After Duke baseball rolled to ACC title, Blue Devils shut down in NCAA Tournament loss

Duke’s Road to Omaha started in Oklahoma, with about 75 loyal fans in the stands at L. Dale Mitchell Park, but the moral support didn’t lift the team to a victory.

Instead, it has a longer path than it would like after dropping the first game of the weekend.

The No. 17-ranked Blue Devils (39-19) and unranked Connecticut (33-23) had plenty of scoring opportunities in the NCAA Norman Regional opener, but the Huskies capitalized on enough chances to pull off the 4-1 upset over the reigning ACC champions.

Duke’s loss puts them in the loser’s bracket, setting up a matchup at 3 p.m. on Saturday. It will play Oral Roberts or No. 8 Oklahoma.

“In 2018, we had a really, really good offense. We played the first game of the regional in Athens; got completely tied up and wound up getting shut out and came back out of the loser’s bracket to win that regional,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “We have a terrific offense, and I have no doubt offensively will bounce back.”

Left-handed pitcher Andrew Healy put together a solid performance in his four-inning outing against the Huskies. The sophomore gave up two doubles and a pair of free passes in the top of the first, but Duke’s defense — notably with a close tag at home — limited UConn to one run.

The Blue Devils responded in the bottom of the first to tie the game, 1-1. Zac Morris drew a leadoff walk and came around to score on AJ Gracia’s single. That was the only run Duke managed to score, despite recording eight hits and drawing two walks in the contest.

“I thought it was really important to hit first,” UConn coach Jim Penders said. “It was one of the times that I was kind of glad to be the visitors to get first licks...They’ve got a lot of talent in that dugout. We needed to hit first, so it was good. They came right back. We gave them a couple of walks. They made us pay, but we were able to kind of stop the bleeding.”

Duke left a total of nine men on base, stranding two runners in three separate innings. The Blue Devils finished each of those frames with a popup, strikeout and groundout. They went 8 of 35 from the plate and finished with one double.

Duke catcher Alex Stone said when balls aren’t finding gaps, the team doesn’t really look to change anything.

“You kind of know the formula and our whole thing this year has been staying on black,” Stone said. “You’re staying with what you’re doing and just knowing that it’s gonna work eventually.”

UConn also had plenty of opportunities to bust the game open. The Huskies finished with nine hits, drew five walks and left eight runners stranded. Unlike the Blue Devils, they took advantage of one chance and secured the victory.

Right-handed pitcher Ryan Higgins threw one inning but left the game in the bottom of the sixth. He gave up two straight walks. In between free passes, the first runner advanced to third after Higgins committed a throwing error on a pick-off throw.

Then, Gabe Nard entered the game in relief. The right-hander allowed Ryan Hyde’s two-out, two-run single that gave the Huskies a 3-1 lead in the sixth with Higgins was held responsible for both runs.

Nard rolled through most of the game, pitching four innings. UConn recorded five hits off his throws. Nard and the Blue Devils defense held its opponent scoreless until the top of the ninth, when Caleb Shpur hit a leadoff home run to center field. Shpur’s solo shot iced Connecticut’s victory.

“He came in and kept the game within striking distance and gave us a chance to preserve the bullpen while also having a chance to win today’s game ,” Pollard said. “That will come up big for us over the course of this weekend.”

The bullpen finished with five strikeouts and gave six free bases with a handful of walks and a hit batter. Pollard plans to start Jonathan Santucci on Saturday. The junior sustained an injury at the end of the regular season and did not play against North Carolina or in the ACC Tournament.

“Very proud of the way that we played. I thought we defended well. We pitched really well against an incredibly talented hitting team, and we had enough time to hit them,” Penders said. “We took advantage of of mistakes and some freebies that were given to us. They gave us a lot more than we gave them, and we were able to take advantage of just enough.”