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Pitching rules as Virginia softball rolls past Duke to take the series

The Cavaliers took two out of three from No. 3 Duke to upset the Blue Devils on the road

<p>The Cavaliers fell in the series opener Friday, but recovered with a pair of wins Saturday to leave Durham with a huge series victory.</p>

The Cavaliers fell in the series opener Friday, but recovered with a pair of wins Saturday to leave Durham with a huge series victory.

After a Commonwealth Clash loss to Virginia Tech Tuesday, and a devastating 12-inning loss Friday, Virginia managed two one-run victories Saturday to take two of three games against Duke in Durham, N.C. The Cavaliers (30-15, 13-8 ACC) had won just one game in 13 prior matchups against the No. 3 Blue Devils (39-6, 17-4 ACC), who had not lost a series in 2024 until facing Virginia. 

Game 1 — Virginia 0, Duke 1

As expected, the first game of the series was a duel between dominant pitching staffs. Both squads sent their aces out to open the game. Duke started with senior pitcher Jala Wright, the ACC’s overall ERA leader and the best pitcher in the conference by nearly every statistic. Virginia sent out sophomore pitcher Eden Bigham, two-time ACC Pitcher of the Week. 

After Wright retired the Cavaliers in order, Bigham ran into trouble early, hitting the first batter and walking the next. After forcing a popout, Bigham allowed a single to load the bases with one out. The Blue Devils could not capitalize, however, as Bigham struck out the next two batters to end the inning. 

The second inning passed without incident, and in the bottom of the third inning Bigham once again worked her way out of a bases-loaded, one-out situation. Although she frequently allowed runners to reach base via the walk, Duke’s inability to make contact prevented them from taking advantage. 

The Virginia offense remained stagnant in the meantime — no runners reached third base before the sixth inning, when the Cavaliers finally appeared primed to open the scoring. A walk by sophomore infielder Jade Hylton and a series of defensive miscues by the Blue Devils put runners on second and third with two outs. Wright refused to bend, however, striking out junior utility player Sarah Coon on three pitches. 

Bigham and Wright cruised through the regulation seven innings and moved into extras. Bigham escaped jams in the eighth and ninth to keep the game scoreless, but the offense could not back up Bigham’s stellar performance. In the tenth inning, Coach Joanna Hardin was forced to make a move to the bullpen, as Bigham had thrown a mind-boggling 181 pitches through nine innings. Bigham exited the game having allowed six hits and six walks but zero runs. Senior pitcher Madison Harris then entered the game, allowing a walk and a single but recording three successive outs to end the tenth inning. 

Virginia quickly threatened in the top of the twelfth with a one-out double from junior utility player Kelly Ayer. Wright was unshakeable, inducing a groundout and a flyout on two pitches — she threw just five pitches to four batters in the inning. However, the Blue Devils finally broke through as the Cavaliers’ defensive prowess collapsed. After a quick first out, Harris allowed a single and a walk to put two runners on. Sophomore infielder Jada Baker came up to the plate for Duke in a sacrifice situation, and she dropped down a bunt to the right side. The throw to first base from Harris was offline, allowing the game’s first and only run to score and giving Duke a walk-off, 12-inning win. 

Game 2 — Virginia 4, Duke 3

The aces were unavailable for the first of two games Saturday afternoon, but deep pitching staffs for both squads signaled the inevitability of another low-scoring affair. Mercifully, the scoring began seven innings earlier than the first game of the series, as the Blue Devils broke through in the third inning thanks to a triple from senior catcher Kelly Torres and an ensuing sacrifice fly to take a one-run lead.

Virginia quickly rose to the challenge, starting the fourth inning by ripping three singles to load the bases. With no outs, the Blue Devils went to the bullpen, relieving sophomore pitcher Sophie Garner-MacKinnon of her duties after she threw three scoreless innings to open the game. Senior pitcher Lillie Walker, the third-ranked pitcher in the ACC by ERA, entered the game for Duke and got two quick outs, with both runners getting out at the plate. But Hylton stepped in with a chance to break the game open and did not disappoint, blasting a grand slam to put the Cavaliers on top by three. 

Harris, who started the game for Virginia, rolled through the fourth inning and appeared solid to start the fifth, but defensive breakdowns began to plague the Cavaliers, allowing runners to reach base and advance to second and third. Despite inducing weak contact, Harris was relieved by sophomore pitcher Courtney Layne. It was a similar story for the sophomore, as she forced weak contact but allowed two sacrifice flies as the Blue Devils sliced Virginia’s lead to just one run.

After the Cavaliers failed to score in the top of the seventh, Duke opened the bottom half with a leadoff single. Bigham entered the game looking to seal the Virginia victory, but after notching the first out, she hit the next batter to put the winning run on first base. After an eight-pitch battle, Bigham allowed a single to load the bases. Now in a dangerous situation, Bigham forced a ground ball to third base that resulted in a double play, ending the threat and the game. Despite adding some stress into the mix, Bigham picked up the save and Virginia evened the series at one win apiece. 

Game 3 — Virginia 3, Duke 2

A major tiebreaker beckoned that same Saturday afternoon. The Cavaliers sent senior pitcher Mikayla Houge to the circle, opposing sophomore pitcher Cassidy Curd, the second-ranked pitcher in the ACC by ERA. The Virginia pitching staff dominated this matchup, as Houge held the Blue Devils scoreless for the first five innings. 

For the Cavaliers, the offense reappeared in the third inning. Sophomore infielder Kelsey Hackett singled to open the frame, and following two quick outs recorded by Curd, Hylton came up to the plate with yet another opportunity to give Virginia the lead. Once again, Hylton hit a two-out home run to give the Cavaliers the lead. In the fourth inning, Hackett extended the lead to three runs with an RBI single. 

It came down to the Virginia pitching staff to hold the lead, but after five shutout innings, Houge finally ran into trouble in the sixth. A Torres single was followed by a triple by sophomore infielder Aminah Vega, scoring a run for the Blue Devils. Another single drove in Vega to cut the Cavaliers’ lead to one run. Harris entered the game to stop the bleeding, quickly ending the inning on a flyout. 

Harris stayed in for the seventh inning, looking to earn the save, and she had no trouble locking down the Duke offense. Virginia ended up taking home their second one-run victory of the day, sweeping the double header to win the series against the No. 3 team in the country. 

An incredible performance on the road against the top team in the ACC will undoubtedly boost the Cavaliers’ reputation nationally and could push Virginia up the ACC standings. Hardin praised the Cavaliers’ all-around team performance and noted the importance of such an accomplishment.

“It was a full team effort today,” Hardin said. “I’m proud of them playing three games [against] an extremely competitive team in less than 24 hours and not once did they falter or back down. I am overwhelmed with pride and gratefulness that I get to coach these players and be a part of their team and what they’re doing.”

Virginia certainly continues to perform as it approaches the end of the regular season. The Cavaliers will be back in action with a rematch against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg at 7 p.m. Tuesday, with coverage available on ACC Network. That game will be followed by a season-concluding series on the road against Georgia Tech over the weekend, which will begin Friday at 6 p.m.


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