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Saturday, March 2, 2024
The Observer

Irish belt eight home runs in UNC series loss

Though No. 13 North Carolina took two of three games in South Bend this weekend, Notre Dame baseball got its money’s worth. The Irish outscored the Heels 19-16 overall, launching an octet of homers and leading for the majority of the series. Notre Dame’s offense continues to thrive at Frank Eck Stadium, having now launched 14 round-trippers in its first eight home games. With the result, UNC moves to 20-8 overall and 6-4 in the ACC, while the Irish drop to 14-11 overall and 5-7 in the conference.

Game one: North Carolina 10, Notre Dame 8

With a healthy wind ripping straight out to left field, Friday’s ball jumped off the bat. Though both teams combined for 18 runs on 21 hits and five homers, the game was even more berserk than the stat sheet could indicate. UNC provided the keynote with two in the first and two more in the second, scoring three runs on productive outs. Irish graduate starter Blake Hely struggled early, walking two and hitting a man within the first seven batters.

As Hely settled into the middle innings, Notre Dame’s offense came to life. In the second, the Irish placed runners on the corners with one out. After junior left fielder Brady Gumpf struck out, freshman second baseman Estevan Moreno stepped in with two away. Hunting the first pitch, he launched a three-run homer to dead center, his third of the year. 

With the Irish within one and new life in their dugout, the offensive run carried into the third. Facing the same situation as Moreno, graduate student catcher Vinny Martinez went to the opposite field for his first home run in South Bend, another three-run shot. Up 6-4, Notre Dame continued to take batting practice off UNC starter Max Carlson in the fourth. Graduate shortstop Zack Prajzner jumped on a two-strike fastball and ripped it 430 feet to the top of the center-field batter’s eye.

While the Irish led 7-4, the bullpens took control of the game. Both UNC reliever Matthew Mattijs and Irish sophomore Radek Birkholz each tossed two-plus scoreless frames. After the former departed, Notre Dame grabbed an insurance run on a majestic eight-inning homer from junior outfielder TJ Williams. Leading by four, the Irish turned to graduate student Carter Bosch to handle the ninth. Shockingly, Bosch's 9.1 inning shutout streak was snapped in thunderous fashion, as he surrendered six runs without recording an out. Leadoff man Colby Wilkerson cranked a solo shot to right, jumpstarting UNC’s potent offense, which had earned only four hits in the first eight innings.

From there, the Tar Heels grabbed three consecutive hits, drawing within two and loading the bases. In stepped Johnny Castagnozzi, who previously delivered a key two-run single in UNC’s 2022 ACC semifinal defeat of Notre Dame. Sure enough, he burned the Irish again, powdering his first career grand slam. When the ball — and his bat flip — landed, North Carolina had taken a 10-8 lead. The bottom of the ninth added insult to injury for the Irish. Both Prajzner and graduate student first baseman Carter Putz flew out to the wall in center, allowing Kevin Eaise to hold on for the save.

Game two: North Carolina 5, Notre Dame 2

For the second consecutive weekend, inclement South Bend weather pushed the end of the series to a Sunday doubleheader. A fine starting pitching performance from UNC’s Connor Bovair allowed the Heels to open the twin bill with a series win. He tossed eight innings of two-run ball, punching out eight and walking just one.

Early on, however, it seemed that sophomore Jack Findlay would match him. The Irish starter kept the game scoreless through four innings. But UNC’s bottom of the order broke through in the fifth. With two outs and a man on first, Patrick Alvarez doubled and Wilkerson singled, putting the Heels up 2-0.

North Carolina added on in the sixth, as Jackson Van De Brake homered on the second pitch of the inning. In the meantime, Notre Dame remained off the board with a close call in the fourth. On a soaring Carter Putz fly ball to left, Alvarez leaped high against the wall and made a juggling catch. Finally, in the seventh, the Irish made a loud entry to the scoreboard. Martinez got an elevated breaking ball and hit a moonshot to left with an authoritative bat flip to boot. 

The two-run blast pulled Notre Dame within one, but UNC pushed back in the ninth. After graduate reliever Will Mercer walked the bases loaded, Van De Brake dumped a two-run single into right. From there, Eaise again worked the ninth and saved the 5-2 victory.

Game three: Notre Dame 9, North Carolina 1

With its back against the wall, Notre Dame played one of its best games of the season to stave off a sweep. Junior pitcher Jackson Dennies, coming off his best outing of the season, did one better in the series finale. In 4.2 scoreless innings, he struck out seven and allowed just two hits. 

On the other side, the Irish offense was ready to go right away. Carter Putz, the third hitter in the lineup, walloped a fastball in the first inning. With the wind blowing out to left, the ball carried 448 feet and gave Notre Dame a 2-0 lead.

The damage continued into the third. Sophomore third baseman Jack Penney worked a hitter’s count and launched a skyscraping homer for a three-run lead. Then, with two outs, graduate right fielder Brooks Coetzee singled home Putz. That brought up Martinez, who capped off an incredible weekend at the plate with his third long ball of the series. The two-run laser put the Irish up six and sent UNC starter Jake Knapp to the showers.

After graduate student southpaw Aidan Tyrell stranded two Heels with a strikeout, the Irish offense added on in the fifth. With the bases juiced, sophomore outfielder DM Jefferson plated a pair with a slicing double. Moreno followed with an RBI single, handing the Irish a 9-0 lead. Though Tyrell surrendered a home run to Vance Honeycutt in the eighth, he finished off the game with 4.1 innings of effective relief.

Notre Dame will have another one-game non-conference excursion this week. On Tuesday, Northwestern will visit Frank Eck Stadium for a 5:30 p.m. first pitch.