DURHAM — Twenty-two innings had passed since N.C. State scored a run. The scoreless drought had grown frustrating for Wolfpack second basemen Logan Ratledge, and that, combined with the number of balls Duke pitchers were throwing out of the strike zone, was leading to some overzealous, bad swings.
But once third baseman Andrew Knizner finally drove in a run for N.C. State in the fifth, the whole team relaxed a bit, and Ratledge broke the game open in the next inning with a two-out, two-run bases loaded single up the middle. That was more than enough offense for the Wolfpack in the 6-2 win over Duke Saturday afternoon at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
“It’s hard when you’re not scoring in this game and you’re scuffling offensively,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “You try to instill confidence, you try to go up there with the same mindset, but it’s hard sometimes. This game can punch you in the guts sometimes and make you forget who you are, and that’s where we are a little bit right now.”
It wasn’t just the Duke pitchers struggling with command early – through four innings (and more than 1.5 hours of play), the two teams combined for just three hits but nine walks and two hit batsmen.
Wolfpack starter Ryan Williamson only yielded one hit – to the final batter he faced, Ryan Dietrich, in the fourth inning – but he gave up six free passes to Blue Devils hitters, as Duke put its first two batters on base in three of the first four innings. The Blue Devils, though, came away empty handed each time, stranding nine runners and going 0-for-13 (with seven strikeouts) until Dietrich doubled to score Jordan Betts in the eighth to make it 5-1 Wolfpack.
“That’s been our hangup all year,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said of his Blue Devils, who entered the game hitting .261 on the year. “In certain ballgames, we get runners in scoring position, and we just don’t get that key hit.”
Once N.C. State reliever Eric Peterson entered the game midway through the fourth inning, offensive chances became scarce for the Blue Devils (19-17, 8-9 ACC). Peterson, a junior transfer from Temple, struck out a season-high nine batters and walked just two, keeping Duke off-balance with a delivery that made the ball difficult to pick up quickly out of his hand.
The first two Duke pitchers of the day – Trent Swart and Andrew Istler – struggled with their command, throwing a combined 52 strikes and 48 balls. N.C. State (20-14, 6-11 ACC) was finally able to break through against Istler in the fifth.
Trea Turner, the Wolfpack’s speedy leadoff hitter, began the inning with a walk. He was able to take second on a Brett Austin flyout to right field, and then advanced to third on a Duke error. Blue Devils catcher Mike Rosenfeld threw down to second after Istler delivered ball three, but there wasn’t a Duke fielder covering second, and the throw sailed into center field. Knizner then drove an Istler pitch into right field, scoring Turner for the game’s first run.
Knizner came around to score on a Preston Palmeiro sacrifice fly to left, giving the Wolfpack a 2-0 lead in the fifth. N.C. State added three more runs, all with two outs, in the sixth off of Sarkis Ohanian—two on Ratledge’s single up the middle and another on a Chance Shepard double to left. Pinch hitter Carlos Rodon added the sixth run in the ninth on an RBI single to right field.
Duke’s best burst of offense came on a blown overturned call. In the eighth inning, with N.C. State up 5-1, Andy Perez hit a ball over the Blue Monster in left field. It either hit off of the fence above the wall, or, as Pollard saw it, a chair past the fence, but regardless, the ball came back in play, the Wolfpack fielders did not hustle to get it in, and Perez circled the bases, scoring himself and Deitrich.
Avent came out of the dugout to argue the ball should not have been a home run, and the umpires changed the no-call (none of the three ever made any signal) to a ground-rule double – despite the fact that Perez had circled the bases without getting out. Pollard was ejected arguing the call. The next batter, Christian Perez, struck out to end the inning.
“Their (N.C. State’s) guys stopped on the play, so I’m not sure how you come up with the ruling that it could be a ground-rule double. It’s either a ball that’s in play, and everybody scored, or it’s a home-run ball, one or the other,” Pollard said.
The teams wrap up their three-game series Sunday at 1 p.m.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley