Duke baseball drops regular-season finale, third straight ACC series, to North Carolina

Graduate second baseman takes a cut for Duke against North Carolina.
Graduate second baseman takes a cut for Duke against North Carolina.

The Blue Devils ended their regular season with a series loss to a heated rival. 

In front of a packed house at Jack Coombs Field Saturday afternoon, No. 11 Duke fell short in its third straight series, getting decimated 14-6 in a rubber match by No. 7 North Carolina, likely taking the Blue Devils out of hosting contention for NCAA Regionals. 

"The scoreboard tells the whole story. We out hit them 11 to 10, they scored eight more runs than us," Head coach Chris Pollard said. "We gave them entirely too much free offense."

Starting pitcher Andrew Healy gave way to Fran Oschell in the top of the third, and the big righty continued his underwhelming season compared to last year, as he loaded up the bases with one out for dynamic slugger Casey Cook. Cook delivered for the Tar Heels, ripping a single through the left side to drive home two runs. Despite getting a strikeout on the next batter, a dropped third strike was enough to score another run and give the visitors a 3-1 lead. 

Senior Jimmy Romano came in relief for Oschell, and the wheels continued to come off for Duke (35-18, 16-14 in the ACC). Designated hitter Alberto Osuna roped a double to left field to clear the bases and make it 6-1, and a fielders choice pushed that lead to six before Romano finally escaped the inning. 

The home team got one back in the bottom half of that nightmare third inning, as graduate first baseman Logan Bravo cranked a homer to dead center to cut the lead back to five. 

But North Carolina (40-12, 21-8) continued to tack on in the fifth, as outfielder Anthony Donofrio shot a double into right field that drove in the eighth Tar Heel run of the day. A failed fielding attempt by graduate pitcher Tim Noone on a bunt led to another run being pushed across and a chorus of chants from the visiting fans. That fifth-inning onslaught continued, as a ball from freshman catcher Luke Stevenson snuck past an outstretched Kyle Johnson at the wall in left for a triple and a 11-2 lead. 

The Blue Devils were able to tack on a few more late runs as they scored one in the fifth and two in the seventh, but the damage continued from the visit offense. They added three more in the top of the eighth off a homer to push their tally to 14 on the day. 

The home team struck first in the bottom of the second, as Duke was able to tag North Carolina starter Aidan Haugh for a run. After striking out freshman Kyle Johnson to begin the inning, the freshman righthander began to struggle with control, hitting junior Wallace Clark and walking freshman Macon Winslow before throwing a wild pitch that advanced both runners. Graduate second baseman Zac Morris then was able to fly one deep enough to center to do the job, giving the Blue Devils an early lead. 

After Healy worked a clean inning, Duke seemed to have some two-out magic in the top of the first, as an AJ Gracia walk followed by an Alex Stone single and a Bravo walk loaded the bases for Devin Obee. However, a mound visit out to Haugh seemed to do the trick, as Obee struck out to strand all three runners.

"We've got to just build off of that each week, trying to stretch him out next week in the ACC tournament, and then stretch him out from there," Pollard said of Healy, who has worked back into the pitching rotation after missing time.

Duke entered this final weekend down another major piece, as ace pitcher Jonathan Santucci suffered a rib injury prior to last weekend series against Georgia Tech that rendered him unavailable for the matchup with the Tar Heels. 

In the place of Santucci, Johnson stepped into the ace role Thursday evening, and the rookie two-way player was spectacular. The Leesburg, Va., native went six innings while allowing three runs and driving in a run of his own at the plate, and superstar closer Charlie Beilenson slammed the door the last three innings to secure a victory in the opening game. 

Friday afternoon seemed to possibly be the same story, as starter Ryan Higgins elevated his level of play and gave a great outing, but the rest of the staff could not hold the lead, as North Carolina tagged Beilenson for two runs in the ninth to set up the rubber match. 

"The frustration of and candidly, the ugliness of, today doesn't change what's been a great regular season," Pollard said. "This team's had a great regular season. They've got a lot to be proud of."

Up next, the Blue Devils will travel west to Charlotte for the ACC tournament, which begins Tuesday. Duke will be the No. 6 seed in the tournament.


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