MORGANTOWN — It did not take long for the first surprise in this weekend’s NCAA baseball tournament Morgantown Regional.
No. 3 regional seed Duke, behind a strong game from starting pitcher Ben Gross and some timely home runs, beat No. 2 seed Texas A&M 8-5 on Friday in the first NCAA baseball tournament game played in Morgantown since 1955..
Both Gross, a senior for the Blue Devils, and Texas A&M starter John Doxakis got off to good starts.
Gross did, however, have to pitch out of a jam in the first when A&M shortstop Braden Shewmake singled in the game’s first at-bat followed by a walk issued to second baseman Bryce Blaum. A sacrifice bunt by designated hitter Cam Blake moved the runners to second and third with one out before Gross got consecutive strikeouts to end the inning unscathed.
“It was just one pitch at a time,” Gross said. “You can’t look ahead to ‘what if this happens’ or ‘what if that happens.’ It was just execute pitch one, then go from there. Execute pitch two, and then strike out the first guy, and then from there. It was just do the exact same thing over and over again.”
Doxakis was as good, if not better, than Gross through the first three innings but ran into trouble in the fourth.
Duke catcher Michael Rothenberg and left fielder Kyle Gallagher both reached on singles with one out before Blue Devils third baseman Erikson Nichols parked a Doxakis pitch on the other side of the left field wall for a three-run home run. Duke designated hitter Chris Crabtree later doubled and scored on an RBI by right fielder R.J. Schreck.
The Aggies got one back in the fifth inning when first baseman Hunter Coleman led off with a double and scored on a Shewmake sacrifice fly later in the inning.
Gross went seven innings Friday for Duke, allowing one run on four hits with five strikeouts and two walks. Doxakis lasted seven innings for the Aggies, allowing four runs on six hits to go with no walks and nine strikeouts.
“[Doxakis] has been our unquestioned leader all year long and will continue to be,” Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said. “He got off to a great start first time through the lineup, and like I said, [he] made a few mistakes and left some balls up over the plate and they capitalized on them. If it was three singles, minimize the damage. But the big, crushing blow was the home run.”
Once he was out of the game in the eighth, it was back to work for the Blue Devil offense.
Rothernberg reached on a double before pinch hitter Rudy Maxwell hit a three-run home run to put Duke ahead 8-1.
A&M rallied in the bottom of the ninth with four runs, thanks in large part to poor pitching from the Blue Devil bullpen, and at one point had the tying run at the plate but could not complete the comeback.
“I’m incredibly proud of our club,” Duke coach Chirs Pollard said. “I thought we had a tremendous offensive approach against one of the best arms in the country. We kept our foot on the gas pedal after we had the big four-run inning. We were able to create some separation, and the job by Ben Gross was tremendous. I can’t say enough about it.”
Duke moves on in the winners bracket to take on host West Virginia at 7 p.m. Saturday. Texas A&M faces Fordham in an elimination game at 2 p.m. Saturday.