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Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Observer

Irish baseball at bat to get back on track against Louisville

Notre Dame baseball is heading into a weekend of heated ACC play at home against No. 6 Louisville. The Irish enter the game with a respectable 10-8 overall record, but a less-than-stellar 2-4 conference mark. The Cardinals will come to South Bend with a dominating 18-2 season record, starting 2-1 in the ACC. For a team with high expectations after last year’s College World Series run, this weekend has definitely been circled in the Irish clubhouse for some time.

The Irish started off their season entirely on the road as they combatted the gloomy South Bend weather. This series will represent their first in Frank Eck Stadium, though the Irish played their home opener earlier this week against Valparaiso in a one-off match. Notre Dame defeated the Beacons 8-4, dropping them to 7-7. 

Valparaiso struck initially in the first and third innings, going up 2-0 while the Irish remained without a hit. Graduate infielder Zack Prajzner answered in the bottom of the third, launching a moonshot to deep left field for both his first long ball of the year and the first of the season at Frank Eck Stadium. In the fourth, with runners in scoring position, graduate outfielder Jack Zyska homered to left and gave the Irish a 4-2 advantage. Head coach Shawn Stiffler noted that the sequence was what the Irish were looking for, with multiple quality at-bats setting up an Irish homer.

“Our identity is going to be stringing those at-bats together,” he described. “It's going to be more on [having] good at-bat after good at-bat.” 

The Beacon bats went silent after tying it up 4-4 in the seventh. In the bottom of that inning, Zack Prajzner came home on graduate infielder Carter Putz’s single. Putz and sophomore infielder Jack Penney scored later in the inning on a bases-loaded single from graduate catcher-outfielder Nick Juaire. Zyska stole home on a designed play later in the inning, stretching the lead to 8-4. The Beacons went scoreless in the final two innings, giving the Irish an emphatic win.

Irish freshman David Lally Jr. made the start, pitching 2.1 innings and giving up a respectable five hits and two earned runs across 10 at-bats. Graduate transfer Carter Bosch followed, pitching 3.2 dazzling innings in the middle of the game. He allowed only two hits, one walk, no runs and dealing six strikeouts. Junior Sammy Cooper closed out the game with three innings pitched, allowing two hits for two earned runs. He recorded a singular strikeout. 

The Irish hope to utilize the momentum from the Valparaiso game and the experiences they have had against strong conference teams such as No. 2 Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. Thus far, they have struggled to put up consistent performances in ACC play and outside it. Coach Stiffler is preaching patience.

“Playing the teams we do — it leads to toughness to get a streak going,” he emphasized. “I’m hoping that the fact that we’ve been pitching a little bit better and that we’ve been at home will lead us to perhaps getting a little bit more rhythm in the season.“

Stiffler also hopes that pitching similar to the dazzling performance sophomore left-hander Jack Findlay put up in the Irish win against Wake Forest can carry them to victories against tough ACC teams, including Louisville this weekend. 

Stiffler wants his team to think about the margins — the little things that could decide the fate of a close match — as they enter a series against the sixth-ranked team in the nation. After a weekend where seven of the 19 runs the Irish conceded were unearned, Stiffler is preaching not giving teams extra opportunities or second chances by making uncharacteristic mistakes. Errors against Wake such as failing to catch the baseball, errors that are not characteristic of such a strong defensive team, may lose the Irish these games in the gauntlet of ACC play. 

The Irish have proven they have the talent to defeat top teams and will look to prove that point when they finally get to play a series at home against Louisville. Coach Stiffler and his players will certainly have a chip on their shoulders as the Cardinals head up to frigid South Bend in a heavyweight ACC series. If the Irish are serious about repeating their tournament success last year, the campaign needs to begin now. Friday’s and Saturday’s games will be at 3 p.m., and Sunday’s at 1 p.m. The first will be streamable on the ACC Network, followed by the final two on ACC Network Extra.