Prior to the selection of the 64 teams that would compete in this year’s NCAA Baseball Tournament, Duke was considered solidly “on the bubble.” The Blue Devils overall record was just 35-25, but It included 15 wins in an ACC that most would consider one of the top two baseball conferences in the nation. The odds were slim for Duke to make it out of the regional series in Morgantown. Those odds were made even slimmer as Duke would end up facing their opponents’ top pitchers. Duke defied the odds, sweeping its way to a regional championship to move onto the Super Regionals.
From a numbers perspective, the Blue Devils’ chances to make their second trip to the College World Series (the first coming in 1961) look bleak. Duke is in Nashville to face the baseball tournament’s overall second seed, Vanderbilt. While the two Southern schools may be comparable academically, on the baseball diamond they have been worlds apart. Since 2007, Vanderbilt has appeared in the NCAA Baseball tournament, making the Super Regionals in five of those 12 years. The Commodores won the NCAA Baseball title in 2014 and came in second place in 2015.
Friday night, Duke faced it’s third pitching ace, Drake Fellows, who entered the game undefeated (12-0) and was recently selected in the sixth round of the Major League Baseball amateur draft by the San Diego Padres. Duke countered with its top starter, Ben Gross, who has filled in as Duke’s ace since Graeme Stinson went down with an injury in mid-April. Gross was also taken in the MLB draft, four rounds after Fellows.
Both teams had to wait around for their game to officially begin, due to storms and lightning in the Nashville area. The game’s official start time was moved about three hours, with the first pitch coming just after 9:00 pm EST. And by the time the night was over, the Blue Devils were the ones that were one win away from traveling to Omaha, defeating the Commodores 18-5.
While the night ended as a blowout, the first two innings were nothing but that. In the bottom of the first, Gross gave up singles to the first two batters, and it seemed Vanderbilt would storm out of the gates and take an early lead. But Gross retired the next three batters to keep the game scoreless. In the top of the second, Duke took advantage of a throwing error by Fellows to score two unearned runs and take a quick 2-0 lead. That lead was short lived as the Commodores scored their own two runs in the bottom the inning, capped by a two out single by Austin Martin. The stage seemed set for a back and forth night of close baseball.
In the top of the third. Duke scored it’s third run when Michael Rothenburg’s one out single scored Joey Loperfido from second. Duke had two on and one out with it’s hottest hitter, graduate transfer Kyle Gallagher coming up. Gallagher’s hot hitting helped Duke win in Morgantown and the question was whether he could keep it up against a top pitcher like Fellows. The answer was a resounding yes, as Gallagher smashed a three-run home run to left field to give the Blue Devils a 6-2 lead. The next inning, Duke tacked on one more run to increase its overall lead to five.
While a five-run lead midway through the game may seem comfortable, in baseball no lead is truly safe. Vanderbilt managed to score three more runs off of Gross (two in the bottom of the fifth and one in the bottom of the sixth) to cut the Blue Devil lead to two. Duke increased the lead to 8-5 in the top of the seventh after the MVP post of the post season, Gallagher, scored on a sacrifice fly after hitting a leadoff triple.
In the top of the 8th inning, Duke managed to go on an offensive explosion. The Blue Devils scored 10 runs off of six hits, turning a possibly close game into a blowout. Even more important than the offensive success was that Duke forced Vanderbilt to use five pitchers, something that can come into play in a tight three game series.
So now all of the momentum has turned towards Duke. The Blue Devils are the ones who now are favored to win the Super Regionals. It will be interesting to see how a team that all season long has been the underdog that, according to head coach Chris Pollard, has been playing every game in the NCAA Tournament very loose feeling as if they have nothing to lose, will react to now being a sudden favorite. Hopefully Duke playing like nothing to lose will end up with another big win.