Three years ago the Duke baseball team journeyed to Athens, Georgia to begin the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Duke lost its opener 6-0 to Troy, falling into the dreaded loser’s bracket hole.
Duke dug their way out, four wins and a trip to a Super Regional.
The Blue Devils are going to have to do it again. Liberty jumped all over Duke starter Jack Carey Friday afternoon in Knoxville and held on for an 11-6 win.
That final score sounds more competitive than the game actually was. It was 11-1 after four.
Liberty’s first two batters doubled off Carey and both scored.
Duke coach Chris Pollard said that he would have to look at the film to give an accurate assessment of Carey’s woes.
“It’s hard to know until we see exactly where those pitches were located and was it a location problem or was it a stuff problem. I do know that the velo [velocity] was down today and that’s a product probably of the fact that he’s pitched a lot for us in the month of May.”
Pollard added that he told Carey Duke wouldn’t be in the NCAAs if not for Carey’s work down the stretch.
“I’m proud as heck of Jack Carey.”
Duke got one back in the bottom of the second when right fielder Peter Matt hit his 13th home run.
The wheels came off in the third. A double and a wild pitch gave Liberty a runner on third, with no outs. A strike-out and a throw out at the plate and it looked like Duke might get out of the jam.
Pollard’s thoughts on what happened next:
“I thought a big moment in the game early when [second baseman Graham] Pauley made a great play with the infield in to throw the runner out at the plate. It’s 2-1 and we have a chance to get off the field with two outs. But we didn’t and that was a big momentum swing.”
Liberty kept the inning alive with a walk and Brady Gulakowski’s three-run homer made it 5-1.
Duke did not want to be down 5-1 to Liberty ace Trevor Delaite, the Atlantic Sun pitcher of the year.
Pollard described Duke’s approach against Delaite.
“He’s got 15 walks in a hundred innings. He’s a high percentage of fastballs early and then you have to deal with the change-up as the bat goes on. So, the plan was to get up there and hunt the fastball early in the count and get our best swing, because he’s not a guy who’s going to walk you.”
It didn’t work. Lots of quick outs.
Duke’s deficit expanded in the fourth, with another two-out home run, this one by Gulakowski off reliever Matt Dockman.
“The difference was they had two swings with two outs, where we had a chance to get off the field with no further damage and they ran two balls out of the yard.”
It was 11-1 at this point. Duke got some great bullpen work from Richard Brereton, Josh Allen and Aaron Beasley and put five runs on the board, which Pollard says should give Duke some momentum going into tomorrow.
Matt hit a second home run. “I think I was seeing the ball well today,” he said. “Like coach said, we were able to attack early in the count. We have a lot of good hitters. We hit some balls early that didn’t fall. Got to turn the page and get after it tomorrow.”
The final was 11-6.
Pollard said the biggest lesson from 2018 was “don’t dwell on it. We’ve had a pretty good run. We’ll get back to the hotel and focus on recovery and wake up and tomorrow is a new day.”
Pollard is going to start lefty Luke Fox against either Tennessee and Wright State and certainly sounded like someone with plans to stick around.
“The key is not to get too caught up in what’s going to happen potentially on Monday. We’ve just got to go out and play tomorrow and do a great job of being where our feet are and when that game is over, we’ll get ready to go for Sunday. The reality is that to make the ACC Tournament, to make the NCAA Tournament, we’ve been practically in elimination mode for some time. It isn’t any different for us.”
First pitch at noon.