DURHAM — Duke headed to the ninth inning of its series opener with Notre Dame trailing 4-1 and facing Irish closer Cole Kmet, who is fifth in the ACC in saves.
Ken Taylor and Jimmy Herron led off the inning with singles, and after an out, Zack Kone drove in a run with another single. Another out and another single, this time by Jack Labosky, and the Blue Devils were down to their last out, with the tying and winning runs on base, and catcher Chris Proctor up at the plate.
Proctor chopped a grounder to shortstop that looked like it might end the game, but he was able to beat the throw for an infield hit and a game-tying RBI. A walk and a hit batter ended it in a dramatic four-run ninth inning rally that consisted of nothing more powerful than a single.
“We have a lot of different ways we can apply pressure,” coach Chris Pollard said. “Tonight, it was a chopped ground ball.”
The Blue Devils are putting together one of the most successful seasons in program history, and they’re doing it by using the old National League style — by pecking opponents to death. A single here, a stolen base there, with solid fielding and strong pitching to make sure they hang around in every game.
“Sometimes, I still think we try to throw haymakers instead of throwing jabs,” Proctor said. But make no mistake, the pit-a-pat style is where Duke is at its best.
The Blue Devils went on to sweep Notre Dame, putting Duke on top of the ACC Coastal Division with a 24-5 record, 9-3 in the ACC. Duke rose to No. 10 in the Baseball America rankings this week, its highest spot in the 37-year history of the poll.
In the finale against the Irish, Duke was at its gnatty best. Twice, Notre Dame jumped on top. Both times, Duke immediately responded in their half of the inning. The game went to the bottom of the eighth inning, tied at four.
Duke then sent 21 batters to the plate, getting a total of six singles, six walks, three stolen bases, a hit batter and two extra-base hits in a 51-minute half inning that saw Notre Dame use six different pitchers in an effort to stop the slow bleed.
“I think we sent eight or nine batters to the plate with two outs,” Pollard said. It was actually 10 straight Blue Devils who reached base with two outs.
Duke prides itself on hanging in, battling and coming back. Pollard proudly pointed out that most of the singles in the four-run rally the first night came after the batters fell behind in the count.
“Every pitch matters,” he said. “You’re down 4-1, but if all of a sudden, you kind of roll over and say, ‘We can’t figure (their starter) out. What’s the difference in 4-1 or 5-1?’ then you’re not in a position to do that. (Notre Dame) had the opportunity to stretch that game out. That’s what puts us in a position to be able to do that.”
One of the reasons Duke was able to stay in position was a bullpen that is one of the league’s best.
Ethan DeCaster is among the league leaders with a 0.39 ERA. He has three wins and four saves — fifth most in the ACC but just second on the Blue Devils. Jack Labosky, a two-way player who also starts at third base, has five saves, good for third in the league.
In the game between Duke’s ninth-inning rally and Duke’s eighth-inning explosion, Labosky hit a go-ahead home run to dead center, then pitched a shutdown ninth to record the save.
“If there’s a more complete guy in college baseball, I’d like to see him,” Pollard said.
Bryce Jarvis is allowing opponents to hit just .125 against him, which ranks him among the league leaders. He’s one of a half-dozen Duke relievers with an opponents’ average against below .200. Labosky (.186), DeCaster (.169), Graeme Stinson (.159), Bill Chillari (.180) and Matt Mervis (.130) are the others.
Starter Adam Laskey, who at 5-1 is third in the league in wins, has an opponents’ average against of .199 as well.
At the plate, the Blue Devils rank among the league leaders in runs scored (Herron, first), doubles (Herron, third), triples (Kone, first, and Proctor, fifth) and stolen bases (Herron, seventh), shades of the 1980s St. Louis Cardinals.
And, like the Cardinals, Duke may just Punch-and-Judy its way to a title.