Duke ranks in the bottom third of the ACC in every major offensive statistical category: batting average, slugging percentage, on base percentage, runs scored, walks, hits and RBIs.
Offense didn’t completely explain the Blue Devils’ 4-3 loss to Wake Forest in the opening game of the ACC baseball tournament. Duke did tally 13 hits on the day. But it was timely offense that did the Blue Devils in, as they stranded 12 base runners and went 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position.
“We just had a couple of opportunities with runners in scoring position where we didn’t deliver, and that’s baseball,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said.
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With the loss, Duke’s stay at the ACC tournament is over, but the Blue Devils (33-22, 14-16 ACC) have positioned themselves to earn their first NCAA tournament bid since 1961 when the field is revealed on Monday.
The No. 7 seed Blue Devils threatened the No. 10 seed Demon Deacons (33-23, 14-17) until the final out, when pinch hitter Michael Smiciklas struck out swinging with runners on first and third. Wake Forest relief pitcher Will Craig pumped his fist in celebration, as he worked a 7-out save without his best stuff (Craig’s baseball future is at third or first base, as he is expected to be a late-first or second-round pick in this spring’s MLB Draft).
The Blue Devils tagged Craig, whose fastball sits in the low 90s, for four hits in his 2.1 innings and made solid contact on three outs to the outfield, too. In both the eighth and ninth innings, the Blue Devils had a baserunner at third but couldn’t bring him home.
The ninth inning started out favorably for Duke, with a walk to No. 2 hitter Chris Proctor. The Blue Devils’ No. 3 hitter, Jack Labosky, had the green light to swing at the first pitch from Craig, and he fouled it off. With the count not in his favor, Pollard instructed him to bunt.
“My thought process was the velocity matchup favored Craig in that situation, so we made a decision that we would give Jack one opportunity to try to time up a fastball,” Pollard said. “In other words, we got our best guy at the plate – let’s see if he’ll pipe a fastball thinking that we are in a bunt situation, and maybe with the short porch in left he runs one out of the yard.”
Labosky bunted foul for strike two and worked the count to 3-2. Then Craig, who had struggled to command his breaking ball to that point, dropped one in for a called strike three, figuring (correctly) that Laboksy would be sitting on the fastball.
“I definitely had trouble with earlier, the previous few batters, I kept leaving it up,” Craig said of his breaking ball. “If I got it over, I looked like a genius, and if I didn’t, look like somebody who should never play baseball again.”
The Demon Deacons had far fewer offensive opportunities, but when they came, Wake Forest didn’t waste them.
It took two pitches in the first inning for the Demon Deacons to open a 2-0 lead. Duke starter Kellen Urbon hit Nate Mondou with an 0-2 count, and Stuart Fairchild took a first-pitch fastball over the Blue Monster in left field and off of the awning at Tobacco Road Sports Cafe.
“I thought it was pretty low,” Urbon said of the pitch location. “It was over the middle of the plate, but I was trying to be aggressive down the zone and wouldn’t really take it back.”
The next two Wake Forest runs came courtesy of heads-up baserunning. An 0-2 leadoff single by the No. 9 hitter, Jonathan Pryor, opened the third inning. Pryor advanced to second on a balk and took third on a flyout to right field.
He then scored on a sacrifice fly to center. In the sixth inning, it was an infield single by Fairchild and another base taken on a flyout that got him into scoring position. Duke intended to pitch around Gavin Sheets, but Al Pesto left his first pitch too close to the plate, and Sheets lined it to right to score Fairchild and make it 4-1 Wake Forest.
Wake Forest starter Parker Dunshee did strike out 10 Blue Devils, but he also gave up nine hits, and the Blue Devils were able to string a few together in the seventh on the fourth time through the lineup.
Labosky doubled home Jimmy Herron, and Justin Bellinger and Peter Zyla knocked back-to-back singles off of Craig to pull within 4-3. But Craig got Duke’s Cris Perez to fly out to right to end the inning.
It was that type of timely play that the Demon Deacons came up with all day.
“Sometimes in our sport, just have to be willing to tip your hat,” Pollard said.
And Duke has until next week to rediscover the timely offense that powered its second-half surge into the NCAA tournament.