MORGANTOWN -- Tournament baseball, especially this tournament, can often produce unexpected results.
The Morgantown Regional of this year's NCAA tournament has done exactly that through its first two days, with No. 3 regional seed Duke -- one of the last at-large teams to get into the tournament -- marching through Monongalia County Ballpark unbeaten and one win from a return trip to the Super Regionals.
The Blue Devils got to this point by getting past two of the nation's premier pitchers in Texas A&M's John Doxakis and West Virginia's Alek Manoah on the tournament's first two days.
Duke coach Chris Pollard said his team was fortunate to get four runs off Manoah, the 2019 Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, on Saturday.
"I love him, I love guys that pitch with passion," Pollard said. "I love guys that pitch with intensity. The young man is going to have a great big-league career and a long big-league career. He’s got the body for it, and he’s got a great fastball. The thing that was surprising to me was his breaking ball was better than I thought it would be. He could glove strike it when he needed to, he got a couple of backwards K’s on it where our guys were gearing up for the fastball. That pitch started out of the zone and winds up in the zone. He’s also got the ability to start that slider in the zone. He also threw some really good change-ups, he froze our eight-hole guy [freshman outfielder R.J.] Schreck on a change-up. He was as good as advertised, he really was. It’s pretty neat because we knew this was going to be a pitching dominated regional, and we’ve seen two guys back-to-back in Doxakis and now Manoah that are All-Americans that are going to pitch in the big leagues, so great experience for our guys."
Now, Duke gets to sit back and watch as the Aggies and Mountaineers battle in an elimination game at noon Sunday. The winner of that game will have to beat the Blue Devils twice win the region.
Last season, Duke opened the NCAA tournament with a loss before battling back from the elimination bracket to knock off region host Georgia before pushing Texas Tech to a third game in the Super Regional.
Speaking of the Blue Devils' trip to Lubbock for last season's Super Regional...
"I said after we got back from the Super Regional last year that I thought Lubbock was the most difficult environment I’d ever been in college baseball, and tonight was more difficult," Pollard said after his Blue Devils beat WVU on Saturday. "It was a really electric environment, credit to the fans in Morgantown and credit to the job West Virginia has done to create so much excitement around their program that you had that type of atmosphere in the stands tonight."
The environment in Morgantown was especially electric when West Virgnia coach Randy Mazey was ejected in the third inning. Manoah had thrown out a Duke player at the plate for a force out with the bases loaded, but after an umpire's review the ruling was reversed and the Blue Devils were awarded a run. Mazey went ballistic and was immediately kicked out.
"Honestly, I thought when the play happened, [sophomore infielder Joey] Loperfido was out," Pollard said. "But I thought it was close enough. The way replay works, any play at the plate is not charged to the team or coach. You have two times you can kind of throw the flag, so to speak, or initiate a challenge. But any time there is a play at the plate, that is an automatic review if requested. So I felt like, even though it appeared from my angle that Loperfido was out, I felt like we had nothing to lose by sending that to challenge. So, we kind of just took a chance and we got the overturn."
After the long delay caused by first the replay then Mazey's ejection, Duke's Chris Crabtree turned around the first pitch he saw from Manoah for a run-scoring single back up the middle. Pollard said he had a hunch Manoah was going to come off the break with a fastball, and he was right.
"I told [sophomore infielder] Chris Crabtree during the long delay, just be fastball ready coming out of this break," Pollard said. "And he did a great job of being on time with it. That separation was big because had we not pushed those two across, now every time West Virginia gets a guy on, the tying run is standing at the plate. With this crowd tonight, that would have been an even tougher for our kids to try and push through."
Duke starting pitcher Bryce Jarvis threw perhaps the best game of his career Saturday against the Mountaineers, shutting down the WVU lineup for eight innings while striking out 11 batters and issuing just one walk.
West Virginia players said after the game that Jarvis, a sophomore, was good at mixing in a changeup Saturday and effectively throwing good pitches to both right and left-handed batters.
"Off-speed has been a big part of my game this year, and I’m looking to improve on it from last year, and change-ups have been my favorite pitch for a long time," Jarvis said. "I think that’s the best it has felt all season and that was just a big key in being able to keep guys off balance, just mixing that with a fastball and also mixing some sliders in was, I think, the key to keeping guys off balance."
Pollard said Jarvis' performance was the key to Duke's win.
"I thought the difference in the ball game was the composure and poise our kids showed in the way we competed," Pollard said."That starts and ends wiith Bryce Jarvis and the job he did on the mound. One of the best, if not the best, jobs I’ve ever seen of just managing the moment and not letting everything else going on around you affect your ability to perform. We said before the game, and we go over our pregame notes one more time right after we run, about 10 minutes before the first pitch, I tell our guys, let it all be white noise, let all that noise be white noise and use it to stay in your process and use it to be in the moment. Bryce was a perfect example of that and he pitched a perfect game tonight."