Getting to the NCAA baseball tournament proved more difficult for Duke than surviving and thriving in the postseason.
One of the final four teams selected to the event following an up-and-down regular season, the Blue Devils have played joy-filled, pressure-free baseball ever since.
Even facing the nation’s hottest team and a season-long juggernaut like No. 2 Vanderbilt Friday night didn’t deter Duke on its path toward history.
The Blue Devils bashed the host Commodores, scoring seven runs off previously unbeaten pitcher Drake Fellows before adding 10 runs in the eighth inning to post a shocking 18-5 game one win at the best-of-three Nashville Super Regional.
The Blue Devils (35-25) not only ended Vanderbilt’s 12-game winning streak but they put themselves in position to return to the College World Series for the first time since 1961.
A Duke team saddled with a losing record in early April pounded a Vanderbilt team that entered the super regional having won 25 of its last 26 games dating back to early May.
Now Duke, after sweeping three games to win the Morgantown (W.Va.) Regional last weekend, simply needs a win in Saturday night’s 9 p.m. game two of the series, or one in a possible series-deciding game on Sunday, to head to Omaha, Nebraska, for college baseball’s centerpiece event.
Anyone expecting a quick Duke exit from the NCAA tournament based on its modest regular season has been proven wrong.
“I’m very impressed with how loose we’ve been able to play,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “Ever since we got to Morgantown, it’s been a very loose club. Probably some of that was just the fact that, it’s sort of a sigh of relief. We played the last part of the season with our backs against the wall. We felt like every game was a make or break if we were even going to get into the tournament.”
On Friday night, Duke went to the home field of a team equipped to win the national championship and the Blue Devils were far better than the Commodores (52-11).
Kyle Gallagher and Erikson Nichols each drove in four runs for the Blue Devils. Duke’s Matt Mervis drove in three runs in that monster eighth inning alone.
After a three-hour rain delay that pushed back the start, Duke pounded Fellows (12-1), building a 7-2 lead by the fourth inning to knock the Vanderbilt righty from the game before a crowd of 3,626 at sold-out Hawkins Field.
“The entire week our focus was to lay off his slider,” Gallagher said. “That’s a pitch that’s been very successful to him this year. The whole coaching staff did a good job to help seeing that in practice. To lay off that, we got fastballs in the (strike) zone and we were able to drive.”
The Blue Devils showed fight from the start, taking a 2-0 second-inning lead on Nichols’ two-out, two-run single.
Vanderbilt tied the score at 2 in the bottom of the second on Austin Martin’s two-out, two-run single off Duke starter Ben Gross (8-4).
But Duke fired right back against Fellows with a four-run third inning.
Joey Loperfido’s single and a one-out walk to Mervis started the rally. Michael Rothenberg’s single put Duke up 3-2.
Gallagher’s three-run home run, a long blast into the stands in left-centerfield, extended Duke’s lead to 6-2 and quieted the Vandy crowd.
Duke pushed its lead to 7-2 in the fourth inning when RJ Schreck tripled and scored on Loperfido’s single to right.
“I think they did a good job of checking off on breaking pitches,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “Because we really couldn’t get to the zone with quality pitches they made us come across the plate and when we came across the plate they hurt us.”
Gross walked SEC player of the year JJ Bleday to start the Vanderbilt fifth inning. One out later, Philip Clarke slammed a two-run home run to right field slicing Duke’s lead to 7-4.
Vanderbilt kept the pressure on Duke in the sixth inning. Gross walked Harrison Ray, who advanced to third when Ty Duvall blooped a single to right field.
Gross struck out Julian Infante before left-hander Matt Dockman replaced him on the mound with the top of Vanderbilt’s order coming up.
Austin Martin carried a .414 batting average to the plate with the powerful Bleday on deck.
“I know that Ben Gross really wanted to stay in the right there,” Pollard said. “He wanted to keep the baseball and it’s hard to take the baseball from a fifth-year senior in that kind of spot. But we felt fourth time through (the batting order) we wanted to give them a different look. Matt and Ben are two very different looks. Matt came in and executed really, really well.”
A left-hander, Matt Dockman retired Martin on a routine fly ball to left field that drove in a run to cut Duke’s lead to 7-5.
Bleday, with 26 home runs this season, stepped in representing the tying run. But Dockman struck him out with three breaking pitches, including a called third strike to end the inning and protect Duke’s two-run lead.
Gallagher’s lead-off triple allowed the Blue Devils to answer with a run of their own in the top of the seventh. Ethan Murray drove Gallagher in with a sacrifice fly for an 8-5 Duke lead.
The Blue Devils poured it on with 10 runs in the eighth inning. Mervis drove in three in the inning with a single and a double. Murray slammed a two-run double. Nichols also had a two-run double.