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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024
The Observer

Irish exorcise their Louisville demons in series win

Entering the weekend, Notre Dame baseball hadn’t taken a series from Louisville since 2009. The Cardinals made four College World Series appearances during that stretch and are currently among the nation’s top ten again. Despite the circumstances, the Irish ended the 14-year drought, stealing two of three from the sixth-ranked team in America at home to move to 12-9 and 4-5 in ACC play. The series featured three one-run contests, two come-from-behind Irish victories and a game with five total home runs.

Game one: Notre Dame 4, Louisville 3

Irish junior Jackson Dennies squared off with Louisville starter Ryan Hawks to open the series. The latter looked untouchable early on, as Notre Dame struck out five times in the first three innings. Meanwhile, Louisville’s dangerous offense got rolling in the second. With two men in scoring position, Gavin Kilen pulled a single through the right side, putting the Cardinals up 2-0.

Though the Irish stranded runners at second and third in the fourth, they followed through an inning later. Sophomore outfielder DM Jefferson and junior center fielder TJ Williams, who combined to reach base four times from the bottom of the order, both singled to kickstart the frame. Then, for the second consecutive game, graduate shortstop Zack Prajzner put Notre Dame on the board. His two-run double to the left field corner tied the game at two. The next man up, graduate outfielder Jack Zyska, traded places with Prajzner on an 0-2 count, pushing the Irish ahead 3-2. 

All the while, freshman Caden Spivey had slowed down the Cardinals in relief. He retired six of his first seven batters but quite literally threw away his clean day in the sixth. With two away and a man on first, Will Cook chopped a two-strike pitch to the third base side of the mound. Though Spivey set his feet for the long throw, he led graduate first baseman Carter Putz into Cook’s path. Putz pulled his glove back, allowing the ball to travel deep into foul territory and score Humphrey from first.

Moving along to the bottom of the sixth, freshman second baseman Estevan Moreno quickly restored Notre Dame’s lead. He yanked Hawks’ 76th and final pitch into the left field shrubs for his first Frank Eck Stadium long ball. With the Irish up 4-3, Aidan Tyrell did the rest. The graduate student pitched to contact, limiting Louisville to two hits and no walks over his closing 3.1 innings. In the ninth, Prajzner made a sprawling play to get a key force out at second, and the next pitch landed in Zyska’s left-field glove to end the game.

Game two: Notre Dame 5, Louisville 4

Sunday’s doubleheader kicked off at 11 a.m., and Christian Knapczyk made sure everyone was wide awake. The Louisville leadoff hitter ambushed the game’s first pitch from sophomore Jack Findlay, belting a home run to right. Notre Dame nearly answered in the second, but sophomore third baseman Jack Penney flew out with the bases loaded and two outs. On the other side, Louisville tacked on runs in the fourth and fifth to go up 3-0. First, Eddie King Jr. drove in Ryan McCoy with a single. Then, Logan Beard took a Findlay fastball deep to center for a solo shot to open the next inning.

As they did on Friday, the Irish turned the game upside down in the bottom of the fifth. With one out, Penney atoned for his untimely flyout with his fourth long ball of the year. Then, Prajzner and Zyska reached with walks, forcing Louisville starter Greg Farone out of the game. Carter Putz greeted his replacement, Will Koger, with a 412-foot blast to center. The three-run bomb gave Notre Dame a 4-3 lead, and there was still more damage to come. Next up, graduate right fielder Brooks Coetzee hit a laser to left-center that was gone off the bat. With those back-to-back blasts and a five-run inning, Frank Eck Stadium was electrified.

Findlay finished his 5.1 innings with nine strikeouts, giving way to graduate arm Carter Bosch. The Georgetown transfer walked the bases loaded with one out in the seventh, putting the tying run at second base. Pinch hitter Brandon Anderson stepped in and torched a ball to Putz, who snagged it and tagged the runner off first for a threat-ending double play. In the eighth, graduate southpaw Will Mercer came on and walked in a run, loading the bags with the tying run at third. Napczyk, who had already reached base four times, bounced the ball to second, where Moreno made a smooth pickup and tossed to Putz for the third out. From there, Mercer worked a 1-2-3 ninth, securing the series for Notre Dame.

Game three: Louisville 2, Notre Dame 1

Strong pitching between Louisville’s Carson Liggett and Irish graduate Blake Hely set the tone in the weekend’s final game. Through two innings, the starters combined to punch out eight. Ninth hitter Brandon Anderson led off the third with a slicing liner into shallow left, which Zyska appeared to catch on a slide. However, as the second-base umpire ruled the ball down and Zyska made an appeal, Anderson reached second. He would later score the opening run on a Ryan McCoy groundout. Notre Dame again responded, as a Penney single and Prajzner double opened the fourth, setting up a game-tying Zyska groundout.

Sophomore Radek Birkholz relieved Hely and pitched well at first, but yielded the go-ahead run on back-to-back sixth-inning hit-by-pitches. His successor, junior Matt Bedford, walked the bases loaded in the seventh. With that, head coach Shawn Stiffler called upon junior Ryan Lynch, who had recorded just three collegiate outs entering Sunday. Not only did Lynch escape the jam with consecutive breaking-ball strikeouts, but he gave Notre Dame 2.1 shutout innings. The Irish offense, however, did not reap the benefits of his work. Prajzner singled with one away in the ninth, but Putz made the final out on a rocketed lineout to short.

Before continuing conference play against North Carolina, the Irish will host Butler in a midweek matchup. The game is scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday at Frank Eck Stadium.