Duke softball overcomes rocky start, beats Missouri in Game 1 of NCAA Super Regionals

After both Duke and Missouri struggled to adjust to a small, inconsistent strike zone in Friday’s NCAA softball Super Regional game, Cassidy Curd arrived to calm things down.

The sophomore left-handed pitcher hurled 5 1/3 innings of hitless relief for the visiting Blue Devils, who posted a 6-3 win over Missouri in the first game of their best-of-three series.

“Really excited and proud of this team to make another first step in program history, winning our first [game] at a Super Regional,” said Duke head coach Marissa Young. “Mizzou’s a tough team. They’re really resilient, and playing in this environment was great for us. Just loved to see the way the team competed and did so many good things throughout the game.”

Seeded No. 10 nationally, Duke (51-6) is one win away from earning its first trip to the Women’s College World Series. The Blue Devils need a win in Saturday’s game two, at 1 p.m., or Sunday to advance.

Both Duke and No. 7 Missouri rank in the top 10 for earned run average, each allowing fewer than two runs per game.

Right-handed pitcher Jala Wright started in the circle for Duke and went 1 2/3 innings, her shortest appearance of the season. She allowed three runs, four hits, had one wild pitch and only two strikeouts.

Young said the strike zone was not in Wright’s favor from the beginning, and the staff could tell Missouri focused on preparing for the senior’s drop-ball pitches.

Curd, who throws more up in the zone, entered in the bottom of the second. She sat down 11 straight batters and notched eight strikeouts. She hit one batter with a pitch and walked another, but they were the only Missouri players to reach base against her.

“Throughout this year, I’ve done a lot of trying to be perfect on the field and that’s not how I play my best,” Curd said. “[Young] gave me the freedom to just play fearless, play free and go in there and throw my best stuff.

“Being able to play with that confidence and know that no matter what happens, I have a phenomenal team to back me up, it was really easy to pitch my best.”

Having displayed better offense than No. 7 nationally seeded Missouri (47-17) this season, Duke expected to utilize that edge, and that’s how the game played out.

Laurin Krings threw 42/3 innings for the Tigers. She gave up five runs, seven hits, two walks and two strikeouts. The Tigers replaced Krings with Marissa McCann. McCann allowed one run, two hits and added a strikeout.

Duke designated hitter Francesca Frelick started a scoring rally in the top of the second inning with a home run that also drove in catcher Kelly Torres. The Blue Devils added another run when center fielder D’Auna Jennings hit an RBI triple that brought home Amiah Burgess for a 3-1 lead.

With the score tied 3-3, Duke added two runs in the fifth inning on three hits. ACC Player of the Year Claire Davidson began the second rally of the day, hitting a single to center field. She scored the go-ahead run, traveling from first to home, thanks to Vega’s double and a bobble by Missouri. Duke added a fifth run when pinch runner Aleyah Terrell scored off Tapia’s base hit.

In the top of the seventh, with runners at first and third with two outs, Duke third baseman Ana Gold scampered between first and second base, getting herself into a purposeful pickle, giving Jennings enough time to cross home plate for an insurance run.

Duke’s early performance on defense didn’t help Wright’s pitching struggles, with the first few innings being best described as sloppy.

In the bottom of the first, Gold committed an error on a throw from third to first base and allowed Missouri’s Alex Hannold to reach scoring position. Hannold scored when Maddie Gallagher singled through the right side; a ball that second baseman Aminah Vega was left to field herself, with no attempt from first baseman Gisele Tapia.

Things weren’t much better in the second inning, even after Duke had taken a 3-1 lead. Wright gave up two walks, and the defense made additional mental errors. Gold left the third base bag, a decision that allowed a runner to steal third. One play later, Vega threw to first base on a groundout instead of making the throw home. That decision recorded an out but allowed the tying run to score.

Duke ranked No. 22 in fielding percentage (.975) before the game. That number will drop after fielding with 93.1% accuracy. It did not commit any other significant errors or miscues in the final five frames.

“Our team is really good about not getting down on ourselves,” Frelick said. “They scored early, and we know our bats are hot and our pitchers are hot. I think we had all the confidence in the world that we were gonna get those runs back.”