DURHAM, N.C. – Jonathan Nicolla went 3-for-3 with a home run and four RBI to lead Duke to a 10-6 win over Hartford Tuesday afternoon at Jack Coombs Field.
The senior designated hitter also scored twice to account for five of 10 runs for the Blue Devils (17-3, 3-3 ACC). Two of Nicolla’s hits went for extra bases, including a two-run homer that was his second of the season. Since earning a spot in Duke’s starting lineup last week, Nicolla has ripped off a six-game hitting streak in which he is batting .450 with two home runs, two doubles and a team-high eight RBI.
Nicolla’s four RBI proved to be the difference, as Hartford (2-4) mounted a late comeback to overcome an 8-0 deficit. Blue Devil left-hander Christopher Manno (2-0) managed to hold the Hawks scoreless over the first five innings before they scored five times in the eighth to come within three runs of tying the score. Duke reliever Michael Ness shut down the rally after coming in with the bases loaded in the ninth and getting the final two outs to pick up his first career save.
Manno was rewarded with the win after surrendering just three hits over five scoreless innings, dropping his ERA to 3.20 on the season. The Blue Devil sophomore struck out six hitters, including three in the third inning, while issuing just one walk. Manno has now struck out a team-high 25 batters this season and is averaging 11.44 strikeouts per nine innings.
Duke’s offense gave Manno an early cushion after staking a 5-0 lead by the end of the fifth inning. The Blue Devils pounded 12 hits in the game, including five doubles and Nicolla’s home run. Sophomore Alex Hassan contributed two RBI in a 2-for-6 outing, while classmate Jeremy Gould added three hits and two runs. Freshman shortstop Jake Lemmerman scored twice and doubled, while cleanup hitter Kyle Kreick went 2-for-4 with a run and an RBI. Freshman outfielder John Bunder also collected his first career base hit while crossing the plate for the first time in his collegiate career.
The Blue Devils, who lead the ACC with a .983 fielding percentage, did not commit an error Tuesday, marking the 11th game in which they have gone without a fault in the field.
Hartford outfielder Drew Sgro drove in three runs for the Hawks, who managed 13 hits but left 11 runners stranded on base. Four Hawks had multiple hits, including Mike Amendola and Adam Bowser, who each went 3-for-5.
Duke knocked Hartford starter Zack Tarner (0-1) out of the game in the fifth inning after managing four runs (three earned) and six hits off of the sophomore right-hander. The Blue Devils were even more relentless against Hawk relievers, scoring their final five runs in the seventh and eighth innings.
Duke punched three hits over the first two innings, including a double from Nicolla to start the second, but could not convert the scoring opportunities into a lead. That changed in the third, however, after Duke scored twice on an RBI double from Kreick and a sacrifice fly from Nicolla. Kreick drove in Duke’s first run with a double to left field, sending in catcher Matt Williams from second after the Blue Devil backstop drew a walk to start the inning. The two-bagger also sent Gould to third after reaching on a Hartford fielding error. Lemmerman then drew a walk to load the bases before Nicolla drove a fly ball to center field that allowed Gould to tag up and score for the 2-0 Duke lead.
Meanwhile, Manno settled into a groove on the mound, surrendering just two hits over the first four innings. The 6-1 southpaw struck out at least one batter in each inning, including three in the third, and racked up six before the start of the fifth inning. Manno continued to cruise through the fifth, giving up the last of his three singles before handing the ball to Ryan Perry at the start of the sixth.
A two-run home run by Nicolla capped a three-run fifth for the Blue Devils that allowed Manno to leave with a 5-0 lead. Duke knocked two more hits off of Tarner to start the inning before the Hawk starter was relieved by right-hander Steve Dabroski. Dabroski inherited a first-and-third situation after a Gould double and a Kreick single put runners at the corners with no outs, and allowed Lemmerman to drive in the first run of the inning with a fielder’s choice ground ball up the middle. The play left Lemmerman on first base with one out, but not for long as Nicolla bombed a 2-2 pitch well over the left field fence for his 11th career long ball.
Perry retired three of four hitters in his first inning and stranded a runner at first thanks to some defensive help from Lemmerman at shortstop. The senior right-hander encountered a jam in the top of the seventh, however, after giving up consecutive singles to Hawk center fielder Bowser and pinch-hitter Andy Drexel. Perry buckled down and got out of the inning unharmed though, after dishing out consecutive strikeouts.
Duke continued to swing the bat well and took advantage of three walks in the bottom of the seventh to put up three more runs on the way to an 8-0 lead. Hartford left-hander John Coury took the mound to start the inning and struggled with his control, walking in a run before giving up a two-run double to Hassan. All three runs came with two outs as Coury retired the first two hitters but followed by giving up a walk to Nicolla and a base hit to freshman John Bunder. After giving out another free pass to second baseman Dennis O'Grady to load the bases, freshman Grant Monroe stepped into the batter’s box as a pinch hitter. The two-way Blue Devil followed by picking up his third RBI of the season after batting back from an 0-2 count to draw an RBI walk. With the bases still loaded, Hassan came to the plate and ripped the second pitch he saw to left field for a two-run double, giving Duke an 8-0 lead.
The Hawks finally got on the board in the eighth and cut the deficit to 8-5 after stringing together a walk and three consecutive doubles as part of a five-run inning. A pair of wild pitches kept the inning alive, as the first allowed leadoff man Ben Sobocinski to move from first to third while the second allowed Sobocinski to score and infielder Bill Perry to reach first even after striking out swinging. Amendola, Sgro and Bowser then ripped off three straight doubles to send in four runs, while nine-hole hitter Jason Freethy capped the offensive outburst with an RBI single.
Duke took back two of the runs to go ahead 10-6 in the bottom of the eighth thanks to an RBI single from Nicolla and a bases loaded walk drawn by Ryan McCurdy. Nicolla’s base knock sent in Kreick, who drew a leadoff walk, while McCurdy’s base on balls scored Lemmerman after the freshman doubled earlier in the inning.
With a seeming comfortable five-run lead in hand at 10-5, Duke needed just three more outs to lock up the victory. Hartford made the Blue Devils work for each one of those outs, however, after loading the bases in the ninth with one out. The pressure situation forced Duke to send Ness to the mound to stop the potential rally. Ness’ first at bat did not go as planned, as Sgro worked a 2-2 count by fouling off four straight pitches before taking Ness’ next pitch the other way for an RBI single. The RBI single would be the last run for Hartford, however, as Ness proceeded to strike out Bowser before rolling a grounder to Lemmerman for the final out of the inning.
The teams will continue the series tomorrow, March 18, at 2 p.m. at Jack Coombs Field. The game was originally slated for 3 p.m., but will be played an hour ahead of schedule due to the potential of rain later in the afternoon.