'Unbelievable' comeback lifts Duke over N.C. State
Chris Pollard’s words were harsh. His team’s reaction proved historic.
N.C. State led by six runs heading into the bottom of the eighth inning when Pollard verbally challenged his team, which he thought was playing like it thought the game was already over.
The Blue Devils responded with five runs in the eighth and scored two more in the ninth with Aaron Cohn’s bases-loaded single delivering an improbable 11-10 ACC baseball win Sunday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
“Unbelievable performance by our guys,” said Duke third baseman Jordan Betts, who clubbed two home runs. “Really exciting. This is a season-changing win, a program-changing win.”
Coupled with Friday’s series-opening 2-0 win, Duke (20-17 overall, 9-9 in ACC) now has ACC series wins over N.C. State and North Carolina for the first time since 2009. The Blue Devils swept UNC two weeks ago.
“This is a great moment for Duke and Duke baseball and the program going forward,” said Betts, a senior who has yet to experience the Blue Devils qualifying for the ACC Tournament.
When N.C. State scored five runs in the seventh inning and two more in the top of the eighth inning to lead 10-4, the Wolfpack were in control of the series-deciding game.
But Pollard, in his second year as Duke’s coach, saw his team lacked an edge and set about changing that.
“That was the hardest I’ve gotten on our team this year,” Pollard said. “…We need to understand as a team that you play hard until the very last pitch. So I got into them pretty good in the middle of the eighth. Whether it lit a fire or not, I was really impressed with how we came out and responded.”
The rally started when N.C. State’s Joe O’Donnell walked the first two batters of the eighth inning. Betts, who had hit a solo home run off the iconic bull in left field in the fifth inning, picked on a misplaced 0-2 fastball to hit a three-run shot that cleared the bull sign.
“Great kid, great player Jordan,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “But we pitched him very poorly the second time.”
Cody Beckman replaced O’Donnell and allowed a single to Chris Marconcini followed by a two-run home run by Cohn. Just like that, Duke trailed 10-9.
Pollard had stoked his team’s fire.
“It woke us up and got everybody locked in for their at bats,” Betts said. “We got guys on. Hits some balls out of the yard. It changed the complexion of the game.”
Andrew Istler (4-5) pitched perfect top of the ninth for Duke and N.C. State had one of its top relievers, D.J. Thomas, on the mound.
Thomas hit Duke pinch-hitter Cameron Neal with a pitch to start the inning. Mark Lumpa bunted, intending to sacrifice, but N.C. State catcher Brett Austin fired the ball past first base for an error.
The ball rolled into the right field bullpen, allowing pinch-runner Anthony D’Alessandro to score the tying run and Lumpa to reach third with no outs.
With the score 10-10, Jon Olczak replaced Thomas and struck out Mike Rosenfeld before intentional walks were issued to Betts and Marconcini to load the bases.
Cohn ripped a single to left field driving in Lumpa with the game-winning run.
“After the two walks they had nowhere to put me,” Cohn said. “I kind of had a feeling they were going to throw fastballs. So I went out there sitting fastball first pitch.”
His hit means Duke has won series against two teams that played in the College World Series last year in UNC and N.C. State.
“It’s huge,” Cohn said. “Kind of in this area, Duke’s never been known for baseball and two sweep Carolina and take the series from State, it makes an impact. It kind of makes a big statement for Duke baseball.”
The Blue Devils are striving to qualify for the ACC Tournament for the first time since 2009. Duke has 12 games remaining to garner enough wins to make this year’s tournament field, which will feature 10 teams for the first time.
Through Sunday’s games, Duke is tied with UNC for seventh-place overall in the league and fourth place in the Coastal Division.
Meanwhile, N.C. State finds itself currently out of the ACC Tournament at six games below .500 in league play.
The way its pitchers performed on Sunday, walking nine Duke batters and hitting two others, won’t get it done, Avent said. The two errors, particularly Austin’s ninth-inning throw, contributed as well.
“The way we gave it up is absolutely ridiculous,” Avent said. “That’s an embarrassment.”
NOTE – After the game, Duke’s players and coaches had their head shaved on the field as part of a fund-raiser for the Vs. Cancer Foundation. It raised $7,267 to fund the fight against childhood cancers.