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Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024
The Observer

Irish baseball ready for ACC opener in Atlanta

For Notre Dame baseball, the long grind of conference play begins this weekend. The Irish (5-4) will visit Georgia Tech (11-2) for the first time in four years to kick off the 30-game slate. Though Notre Dame never played dominant baseball through its first three series, head coach Shawn Stiffler is not too worried with plenty of season left.

“Obviously, I would like to be a few more games on the plus side than where we are right now,” Stiffler said. “I’m not discouraged or anything like that, playing as many new guys as we’re playing right now and I don’t think I’m completely surprised.”

Irish seeking depth at the dish

Three weeks into the season, a sharp cutoff has emerged within Notre Dame’s offense. Junior catcher Danny Neri continues to turn heads in his first full season as the starting backstop. In seven games played, he leads the team in total bases (16), home runs (2), RBI (8) and OPS (1.179). Last week, Neri turned in another sizable effort, collecting four hits and three RBI.

“I’m really happy for Danny because he works extremely hard and, to be honest with you, we’ve always had a ton of confidence in him and seen that potential in him,” Stiffler said. “The tough part is he plays such a rigorous position and it’s tough to play that position every day, especially early in the season. We’ve gotta continue to monitor his workload so that we can make sure we have him down the stretch.”

Two of Notre Dame’s most experienced bats are coming alive as well. Graduate student infielder Zack Prajzner and outfielder Brooks Coetzee III are each hitting .267 and carry respective OPSs of .736 and .817. Like Neri, Prajzner earned four hits at UAB, while Coetzee grabbed two extra-base hits and drove in a pair of runs. Graduate student catcher and outfielder Nick Juaire has played a comparatively smaller sample size (11 at-bats) but holds an impressive .462 on-base percentage.

Behind those four, the Irish offense is still a work in progress. With graduate student outfielder Jack Zyska sidelined by a shoulder injury, Notre Dame currently bottoms out the ACC in team batting average (.179) and OPS (.579). According to Stiffler, Zyska is clear to play but will return when he feels ready to do so. In the meantime, the Irish could use more from graduate student infielder Carter Putz, whose current OPS is less than half of what it was a season ago. Given Putz’s history, Stiffler trusts that his numbers will even out over time. Among the remaining pool of slow-starting hitters, freshman infielder Estevan Moreno flashed some potential last week. With the help of his first collegiate homer, he drove in a team-high five runs in Birmingham, Ala.

Big bats guiding GT through pitching struggles

Georgia Tech can hit. By both batting average and OPS, the Yellow Jackets have three of the top 30 hitters in the conference. Two-way sophomore Jackson Finley, fresh off National Player of the Week honors, is the main man. His slugging percentage itself is above 1.000, and he has pitched to a 1.38 ERA in 13 innings. Finley already has four multi-hit games, four multi-RBI efforts and a three-homer performance this season. Around him, Jake DeLeo has recorded a hit in every game and belted his fifth long ball in the 10-5 defeat of Lipscomb on Tuesday. Jack Rubenstein is the third Yellow Jacket with a .400-plus average and 1.200-plus OPS. Finally, Angelo Dispigna and Stephen Reid round out the top five with four home runs each. With so many weapons, Georgia Tech’s offense can become an avalanche.

They have the potential up and down their lineup to score very quickly and score in bunches,” Stiffler said. “It’s gonna be really important that we limit free bases on the pitching side.”

Georgia Tech’s hitters have become even more important given the pitching around them. The Yellow Jackets currently hold an ACC-worst 6.16 ERA, yielding wild final scores such as 15-2, 16-8, 11-7 and 23-11. Though Georgia Tech has proven especially susceptible to the big hit (25 HR allowed), its staff presents two lockdown sophomores. Set-up man Ben King has struck out 13 in a scoreless 10.1 innings of work, while closer Terry Busse has 16 punch-outs in a nation-high five saves.

“We have to be patient offensively. They have given up runs at times,” Stiffler said. “If we stay patient, don’t panic and wait it out a little bit, we’ll have opportunities to score and we’ll have opportunities to get the big hit.”

Shuffling the schedule

After visiting Georgia Tech, the Irish will finally get a chance to play a non-weekend series. They will visit Holly Springs, North Carolina to play St. Joseph on Tuesday and Wednesday before concluding their season-opening road stretch at Wake Forest. With Notre Dame playing nine mid-week games in the next eight weeks, Stiffler hopes to develop depth and rhythm in his offense.

“That’s huge for us right now,” he said. “We need to continue to find roles for guys, and I’m hoping as we now start to have some midweek games on our schedule, we can continue to look for opportunities to get guys in there and create more roles. Hopefully, the guys can take advantage of that opportunity.”

First pitch times are set for 6 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m., Sunday. The ACC Network Extra will carry all three games.