Duke’s long awaited return to the NCAA Baseball Tournament turned into a nightmarish affair.
UNCW spoiled the third-seed Blue Devils first postseason appearance since 1961 with an 11-1 pounding Friday afternoon in the opening game of the Columbia Regional.
“We got punched in the mouth pretty good by a very, very good UNCW offense,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “I tip my hat to Coach (Mark) Scalf, his guys swung the bats very well.”
Duke came in playing its best baseball of the season. After suffering a six-game losing streak in late March, the Blue Devils went 23-9 over their final 32 games with series wins over NCAA Tournament teams Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida State.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Despite that momentum, it didn’t take the Seahawks (40-17) long to take early control and coast to the victory.
Starting pitcher Brian McAfee had pitched at five innings in 26 straight starts dating back to 2013 in a contest against Columbia. But the grad student never got into a groove against the free swinging Seahawks.
He allowed six runs on five hits in the second inning. Two singles and a walk loaded the bases with no outs before McAfee struck out Zack Canada. But the 8 and 9 hitters on the UNCW order, Robbie Thorburn and Kennard McDowell, followed with an RBI single and bases loaded walk, respectively.
Steven Linkous added a two-run double and Brian Mims followed with two-run single to make it 6-0 after two innings.
“They’re incredible hitters and any time I missed a spot they let me know,” McAfee said. “Obviously I didn’t have my best stuff today. They hit breaking pitches pretty well and they’re just a well-coached team.”
McAfee’s day ended when he allowed two singles to lead off the third in the shortest outing of his career. He allowed eight runs on seven hits with two strike outs and two walks. The eight runs are the most he’s allowed in his career.
The Seahawks added five more runs in the third. Mims had the key blow with a two-out, two-strike bases clearing double and that was way more than enough support for ace Ryan Foster.
“We were one pitch away from getting off the field and 7-0 right there feels a lot different than 10-0 or 11-0 which it turned out to be,” Pollard said. “They took advantage of a lot of mistakes we made.”
The Blue Devils didn’t record a hit until the fifth and finished with eight but could never get a serious offense rally going. Duke (33-23) scored its only run in the sixth when Chris Proctor opened with a triple off the wall in right field and scored on a sacrifice fly by Jack Labosky.
But that’s all the Blue Devils could muster against the right-hander. Foster threw a complete game to improve to 13-1 on the season.
“He was pounding the zone, staying low in the zone so it was really hard to get an elevated pitch to really drive,” Proctor said. “He was varying speeds and getting ahead and that’s pretty tough as a hitter.”
Foster threw 114 pitches but thought he could have been better.
“No not my best stuff but my best effort,” the senior said.
Duke will try to keep its season alive in an elimination contest at noon on Saturday against the loser of No. 1 seed South Carolina and No. 4 Rhode Island. Pollard isn’t concerned about his team’s mindset with the season on the line the rest of the weekend.
“We’ve had an elimination type of mindset over the second half of the season because we knew we’ve already used up our margin of error,” he said. “So our guys will be comfortable in that setting because we’ve in that setting the entire second half of the season.”