Luke DeCock

Duke’s late-season baseball progression comes to precipitous halt

Duke baseball coach makes pitch for a spot in NCAA Tournament

VIDEO: Duke baseball coach Chris Pollard tells reporters that the Blue Devils have played as well as any team in the country in the second half of the season.
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VIDEO: Duke baseball coach Chris Pollard tells reporters that the Blue Devils have played as well as any team in the country in the second half of the season.

All the momentum Duke spent two months building went scooting on by Tuesday afternoon – not whizzing, exactly, but with the deliberate pace of a curve ball dropping into the zone for a strike.

That’s essentially how Duke’s ACC tournament came to an end with a 4-3 loss to Wake Forest in the first of two play-in games Tuesday, with Duke’s best hitter first attempting to bunt in the bottom of the ninth while representing the winning run, then watching strike three go past.

The Blue Devils would end up getting more chances to tie or win in the bottom of the ninth, eventually stranding runners on first and third – for a total of 12 on the day – but in missing out on a chance for the comeback win, they also missed out on a chance to reinforce their NCAA tournament case.

Duke should be in, but these things are never as certain as they seem to be from the outside, and games against Louisville, Virginia and Clemson couldn’t have hurt. Instead, Wake Forest gets that opportunity, one the Demon Deacons needed far more than Duke.

At 33-22, this is Duke’s third straight 30-win season, but the Blue Devils are still looking for that elusive NCAA tournament bid, their first since 1961. They have a strong case, even with Tuesday’s loss, having gone 21-9 over the past two months with series wins over Georgia Tech, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Pittsburgh.

“I think most of the folks that really know our sport had us in going into today,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “I can’t see where anything that happened on the field would take that away from us. We had 13 hits. We walked one guy. We didn’t make an error. I don’t think we played poorly. I think we just missed one hit there in a key spot.”

I don’t know what to say. Tip your hat. I don’t know that (Wake Forest reliever) Will Craig threw a breaking ball for a strike other than that 3-2 pitch right there.

Duke coach Chris Pollard

If Duke is somehow left out, the hits that weren’t in the key spots Tuesday will be even more painful than they were in the immediate aftermath. None was bigger than sophomore Jack Labosky – who came into the game hitting .293 with a .527 slugging percentage – in the bottom of the ninth with no one out and a runner on first.

After falling behind 0-1, Labosky twice attempted to bunt before taking the eighth pitch of the at-bat for a called third strike. Pollard said afterward that Labosky had the green light to start but the plan going into the inning was to bunt if he fell behind in the count.

“As it wound up, we were able to work ourselves back to a favorable count where we were swinging away again, which is ultimately what we would have liked to have done,” Pollard said. “I don’t know what to say. Tip your hat. I don’t know that (Wake Forest reliever) Will Craig threw a breaking ball for a strike other than that 3-2 pitch right there.”

Putting aside college baseball’s inexplicable and infuriating obsession with the sacrifice bunt – a malady not confined to the Triangle, where it is particularly virulent – any baseball fan would prefer to see a team’s best hitter go down swinging with the game on the line.

While the Labosky at-bat stands out, the Blue Devils had so many other chances, and not just in that inning. Duke had baserunners in every inning save one and left six of the 12 in scoring position. The opportunities were there to put an authoritative stamp on Duke’s season, especially with Kellen Urbon throwing five solid innings against a powerful Wake Forest lineup that scored 40 runs in three games at Virginia Tech two weeks ago.

Instead, the Blue Devils have a week to wait and hope they have done enough already.

“I think we’re feeling pretty good about it but obviously it’s not set in stone until the committee announces it,” Urbon said. “We’re keeping out fingers crossed.”

After waiting 45 years, what’s six more days?

Luke DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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