Rothenberg’s walk-off homer sends Duke to ACC Tournament semifinal

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(Courtesy of Duke Athletics)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WNCN) – Duke catcher Michael Rothenberg came through with a walk-off home run in the ninth inning to beat fourth-seeded Miami 3-2 and send the Blue Devils to the semifinals of the ACC Tournament.

“It’s been a different guy every day and that’s what’s good about our team — we have a deep line-up,” Rothenberg said. “A lot of guys on the mound get it done for us on any given night, and just to be able to come through for my team there was a really, really, really special moment for me.

Unlike the video game type numbers Duke put up Wednesday against FSU, Miami was a battle. Hurricanes starting pitcher Jake Smith held the Blue Devils in check by throwing five innings of shutout baseball and striking out six.

Down by two, Duke finally cracked the scoreboard in the seventh with three consecutive hits. Rj Schreck set the table with a single. Peter Matt followed with a double before Rothenberg’s 2 RBI single tied the game at 2-2.

“We’ve won 10 in a row and it’s not from just getting a lead to start and just riding it out. You know, we’ve had to win games like this before. Chase (Cheek) did it down in Clemson. That’s the thing about this team — we’ve won a lot in the past,” Rothenberg said. “We are a very veteran team and we know how to get it done. Coach talks a lot about winning whatever game ends up coming to play whether it’s a high offensive game or a low-scoring game.”

“What I like is that our team has developed some patience offensively. Yesterday, it was the ability to jump out and throw a big punch early and then ride that momentum, and that’s something we have done well all year,” said Duke head coach Chris Pollard. “We have been pretty good at jumping on people early when we are good, but what we haven’t been good at it as having to wait out a pitcher. To have to fall behind and then wait, wait, wait and find a time, find an opening to score some runs, and that’s what I’ve been really pleased with the development of this team down the stretch.”

What did continue from Wednesday was the Blue Devils’ stellar pitching. Jack Carey started for Duke going six strong innings scattering four hits, striking out eight Hurricanes, and giving up just one earned run.

“We got a step-up performance from (Billy) Seidl and we got a step up performance from Jack Carey, who has been doing that for us the entire second half of the season,” Pollard said. “He has been a true Friday night guy. I know we’re not playing on Friday night, but he’s been a true Friday night guy for us over the second half of this season and he did it again today.”

Marcus Johnson, who wrapped up Wednesday’s win over FSU, came on to finish things Thursday, as well. He threw three innings of shutout baseball to finish Miami.

“We put him in there for an inning yesterday intentionally. He is better on Day 2. His stuff is more alive and he feels better,” Pollard said. “Probably a lot of people scratch their head why you put your closer in a game that’s pretty lopsided when you have to win a tournament, but we felt like with a day off (Friday) it would make him better today if he went in there and got an inning.”

Something else that carried over was Rothenberg’s red-hot bat. After going 2-for-3 with a grand slam, triple, and four RBI against FSU, he followed it Thursday by going 2-for-4 with 3 RBI and the game-winning, walk-off home run against Miami reliever Carson Palmquist.

“I remember facing Palmquist back when we were in Miami and he pounded me in the whole day,” said Rothenberg. “He started me off with a change-up and a slider, and then he went fastball way off the plate. I honestly just cheated in, and luckily he threw me a pitch that was up in the zone and I was able to get a good piece of it.”

“It couldn’t happen for a better person. You have a south Florida guy who has grown up playing with a bunch of those kids from Miami. When the (MLB) draft was shortened last year and Mike Rothenberg didn’t go in the draft, it was a really difficult time for him,” Pollard said.

“He really wrestled with whether or not sign as a free agent and start his professional career. He had a lot of people telling him he should. To his credit, and to his mom and dad’s credit, they really value this Duke experience — not just the Duke education, but the entire experience he’s had here. I told him just standing here in the hallway a minute ago, I said that moment is great validation for why you came back.”

It’s tough enough to make the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. It’s even sweeter doing it by taking down perennial power Florida State and knocking off a Miami team that swept Duke during the regular season.

“Something we are all really proud of. In my four years here, we haven’t been to the semifinals of the ACC Tournament yet and to make that jump was big for us,” Rothenberg said. “You know, to solidify our spot in the regionals was also really important. These last two days have been awesome. We have more momentum than anyone in the country and we just hope to keep doing the same Saturday.”

The Blue Devils’ next game will be Saturday at 1 p.m. They will face the winner of No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 8 Virginia. First pitch is set for 11 a.m.

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