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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

Irish baseball opens March with trip to Birmingham

The Notre Dame baseball caravan is preparing for its next stop in the Heart of Dixie. This weekend, the Irish (3-3) will play their third consecutive road series at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (3-5). Notre Dame and UAB last met on the opening weekend of the truncated 2020 season. In that series, the Irish took two of the three games, extending their all-time head-to-head lead to 3-1.

Notre Dame looks to gain confidence from commitment

With head coach Shawn Stiffler’s new regime in place, the Irish have battled through some growing pains early on. Even so, the players remain invested in the team’s system. The offense is still developing its identity in the wake of last year’s home-run happy run to Omaha. Evidenced by a .163 batting average and .247 slugging percentage, Notre Dame’s hits have been hard to come by. However, the lineup has made up for it with timeliness. Junior catcher Danny Neri stole the show in that regard last weekend. His go-ahead dinger Friday and two-run single Sunday helped turn another largely quiet offensive series into two big wins.

“Anytime you can do anything that helps your team out, it’s definitely a confidence-booster,” Neri said. “You’re always gonna need guys from the top of the lineup to the bottom who are gonna step up in big situations.”

Through two weekends, Neri leads the Irish in RBI (five), slugging (.538) and OPS (.913). Notre Dame’s pitching staff is battling for consistency as well. After losing several arms to the offseason transfer portal, the Irish currently hold a 4.41 earned run average. The hurlers took a big step in Sunday’s win, bouncing back from a 12-0 loss to allow just four runs. For junior pitcher Matt Bedford, the change came down to short-term memory. He tossed three vital scoreless innings during the middle part of game three, allowing Notre Dame’s offense to build a cushion.

“The first thing Coach Stiffler said to us in the Sunday meeting was ‘the beautiful thing about our game is we get to wake up and do it again today.’ We put [Saturday] behind us and got back after it,” Bedford said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys that are capable of a lot of different things, and I’m just excited to see our best work.”

Along with graduate southpaw Aidan Tyrell, Bedford is one of two Irish pitchers with at least five innings of earned run-free baseball. Look for sophomore arm Radek Birkholz to ride the wave of momentum going forward. He opened the UNCG series with three scoreless innings and will do his best to put Notre Dame in the driver’s seat the rest of the season.

Small ball, close wins keeping Blazers on track

Through its first eight games, UAB has become well-acquainted with the nail-biter. Six of those contests were decided by two runs or less. Like Notre Dame, the Blazers sandwiched a lopsided loss between two dramatic wins against Murray State. They played again Tuesday, coming out on the wrong end of an 8-7 battle with Troy. All three UAB victories have been tight, and the winning formula has been largely the same each time. Despite recording no more than five hits in any of the three, the Blazers scored early and pitched well late.

UAB’s offense doesn’t jump off the page, but a few players have started particularly strong. Christian Hall, who slashed .370/.443/.614 last year, leads the team RBIs and has their only home run. To complement him, Darryl Buggs has been an on-base machine. He currently carries a five-game hitting streak and a batting average just below .400. Overall, UAB has struggled to a combined OPS around .600, but the Irish won’t let their guard down.

“What stood out to us at practice is that they have guys we highlighted on the report with speed,” Bedford noted. “Coach Voltz hinted at being on top of our bunt defenses because the guys at the top and bottom of their order — with their speed — can get on and cause some traffic with bunts.”

Notre Dame can expect to face two strong starting pitchers in Birmingham. Blayze Berry has conquered five innings in each of his first two starts, working his way to a 2.70 ERA. The East Mississippi Community College transfer has a stellar 11-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio and should present a tough test for the Irish offense. Carson Myers should get the ball Saturday. In two starts, he has tossed a total of eight innings with 10 punchouts for an ERA of 3.38. Sunday arm Brooks Walton has a 6.00 ERA but allowed just two runs in 5.2 innings last week. Despite a team ERA of just over six, the Blazers have the high-end starters and bullpen pieces to give the Irish trouble.

The right time to get hot

For both teams, the series will serve as a key segue to the upcoming schedule. UAB faces a tough stretch ahead with Auburn and Michigan slated to follow the Irish. Meanwhile, Notre Dame will open up ACC play at Georgia Tech next weekend. The Irish haven’t lost their first conference series in five years, and a strong effort at UAB can set them up well to extend the streak.

“You want to come into conference play winning and feeling good, especially because the ACC is a really tough stretch of games,” Neri said. “I think we can get that done this weekend.”

First pitch times for the weekend series at Young Memorial Field are 5 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m Sunday.