Ethan Murray wouldn’t be denied a chance to make history at Duke.
The Blue Devils freshman endured things over the last two weeks that would cause a lesser man to stay off the field, perhaps permanently.
Yet after taking a fastball to the face on May 21 that required surgery, Murray was playing shortstop and driving in three runs during Duke’s 18-5 win over No. 2 Vanderbilt Friday night in the NCAA tournament’s Nashville super regional.
“I’m all good,” Murray said with a smile. “Feeling good, Nose is good. Face is good. Just feeling good.”
In his first game since the injury, Murray’s contributions to Duke’s shockingly one-sided win at Vanderbilt on Friday night moved the Blue Devils one win away from ending their 58-year College World Series drought.
When a fastball thrown by Notre Dame’s Andrew Belcik sent Murray sprawling in the dirt at Durham Bulls Athletic Park on May 21, the real possibility existed his playing career was over.
The impact caused multiple sinus fractures in his nose and face. Murray was taken to Duke University Hospital for surgery.
He was in pain. But his vision was fine. And his spirit to return to the field this year proved impressively strong.
“He’s a tough competitor,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “He really is. Tough kid.”
In order to play this weekend, Murray must wear a helmet featuring a protective cage around his face while batting. In the field, he wears a plastic shield covering his face to protect his still-mending bones.
Pollard moved him down to No. 7 in Duke’s batting order. Facing Vanderbilt starting pitcher and San Diego Padres draftee Drake Fellows, Murray worked a two-out walk during his first at-bat Friday night. He eventually scored as Duke took a 2-0, second-inning lead on the way to its lopsided win.
Murray returned to practice on Tuesday, taking batting practice and hitting against live pitching in scrimmages.
“I just had to go in there with the same confidence, same approach I had before,” Murray said. “Nothing really changed. I just went up there trying to hit the ball hard. I don’t think my approach has changed at all after that.”
Though he missed an ACC tournament game two days after his surgery, and didn’t play in Duke’s three games while winning the Morgantown (W.Va.) regional last weekend, his play all season helped the Blue Devils make the NCAA tournament field.
The ACC named him to its all-freshman team for his .316 batting average in his 55 games played prior to the injury. He was batting cleanup the night he was hit.
Murray was home recovering from surgery on May 27 when the NCAA tournament field was announced with Duke included.
A couple of days later, Murray told his family he was feeling better and wanted to play this season. By May 31, 10 days after the injury, Murray was in Duke’s dugout in Morgantown rooting on the Blue Devils even before he was allowed to play.
Last Tuesday, having convinced his family to let him play, Murray’s doctors cleared him to return to practice wearing the headgear to prevent anything from hitting his face again.
By Friday night, he was back as Duke’s starting shortstop. Other than redness in his left eye, his injuries are not outwardly visible.
“There are nerves I guess, but ultimately, I talked to coach before the game and he said just go out there and have fun and enjoy the experience,” Murray said. “That was my entire plan. Go out there with an approach to get it done and have fun at the same time.”
Murray’s second-inning walk, on pitches not far off the plate, showed his batting eye remained effective.
Pollard thought his best at-bat came in the seventh inning with Duke leading 7-5. Kyle Gallagher stood at third after a lead-off triple. After Chris Crabtree struck out, Murray had two strikes against him when he lifted a flyball deep enough to centerfield to drive in Gallagher.
“A really tough competitive at bat,” Pollard said.
During Duke’s 10-run eighth inning, Murray drove a fastball to the wall in left-centerfield for a two-run double.
“You saw him catch up to the fastball as the game went on,” Pollard said. “For a guy that had not been able to play for two full weeks, he looked really good, really good.”
Duke needs one more win over Vanderbilt, with two chances to achieve it, to head to its first College World Series since 1961.
Murray can’t imagine not being part of it, no matter what he had to overcome.