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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
The Observer

Irish soar to new heights with sweep of No. 8 Virginia

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

After two seasons of cruising through the regular season, 2023 has been more of an adventure for Notre Dame baseball. That isn’t to say the Irish haven’t played well at times. They entered this weekend with one series win over a then top-10 ACC team, having won two of three against now No. 12 Louisville from March 24 to 26. There have been other games where the Irish have mirrored the College World Series contender they were throughout the Link Jarrett era. Understandably, the Irish haven’t always looked as dominant in head coach Shawn Stiffler’s first year at the helm.

But this weekend reminded the ACC and the entire college baseball world that the Irish still have that level in them. The Irish battled both the elements and the No. 8 Virginia Cavaliers this weekend, and on both fronts, they were successful. A doubleheader sweep on Sunday secured Notre Dame’s first series sweep in conference play this year after the Irish won a memorable slugfest to set the tone on Friday night.

“They’re in a good place,” Stiffler said of his team. “That’s as good of a place regardless of whether they won the last game or not. That’s as good of a place that I’ve seen us mentally all season. It’s just from a connection standpoint.”

Stiffler meant connection in terms of chemistry, but he also could have been referencing to the connection the Irish bats made with the baseball. Offense was a major weakness early in the year, but the Irish came out slugging in the series opener, striking early and often.

Sophomore infielder Jack Penney hit the first of numerous long balls on the weekend in the bottom of the first on Friday. The Cavaliers tagged the Irish for four runs in the top of the fourth to go ahead 5-1. But the Irish quickly answered back. Sophomore outfielder DM Jefferson quickly got two runs back on his first collegiate home run in the bottom of the frame. After freshman infielder Estevan Moreno went deep in the bottom of the fifth, hits by graduate student infielder Carter Putz and catcher Vinny Martinez drove in runs with a single and a double, respectively, to go ahead 6-5.

Notre Dame pulled away thanks to the long ball. Moreno hit two more solo shots in the sixth and eighth innings, becoming the first Irish player in seven years to hit three homers in one game. Junior outfielder Brady Gumpf tacked on a two-run shot in the eighth as well to give Notre Dame some breathing room. The Irish ultimately won by a 10-7 final.

“I’m always impressed with him because he has some games where there’s three strikeouts, four-strikeout games and then the next day he’ll get two hits,” Stiffler said of Moreno. “I think this game of all games rewards you. If you bring that type of consistency, you can get back up off the ground. So I’m just proud of him for that. He’s going to be a great player and he’s going through some things that all freshmen do. But when it’s together, it’s pretty special.”

Though Saturday’s game was pushed back to Sunday due to inclement weather, the Irish bats remained hot in the first half of Sunday’s doubleheader. Notre Dame scored in every inning except the second and the sixth. Putz set the tone with his second long ball of the series in the first inning, a two-run shot. Penney, Martinez and graduate student infielder Zack Prajzner would join the home run parade. On the mound, graduate student Blake Hely turned in his best start in an Irish uniform. The Davidson transfer pitched 7.1 masterful innings against one of the conference’s top offenses. Hely allowed just two runs while striking out eight.

“That’s the Blake Hely I’m familiar with that wore me out in the A10 for a couple of years,” Stiffler said of his former conference rival. “He’s an older guy that knows how to pick up his team. I wanted to get him after the seventh, and he said, he wanted [to come out] one more time. Let me get that guy out. So I was gonna do that.”

Virginia managed to hold the Irish to single digits in the series finale. But it still wasn’t enough to prevail. All of the scoring in Notre Dame’s 5-4 win early Sunday evening came in the first five innings. The teams traded leads frequently. Virginia went ahead 1-0 in the top of the second. But again, the Irish had an answer in the form of a Jefferson sac fly and Putz RBI single. The Cavaliers scored three runs across the fourth and fifth innings to give them some rare breathing room. But it quickly vanished in the bottom of the fifth. After Moreno stole home on a double steal, Martinez drove in the final runs of the weekend with a clutch two-out, two-run double to give the Irish the lead for good.

Notre Dame took advantage of some sloppy mistakes from Virginia in the third game. The Cavaliers committed four errors in the game, leading to three unearned runs. Like Hely earlier in the day, freshman Caden Spivey delivered his best performance of the season on Sunday. Relieving graduate student Carter Bosch in the fifth, Spivey tossed 4.2 innings of scoreless baseball to secure the sweep. Spivey allowed just two hits and struck out one, recording the last 14 outs on an efficient 40 pitches. Suddenly, an Irish team that entered the weekend with a good not great resume has its greatest piece of tangible evidence to back up their confidence.

“Our stats didn’t really add up to being a great team, but we were winning, or we were in every game. I mentioned to these guys several times that’s just because of the fact they’re winners. We will ourselves at times to be in games that maybe we shouldn’t be in. And so now that we’re actually playing better and performing individually, a little bit better, more hits are coming and than we’re pitching, we’re throwing more strikes. Plus, just you got these older guys are winners and so, that’s a nice combo.”

The Irish will be back in action this Wednesday at Michigan State. First pitch is at approximately 6 p.m. EST. Notre Dame resumes conference play next weekend, playing host to Florida State from April 28 to 30.