ATHENS — A couple of baseball rarities occurred at Georgia’s Foley Field on Monday. The Bulldogs failed to advance out of their own NCAA regional and Duke won it.
The Bulldogs entered this postseason a perfect 4 for 4 in getting to the super regional after hosting first-round games in their ballpark. That ended on Monday when Georgia dropped back-to-back home games to the Blue Devils, 8-5 in the first game and 8-4 in the win-or-go-home finale. Before that, UGA was 25-9 on its home field this season.
“It’s extremely disappointing to be in the position we were in and not be able to advance,” said Georgia’s fifth-year coach Scott Stricklin. “The more you accomplish, the more it hurts when it ends.”
As for Duke, the elimination-game win against Campbell on Saturday night was the school’s first in the NCAA Tournament in 57 years. The Blue Devils also advanced to the College World Series, such as it was, that same year (1961).
“I’m kind of at a loss for words,” said Chris Pollard, Duke’s coach for the last six years. “To say I’m proud of our team would be the biggest understatement I’ve ever made.”
It was looking good for Georgia (39-21), the No. 8 national seed coming in. Having reached the finals unscathed, the Bulldogs knew Duke (44-16) would have to beat them twice. What they couldn’t be sure of is how well the Blue Devils play with their proverbial backs against the wall.
After falling behind 8-1 to Campbell in the sixth inning Saturday, Duke piled up more than 50 hits and scored 46 runs thereafter. That included an 11-run ninth inning to oust the Camels, a 15-6, 22-hit win against Troy, and Monday’s pair of victories.
Leading the way for the Blue Devils was Griffin Conine. The son of 17-year major-leaguer Jeff Conine swung the bat like his father. He had 3 home runs on the day, giving the All-ACC right-fielder 18 on the season. What’s more, he started the tournament 0 for 9 with 7 strikeouts.
But as much as it was about the Blue Devils’ bats, it was also about Georgia’s. The middle of the Bulldogs’ order, which had done so much damage throughout the tournament, was anemic on Monday. Golden Spikes Award candidate Keegan McGovern went 0 for 7 on the day, ending in an inning in 7 of his 8 plate appearances in his last collegiate game.
“I think that’s what makes this so hard to take; I didn’t do what I was supposed to do for my team,” said McGovern, who led the Bulldogs in batting average (.322), home runs (18) and slugging percentage (.644).
The senior left fielder and sophomore infielder Aaron Schunk accompanied Stricklin to the postgame news conference, and their emotions were evident. They were late in arriving, and both players’ eyes were blood red. Schunk’s nose was purple and swollen with a deep gash across the bridge, and both eyes were black from breaking it on a railing diving for a foul ball on Sunday.
“We made it a long way, but we knew we had a special team,” said Schunk, who served the Bulldogs as both third baseman and closer. “As a competitor, you always want what’s next, the next game, the next week. … The only thing I could say to the guys was we have unfinished business next year.”
Georgia had plenty of opportunities to keep its season alive, but Duke’s pitching always seemed to come through. The hero of the day was senior left-hander Mitch Stallings. He threw 185 pitches the last two days for the Blue Devils, including 114 in getting the win in the clincher Monday. The middle of Georgia’s batting order was 1 for 11 against him.
“That’s something I pride myself on,” Stallings said of throwing so many pitches. “We felt like we had a really good plan for McGovern and all their guys really. Luckily he missed that last fast ball.”
As abrupt and disappointing as the ending was, the Bulldogs exceeded expectations this season. They were picked to finish fifth in the SEC East in the preseason poll and instead finished with the second-best conference record in the nation’s toughest baseball league. They lose five seniors but the rest of the team returns next year.
“I can’t be more proud of what these kids accomplished,” Stricklin said. “It’s hard for it to end, but I’m proud of them and I’m proud of what we’ve all accomplished and we’re ready to move forward. We’ve built this program and we built it the right way and now it’s built to last.”