Duke had a great game plan going into Sunday’s NCAA Tournament play. Cooper Stinson was going to replicate his lights-out performance of last Sunday against NC State, while those Duke bats that piled up 14 runs against Wright State Saturday would give Duke a cushion to cruise into a matchup against Tennessee later in the day. Stinson would go deep into the game and Duke would have enough fresh arms to challenge the Vols at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
But even the best plans need proper execution and there’s the rub. Liberty jumped all over Duke in a first inning that, given the context, ranks among the worst innings in Duke baseball history.
Stinson is a marvelous pitcher when he has command of his stuff. But inconsistency has been an issue and Stinson certainly didn’t have his A game. Or even his B game.
A single, a walk, a strike out, a single and a fly out and it was 1-0 with two outs in the bottom of the first, certainly a manageable situation for Duke.
But Stinson never got that third out. A 3-2 walk, a four-pitch walk, another 3-2 walk, some of those balls awfully close to strikes.
But they weren’t.
“I thought we executed some really good pitches to [Cam] Locklear with two outs and only one run across the board,” Pollard said.
A visibly frustrated Stinson was lifted with the bases loaded and Duke down 3-0.
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet,” Pollard said after the game. “The focus was to try and keep the game where it is and see if we can battle back. Coop’s had a great career here. He just pitched arguably one of the biggest games in the history of the program just this time last week. I want him to take away that memory and focus on that memory and not what happened today.”
Josh Allen had a chance to stop the bleeding out of the bullpen. He was very effective in relief Friday but Jaylen Guy homered to center field and four more Flames crossed the plate.
An error led to another run before Duke finally got off the field, down 8-0.
You may recall that Liberty also scored lots of two-out runs Friday.
What did Liberty do so well with two outs that Duke couldn’t counter?
“It’s kind of baseball. College-baseball players can’t intentionally beat the shift. We were beaten in the shift, five, six, seven times today and that’s baseball. Credit them for putting balls in place with two strikes and moving the ball and credit them with putting the ball in play with two outs. But we got burned today by some balls that were well-placed. We’ve been the beneficiaries of that as well. That’s the sport. I don’t know if it’s one thing that they did right or wrong other than move the ball. You have to give them credit because they moved the ball, meaning with two strikes they put the ball in play and when you do that, even with soft contact, you give yourself a chance for it to fall in.”
Duke gave themselves a chance to claw back in. Joey Loperfido hit a two-run blast in the third to make it 10-2 and Peter Matt had a solo shot in the sixth.
But there’s an old saying that the double play is a pitcher’s best friend and that certainly was the case for Liberty’s Mason Meyer. Duke hit into a double play in the first, fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth innings, consistently squandering scoring opportunities. In the fifth Duke had two singles and a walk and still came up empty.
“No quit in this group,” Pollard said “and gosh if we don’t hit into five double plays—that’s hard to do—if we don’t do that we probably put up a number of runs and get back into the game.”
So, Duke ends its season earlier than it hoped, even expected. Still, Loperfido called the season “special” because of “the people you share the experience with, the places you go, the time you get together.”
“I’m incredibly proud of what we did to be in this position.I’m grateful to our players. We’ve asked them to do more this year than any team I’ve ever coached and they’ve made sacrifices because they care about each other and they care about this program.”