Liberty defeated Duke 11-6 Friday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Duke trailed 11-1 early before scoring five meaningless runs.
But immediately following the game Duke coach Chris Pollard suggested those runs weren’t actually meaningless.
“Over the last five innings of the game . . . we kept the scoreboard clean. We gave our offense a chance to get some momentum to fight and claw our way back into it and I think that will serve us well going into tomorrow.”
The man knows what he’s talking talking about. Duke’s offense exploded to the tune of six home runs and never trailed in a 14-6 win that sends them into tomorrow against the loser of the Tennessee-Liberty game.
But “never trailed” doesn’t mean there weren’t some tight moments. Left-fielder R.J. Schreck gave Duke a 2-0 lead in the first with the first of his three home runs.
Wright State got one back in the bottom of the first; they were the home team.
Wright State was two outs away from beating Tennessee last night before a walk-off grand-slam took them down, 9-8. If there is a worse way to lose a baseball game, then keep it to yourself.
But they also have one of the nation’s best offenses.
Two runs wasn’t going to do it.
Pollard compared Wright State’s offensive statistics to video-game numbers until he saw them in person.
“They really are that good offensively, as good an offensive team as we’ve played all year They’ve got multiple guys in their lineup that are going to play in the big leagues.”
And Knoxville is about 900 feet above sea level.
“This is a challenging place to play. The ball leaves the yard with regularity. Candidly, you ask any coach here, eight runs seems like four runs. You have to pitch really tough.”
To repeat. Two runs wasn’t going to be enough.
Liberty had a couple of big two-out rallies Friday and Wright State seemed poised to do the same in the second. Wright State tied it a 2 with a two-out double by Justin McConnell. A walk added a second base runner. Starter Luke Fox was laboring, Jimmy Loper was up in the bullpen and the heart of Wright State’s order was chomping at their collective bits.
Instead Fox punched out Quincy Hamilton, leaving their two-hole hitter looking at strike three.
Here’s Pollard’s take.
“I thought it was a huge, huge moment in the game. We had Loper already throwing in the pen, win-or-go-home scenario, so we were ready to go with Loper as early as we had needed to. It was a heck of a call by [pitching coach] Chris Gordon. We crossed him up right there with a fastball, got him sitting on an off-speed pitch and we were able to execute a fastball in the heart of the zone and get off the field. It was a gutsy call in that spot and Chris did a really good job of executing it.”
Duke’s bats responded with a four-run third.
“We swung the bat really well over the last five innings of that ballgame yesterday and we were able to carry that into today. There is no question that we carried momentum from the last five innings into today.”
Schreck’s second home run made it 4-2. First baseman Chris Crabtree followed three batters later with another two-run homer and it was 6-2.
Duke had another huge inning, six runs in the fifth. The Blue Devils were helped by some shaky Wright State fielding. The Raiders committed three errors, giving Duke extra chances.
And with apologies to Steve Winwood, when Duke saw those chances, they took them. Third baseman Erickson Nichols had a two-run homer, shortstop Ethan Murray had Duke’s fifth two-run homer and Schreck followed with a solo shot.
Four of Duke’s six runs in that inning were unearned.
“This is a really mature team,” Pollard said of his squad. “They’re very well-coached by our hitting coach Jason Stein and they stay in their approach without a lot of coaching.”
Murray said that Schreck’s bat was on from the beginning.
“Probably 15 minutes before the game R.J. comes up to me and says ‘that was the best batting practice I’ve ever had.’ We saw the results. Obviously, something was clicking there.”
But still, that Wright State offense.
Schreck may have had as good a game in left field as he did at the plate. He made three highlight-reel catches, two robbing Wright State’s Tyler Black of a home run.
The best came in the sixth, with Duke up 13-4. The Raiders loaded the bases.
Black one of those Wright State players Pollard expects to see in the majors. In fact, some projections have him as a first-round pick down the road. He hammered a Jimmy Loper pitch to deep left.
“Off the bat, to be honest, I thought it was going to be a routine fly ball,” Shreck said. “The wind was blowing out to left in some parts of this game and it just kept going. I actually got great communication from our bullpen down there, letting me know where the track was, where the fence was. I was able to time my jump perfectly and bring the ball back and help our pitcher out.”
Pollard called it an “unbelievable play with the bases loaded to take away a home run” and noted that Schreck was involved in five home runs, the three he hit and the two he saved; the earlier one came against Black in the fourth.
Loper also deserves mention. There’s an expression in baseball, “eating innings” and Loper ate three big innings in the middle of the game, earning his third win of the season, against one loss.
“Credit to Jimmy Loper for grinding out those middle innings,” Pollard said “and not forcing us to have to go to Marcus [Johnson] earlier and have to burn other guys in the bullpen.
There was some ninth-inning drama. Trying for his fourth home run, Schreck flied out deep to right center.
“I knew that he jammed me a little bit,” Schreck said. “I needed to be a little bit earlier.”
One batter earlier, Murray struggled through an at-bat that wasn’t as scary as it looked.
“My right hamstring just started cramping up on me. It was just a product of a three-and-a-half hours in the sun. I was trying to drink. I probably drank five big, old Gatorade bottles.”
The final was 14-6.
Duke will play that loser of tonight’s Tennessee-Liberty game tomorrow at 2 P.M.and the winner of that game will stay alive and play a second game that will challenge pitching depth.
Junior Cooper Stinson will get the start in the opener and Duke will go from there. Duke used four relievers Friday and none of them pitched today. They’ll all be good for tomorrow. Loper threw 63 pitches today, so he may be burned. But Johnson only threw 32 and he didn’t pitch Friday.
“We can’t worry about the second game tomorrow,” Pollard acknowledged. “We have to just go out and compete like crazy to win the first game and if we get through that game, we’ll focus on who we have available and how we piece it together to get to that next game. One of the things I’ve challenged our guys with is that in this environment is to be really great in being where your feet are.”