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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

Irish baseball begins key stretch with visit to Clemson

Notre Dame baseball (17-13, 7-8 ACC) currently occupies fourth place in the ACC’s Atlantic Division. Over the next four weekends, the Irish will face the three teams sitting below them - plus national No. 7 Virginia. Sitting just a game and a half out of second place, Notre Dame will have a major opportunity to further prove itself as a major national competitor, but also to solidify a favorable position in the standings. This weekend’s matchup with Clemson (20-14, 4-8 ACC) represents the first checkpoint.

Midterm assessments

Both teams are right around the halfway mark of their 27-game ACC schedules. Notre Dame has responded well after a flat start in non-conference play, holding an ACC record near .500 despite facing three of the conference’s top four teams. Last weekend, the Irish offense clicked in a series win at Pittsburgh. However, the bats dried up late in Tuesday’s 11-inning home loss to Michigan State. Traditionally, Notre Dame has played quality baseball beyond this point in the season. In each of the last four full seasons, the Irish rattled off multiple four-game win streaks after mid-April.

Meanwhile, Clemson has played 12 conference games and has been largely inconsistent. The Tigers started 4-0, then lost four straight but eventually jumped back to 11-6. After transitioning to April with a sweep at the hands of No. 2 Wake Forest, Clemson has won four of its last five games. That included a series defeat of Florida State and 8-1 Tuesday takedown of Georgia, both induced by brilliant pitching.

Irish seek elusive sweep behind killer P’s

Overall, this will be Notre Dame’s ninth three-game series of the season. To this point, all eight have ended in a 2-1 count, as the Irish have not swept nor been swept. But if there’s a time for Notre Dame to take three on the road, this might be it. The Irish have beaten Clemson five consecutive times for their longest active winning streak against an ACC opponent. 

Last year, Notre Dame swept Clemson in South Bend, outscoring the Tigers 21-5. In that series, first baseman Carter Putz and junior catcher Danny Neri enjoyed massive performances. Putz went 6-for-13 with a double, home run and 8 RBI. Neri also raked, going 6-for-8 with a long ball and four runs scored in two games.

Expect Putz - along with graduate shortstop Zack Prajzner and sophomore third baseman Jack Penney - to bother Clemson this weekend. Penney has grown into a solid leadoff hitter, holding a .791 OPS and a perfect 8-for-8 base-stealing mark. Over his last six games, Penney is 9-for-27 at the plate with three home runs and seven runs scored. Behind him, Prajzner enters on a five-game hit streak in which he’s gone 8-for-24 with a pair of homers and seven runs driven in. Putz has also been tremendously steady in the middle of the lineup, maintaining a batting average just below .300. The veteran has reached base safely in 13 of his last 15 games, collecting six doubles in the last nine.

Developing the ‘pen

Notre Dame feels that it can win any series behind its three-headed pitching monster. Graduate student Aidan Tyrell, junior Jackson Dennies and sophomore Jack Findlay have pitched to a combined ERA of 2.34. Dennies has stolen the show recently with a shutout streak now approaching 15 innings. The trio has been phenomenal, but a question still remains: what do the Irish have behind them? 

That concern has reared its ugly head in back-to-back weekends, as the Irish bullpen allowed six-run innings late to miss out on key wins against North Carolina and Pittsburgh. Behind the big three, Notre Dame has only two regularly used pitchers with a sub-five ERA. They are freshman Caden Spivey (2.19) and graduate student Will Mercer (4.24).

Tracking the Tigers

Offensively, the Tigers don’t hit for much power (30 home runs) but handle the basepaths extremely well. They are 59-for-73 on stolen base attempts, while their opponents are just 13-for-20. With two players - Cam Cannarella and Benjamin Blackwell - combining for 31 steals, Clemson will put the pressure on Notre Dame defensively. Cannarella is a bona fide leadoff hitter, carrying a .411 batting average to go with 10 doubles and 40 runs scored. Sophomore infielder Billy Amick was a major force in Tuesday’s win, homering, doubling twice and driving in four runs.

Statistically, Clemson’s pitching staff stacks up similarly to that of Notre Dame. However, the Tigers boast a much deeper inventory, with nine pitchers having thrown to an ERA between 1.90 and 4.50 in at least 10 innings. During its three-game win streak, Clemson’s staff has yielded a 1.33 ERA, which included a bullpen-heavy game on Tuesday. Last weekend’s rotation consisted of Austin Gordon, Ethan Darden and Caden Grice, all of whom have started at least five games this year. In addition to his 34 strikeouts, Grice also leads the team with eight home runs.Megha

The Friday-Saturday-Sunday series will have start times of 8:00, 4:00 and 1:00 p.m. ACC Network Extra will carry all three contests.