked about making an effort to get to the bullpen and Hernandez made that really tough. He pitched great and we weren't surprised, he was really good against us in Durham back in early April," Pollard said. "He tied us in a knot for five innings back in April and we had to win it against the bullpen."

The first signs of life for the Duke offense came in the bottom of the fifth, as graduate first baseman Logan Bravo worked a four-pitch walk and Krewson continued his big week with a single right back up the middle with no outs — the Blue Devils’ first hit of the game. 

A Hernandez walk of freshman Kyle Johnson brought up tournament star Zac Morris, and the VMI transfer worked a free pass to put Duke on the board. But with first team All-ACC selection Ben Miller up to bat, Hernandez slammed the door, forcing the Penn transfer into a pop fly that was hauled in by first baseman JD Urso in foul territory despite a collision at the catch point. 

Nard was able to work another clean inning to keep his team in the ballgame, but the bats simply could not heat up, with a Stone double play killing momentum in the sixth. Fran Oschell’s topsy-turvy season continued in the seventh, as he issued a walk and subsequently pegged a batter, prompting Pollard to once again go to Beilenson, who emphatically picked up a strikeout to send the game to the stretch at Truist Field. 

The Blue Devils now sit nine innings ahead from an ACC title for the second time in four years, as Florida State awaits tomorrow at noon.


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