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Saturday, March 2, 2024
The Observer

Extra-inning loss wraps up 2-2 stretch for Irish baseball

Graduate shortstop Zack Prajzner follows through on a swing during Notre Dame's 2-1 loss to Louisville on Mar. 26, 2023 at Frank Eck Stadium.
Graduate shortstop Zack Prajzner follows through on a swing during Notre Dame's 2-1 loss to Louisville on March 26, 2023, at Frank Eck Stadium.

Notre Dame baseball played four games over the past week, starting strong but struggling to the finish line. The Irish offense surged in a series win and near-sweep at Pittsburgh over the weekend. However, the bats couldn’t deliver late in Tuesday’s 7-6 home loss to Michigan State. The 11-inning defeat snapped Notre Dame’s five-game winning streak in midweek games. With the results, the Irish now sit 17-13 overall and 7-8 in ACC play.

Thursday: Notre Dame 10, Pittsburgh 8

Notre Dame’s trip to the Steel City could not have started any better. The Irish struck for 10 runs in four innings against Panther starting pitcher Jack Sokol. In the first, Notre Dame made a quick two outs but sent its next six hitters all the way around the bases. Graduate catcher Vinny Martinez and freshman second baseman Estevan Moreno provided the first wave of offense, singling home a combined three runs. Then, on a two-strike count, junior backstop Danny Neri skied a fastball over the fence for a three-run homer — his fourth of the season.

Pitt countered with three runs in the first two frames, including a second-inning Justin Acal blast, but graduate starter Blake Hely pitched through it and gave the Irish four innings of work. In the meantime, the left side of Notre Dame’s infield provided another power surge. First, sophomore third baseman Jack Penney launched a second-inning moonshot to right-center for his team-best seventh homer. Then, to push the Irish to double-digits in the fourth, graduate shortstop Zack Prajzner skied a two-run shot over the fence in left.

After offensively plateauing at 10, Notre Dame’s bullpen made it interesting in the seventh. Sophomore reliever Radek Birkholz ran out of gas after 2.1 innings, leaving runners at second and third for junior Ryan Lynch. The replacement surrendered back-to-back hits, the second being a three-run CJ Funk bomb to left-center. Pitt’s damage could have been more severe, but graduate first baseman Carter Putz made a diving stop to secure Notre Dame’s first out before the Panthers scored their four. 

From there, graduate student Will Mercer started strong as the third Irish reliever, striking out five in two innings. However, he too struggled to finish his outing, yielding a run and loading the bases with one out. Junior Sammy Cooper entered and induced a game-ending 5-3 double play, dramatically closing out the two-run victory. Putz saved the day again on the play, picking what could have been a game-tying throwing error out of the turf.

Friday: Notre Dame 11, Pittsburgh 2

Notre Dame again never trailed but won far more comfortably the next day. Game two opened with Irish starter Jackson Dennies extending his shutout streak past 14 innings. The junior mowed through Pitt over 4.2 innings, striking out six and lowering his season ERA to 2.25. Graduate southpaw Aidan Tyrell carried the Irish to the finish line, pitching well yet again over 4.1 frames of two-run ball.

All the while, the Irish bats awakened slowly. Penney kicked off the scoring with an RBI single in the third, but his team didn’t score again until the seventh. In that frame, Prajzner doubled to score two key insurance runs just before Pitt’s Jayden Melendez homered to make it 3-1. After another run in the eighth, the Irish tore down the floodgates in the game’s final inning. Bringing 13 gold helmets to the plate, Notre Dame tallied seven runs to adamantly take the series. Graduate outfielder Nick Juaire, junior outfielder TJ Williams and Carter Putz all contributed two-RBI hits.

Sunday: Notre Dame 5, Pittsburgh 9

Gunning for the sweep with sophomore ace Jack Findlay on the mound, the Irish felt good heading into Saturday. When Findlay finished off his fifth scoreless inning, they felt great. Notre Dame rewarded his smooth start by striking first once again, scoring two in the third on a throwing error. However, Funk answered with a game-tying two-run shot to chase Findlay out of the game in the sixth. 

The Irish wasted no time jumping back in front. In the seventh, Putz knocked a two-run double down the right field line, and Juaire followed with an RBI single. Pittsburgh lingered, though, pulling a run closer in the bottom half of the inning. 

Leading 5-3, the Irish unraveled in the eight. After recording the first two outs, graduate reliever Carter Bosch conceded a double and a walk to bring the go-ahead run up to bat. Against a new pitcher, Sammy Cooper, pinch-hitter Brett Heckert and Noah Martinez guided consecutive slow-rolling singles through the infield to tie the game. Then, the Panthers brought out the boomsticks. Jack Anderson (three-run) and Kyle Hess (solo) tagged back-to-back homers, earning a 9-5 Panther lead. Though Notre Dame put two runners on in the ninth, a double play and flyout shut down any late hopes for a sweep.

Tuesday: Michigan State 7, Notre Dame 6 (11 innings)

Upon returning to Frank Eck Stadium, the Irish fell short in a back-and-forth affair with the Spartans. Notre Dame first went ahead 2-0 before making an out, as Prajzner used the opposite field for his fourth home run of the year. Irish starter Blake Hely was solid early, but Michigan State ended his outing with extra base-punishment. In the third, Mitch Jebb whacked a run-scoring triple. An inning later, Bryan Broecker and Greg Ziegler each went deep to put the Spartans ahead 4-2. 

Notre Dame matched Michigan State’s three runs in the bottom of the fourth. It all came on one swing — TJ Williams’ third home run of the campaign. The Spartans fired right back in the fifth. Trent Farquhar greeted Radek Birkholz rudely, sending his third offering over the fence for a game-tying solo shot. Birkholz shut down the Spartans over the next 2.1 innings, allowing the Irish to snatch the lead back, as strong base-running from sophomore outfielder DM Jefferson set up a Williams sacrifice fly in the sixth. 

Will Mercer wiggled his way out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the seventh, and the eighth was trending toward another Houdini act. Michigan State singled twice to start the inning but bunted into a double play. However, with runners on the corners, Trent Farquhar tied the game with a base knock. A baserunning out at third base prevented any further Spartan damage.

As the game entered extra innings, Michigan State applied pressure on the Irish. In the tenth, the Spartans put three runners aboard but ended the inning with a double play. However, the eleventh saw the visitors break through, as Vradenburg launched a go-ahead solo blast to center field. After that, Wyatt Rush finished off the Irish and his spectacular relief outing. The senior carved out a new career high with four scoreless innings, punching out four to earn the win. Noah Matheny also excelled prior to him, tossing 3.2 innings with just one hit allowed.

Notre Dame will return to the diamond at Clemson this weekend. The Friday-Sunday series will have start times of 8, 4 and 1 p.m., respectively.