Duke’s first appearance in the NCAA baseball Tournament after a 55-year drought came to a heartbreaking end Saturday in the elimination contest of the Columbia Regional.
The Blue Devils got a stellar outing from fifth-year senior pitcher Trent Swart but it wasn’t enough as host South Carolina scratched out a 4-2 victory on a sweltering afternoon at Founders Park. Duke went 0-2 in the regional but it doesn’t take away from their season.
“I’m proud of our team and the way they competed today and I’m proud of the way we competed this year, especially in light to the start we got off too in conference play,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said.
After starting 1-7 in ACC play and 10-12 overall early in the season, the Blue Devils rallied to win 23 of 32 games with a lineup that routinely started only underclassmen. In Saturday’s game, the Blue Devils started five sophomores and three freshmen.
“The best part about it is we started the season struggling but there’s a tipping point,” Swart said. “I’m proud of all of us that stopped that from happening and finished the season strong. A lot of people didn’t expect us to be in this position so it was an exciting step forward. I know we’ll keep it going.
Swart gave up two early runs before settling in and pitching into the ninth inning for his longest outing of the season after missing the 2015 season with Tommy John surgery. He retired 11 in a row until Dom Thompson-Williams led off the ninth inning with a single in a 2-2 game. He scattered eight hits with four strike outs and one walk in throwing 118 pitches.
“I’m especially proud of Trent Swart,” Pollard said. “He wouldn’t ever tell anybody but he pitched that game on guts. To the job that he did to keep us in the ball game and give us a chance to win was really impressive. He’s everything that’s great about Duke.”
Closer Mitch Stallings came on and Madison Stokes advanced Thompson-Williams to second with a sacrifice bunt. Seldom-used catcher Hunter Taylor then doubled off the third base bag for the go-ahead run.
Taylor, who was making just his fourth start of the year, was inserted in the lineup when John Jones was late to the pregame meal. His ball hit the bag and bounced over the head of third baseman Jack Labosky.
The Gamecocks later added an insurance run on a wild pitch.
Duke (33-24) got the tying run on base in the bottom of the ninth but left them stranded.
South Carolina (43-16) jumped to a 2-0 lead with single runs in the first and second inning. Gene Cone led off the game with a single, was moved to second on a sacrifice bunt, advanced to third on a ground out and scored on a RBI single from Jonah Bride.
The Gamecocks added in the second run on an RBI single by Marcus Mooney but Swart kept them in check through the eighth.
The Blue Devils scratched across a run in the third when Max Miller singled and went to third on a failed pick-off attempt. He scored on a sacrifice fly by Herron.
It stayed that way until Justin Bellinger led off the sixth inning by blasting the first pitch he saw over the wall in right field for his 7th home run of the season to tie it at 2.
The inning that will haunt Duke all off season will be the fourth. The Blue Devils loaded the bases with a hit batter and two walks with no outs. But USC reliever Josh Reagan got a strike out, a fielder’s choice grounder to third to cut down the runner at the plate and a pop foul to the catcher.
South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook thought that was the turning point.
“The story of the game was getting out of that bases loaded, nobody out jam,” he said. “That was the ball game right there in allowing us to win.”