Georgia Tech ended Duke’s 2019 ACC Tournament run Friday, with a walk-off 5-4 win.
Whether they ended Duke’s season is a question that will be answered Monday at noon.
With a spot in Saturday’s semifinals at stake, Duke started grad-student Ben Gross, while junior Connor Thomas got the nod for the Yellow Jackets.
Duke jumped on top early, with a three-run first. Mike Rothenberg singled in the first run, Chris Crabtree followed with a two-run single.
It did not take long for Tech to answer. Luke Waddell led off the bottom of the first with a single. Two outs later Tristin English homered just inside the left-field foul line.
Duke mostly squandered a big opportunity in the third. A walk and single put runners on the corners, with no outs. But Rothenberg grounded into a double play, scoring a run but killing the rally.
The Yellow Jackets tied it in the bottom of the third when Kyle McCann launched a monster home run, with a runner on, his 23rd blast of the season.
Tied at 4-4 after three innings, a good, old-fashioned slug-fest loomed.
“We felt really confident coming into this match up,” Kennie Taylor said. “The last time we played them, we hit him pretty well. So, we tried to bring that same mentality today.”
The slug-fest fizzled fast. Suddenly, the pitchers took over.
Duke stranded two more runners in the top of the fourth but Tech returned the favor in the bottom of the inning.
Gross worked his way out of a huge jam in the fifth. Duke third baseman Erickson Nichols lost a foul fly on a sunny day. Given a second chance, Michael Guldberg ripped a one-out double. McCann walked but Gross retired English on a fly ball and struck out Baron Radcliff, keeping the score 4-4.
Duke again left two on the top of the sixth. Will Hoyle ended the inning flying out to the warning track in left field.
Matt Dockman replaced Gross to start the bottom of the sixth. He allowed two singles in that inning but center fielder Kennie Taylor ended the threat with a spectacular diving catch.
Freshman left-hander Luke Bartnicki took over the mound duties for Tech in the seventh.
Joey Loperfido led off the seventh with an infield single but was stranded on third.
He’s Duke lead-off hitter, meaning the heart of the order followed.
The next three batters failed to get the ball out of the infield.
“We faced some good arms,” Taylor acknowledged. “Sometimes you have to tip your cap to those pitchers. But we need to take more advantage of free offense and stay in our zones. Sometimes that high fastball looks pretty good to hit but you can’t catch up with it.”
Duke never again threatened.
Thomas Girard entered the game for Duke with one out in the seventh and a runner on third and retired both batters he faced that inning.
Pollard says the match-up dictated bringing in Girard at that point.
“It was always the plan. We felt like it was the right play to bring him in against English. As well as Matt pitched, if you look at the splits, we didn’t think it was a great match-up for Dockman to pitch to English.”
English moved over from first base to the mound for Georgia Tech to start the eighth and retired Duke in order.
Colin Hall led off the bottom half of the eighth with a double in right-center. But Girard again worked out of trouble, aided by a base-running mistake by Hall, who remained anchored on third during a sacrifice-bunt attempt by Austin Wilhite, as Duke lured him to the base with a pick-off ruse.
“We had a plan there and executed it pretty well,” Pollard said of Duke’s successful effort.
Duke went down harmlessly in the top of the ninth.
Girard walked Waddell to lead off the ninth.
Tech bunted him to second and Duke intentionally walked McCann.
That brought up English, who hit what briefly seemed to be a routine fly ball.
But the wind caught and the next thing you know Duke left fielder Kyle Gallagher was chasing down the hit, while Waddell scampered home with the winning run.
“It was hard,” Pollard said, “because of the way the wind was playing. That ball was coming straight down. When it left the bat I said ‘good job’ because it looked like an F7 (flyout to left). I thought that ball would land about the edge of the warning track. The ballpark played different today in left because of the way it was pushing.”
“It’s a short porch out there in left,” English said, “so I just wanted to get it in the air. The guy has a good slider, so I sat on it and he threw it and I hit it and I was just hoping it would go far enough to hit the wall.”
Duke went scoreless over the final six innings, with Barnicki and English retiring the final nine Duke batters.
“Barnicki has been getting better and better every time he goes out out,” Tech coach Danny Hall noted. “He’s been getting better and better. He’s not the traditional delivery, so if you see him one time, it’s hard to focus in. He did a really good job out there. He did exactly what we wanted him to do and then we turned it over to Tristan.”
“I’m very proud of this team,” Pollard summed up. “We’ve competed all year.”
Will Duke be playing this time next week?
Pollard answers in the affirmative.
“I’m incredibly confident in our club and the fact that we’re going to have a chance to play next weekend. But more importantly the folks that do this for a living have shown a lot of confidence in our club and where we’re projected. Nothing we did this week hurt that.”
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