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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

3 for 3: Moreno pays off preparation with historic night

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Irish freshman infielder Estevan Moreno swings away during Notre Dame’s 2-1 loss to Louisville on March 26, 2023 at Frank Eck Stadium.

Irish freshman infielder Estevan Moreno swings away during Notre Dame’s 2-1 loss to Louisville on March 26 at Frank Eck Stadium.

When freshman infielder Estevan Moreno first arrived at Notre Dame, he knew he’d have the opportunity to perform at the highest level. As the first everyday second baseman of the Shawn Stiffler era, his star has risen in 2023. Last Friday, Moreno found himself over the moon, hitting three home runs to help the Irish take down No. 8 Virginia.

“It was amazing,” Moreno said of his magical night at Frank Eck Stadium. “It builds [confidence] off me and all the other guys knowing we came out and beat Virginia as a team like that.”

Moreno’s hat trick, the first for the Irish since Jake Shepski’s trifecta in 2016, accounted for half of Notre Dame’s six home runs in the 10-7 win. The performance, which unfolded so suddenly, had been in the works for years. At Montini Catholic High School in suburban Chicago, Moreno was the consummate athlete. With five all-conference selections across three sports, a 2019 state championship and a Chicago Catholic Player of the Year honor, it didn’t take long for the young man to find his home at the next level. 

“The thing I loved about [Notre Dame] was just the community around here,” Moreno said. “It was just that sort of energy that I wanted and competitiveness that I like.”

With that, he made his commitment to the Blue and Gold as a sophomore. From there, Moreno utilized a number of opportunities to prepare himself for the challenge of ACC baseball. That culminated in a summer with the Madison Mallards of the coveted Northwoods League, briefly interrupted by a trip to the 2022 MLB Draft Combine in San Diego. 

“The thing I took away from [the combine] was that I belonged there with all those other guys,” Moreno said. “It gave me a really bright future for seeing what I was going to face in the ACC — guys that [throw] low 90s and upper 80s.”

At that point, Moreno could have pursued a path to The Show. But with his long-term outlook and Notre Dame coming off a College World Series run, he couldn’t resist the prospects of a college baseball career. After newly minted Irish head coach Shawn Stiffler called him in Madison, Moreno was fired up and ready to work.

Fast-forward to Feb. 17. It’s opening day in Nashville, as the Irish get the season underway at Lipscomb. Moreno is starting at second base on a Notre Dame infield that was so dominant a season ago. What’s more, he’s tasked with helping the Irish offense follow up the program’s record-breaking power surge of 2022.

“I wasn’t expecting it. I knew I was gonna have to work for whatever I wanted,” Moreno said. “Coming out here in the fall and just working my tail off and doing what I could to show the coaches that I could be here and I could play — that was the most important takeaway. It was just like a fresh new start of what I could do and what I could show.” 

Through the season’s first month, Moreno slumped as young hitters so often do. Striking out far more than he hoped to, the freshman struggled to hold his batting average north of .150.

“It was a rough start for me, and it was more so the process of how fast the game was played,” Moreno said. “It’s just [about] taking away how fast the game is played and trusting yourself.”

Beyond his own adjustments, Moreno’s surroundings kept him confident and ready for the next at-bat. Stiffler continued to play him every day, ensuring that Moreno wouldn’t have to tweak things on the fly too much during Notre Dame’s daunting ACC schedule. On the infield, he stands between graduate students Zack Prajzner (shortstop) and Carter Putz (first base). The two have now played 407 career games and starred in a pair of deep postseason runs, all in the Irish uniform.

“I look up to Zack a lot. That’s who I value and look after the most,” Moreno said. “I try to replicate whatever he does on the field. And Putz — he’s my left-hand man. It helps a ton just knowing that they’ve got my back and I have theirs.”

In recent weeks, Moreno’s production has reached new heights. Since March 31, he’s hitting .264 with four long balls. His three-homer performance began in the fifth inning Friday. His first accounted for the third run in Notre Dame’s four-run, middle-inning comeback.

“I knew I was hunting a fastball up, and he threw that to me,” Moreno said. “I really wasn’t expecting anything more, just to put the ball in play and see if I could help my team throughout the game.”

Sure enough, he got plenty more, putting the ball out of sight and helping his team to a major upset. Moreno’s second solo shot came with two outs and two strikes in the sixth, a no-doubter on a hanging breaking ball. In the eighth, he launched his third round-tripper to left field, once again coming through with two strikes. 

With Moreno setting the tone, Notre Dame went on to sweep the Cavaliers, winning through a Saturday postponement and Sunday doubleheader.

“I thought we were ready all day [Saturday], no matter how long we were waiting at the field,” Moreno said. “I think we were more aggressive than they were and we just took that seriously.”

The Virginia series wasn’t the first instance of Moreno’s work sparking the Irish. Against then-No. 6 Louisville in late March, he hit the game-winning home run on Friday, setting the stage for a series win. A week later, against then-No. 13 North Carolina, Moreno’s three-run Friday homer wound up being the first of eight bombs hit by the Irish that weekend.

As Moreno has picked up the pace, so have the hitters in front of him. Graduate catcher Vinny Martinez and sophomore outfielder DM Jefferson are on hot streaks. Between Martinez, Jefferson and Moreno,  the bottom part of Notre Dame’s order has strengthened.

“I think all our guys in the lineup are dudes, and we all can hit no matter what,” Moreno said. “It’s a great feeling when you have those guys and everybody can rely on each other back to back.”

With 37 games behind him, Moreno has already made plenty of waves in South Bend. He is Notre Dame’s first freshman to hit six home runs since active big-leaguer Matt Vierling (2016). Even so, the freshman still has much to prove as the Irish gear up for a potential postseason run.

“My goals are just to keep competing in the box and looking after the guys that I value the most,” Moreno said. “I think it’s a great feeling we have — that we have something special if we can stay hot and keep rolling.”

Moreno and his teammates will look for another big series this weekend against Florida State.