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Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame meets Northwestern in Big Ten-ACC baseball showcase

After ending a UNC series loss with a big win, Notre Dame baseball will wrap up its nine-game homestand when the Northwestern Wildcats (3-19, 1-2 Big Ten) make the trip around Lake Michigan to visit the Irish (14-11, 5-7 ACC). Both teams hope to build on encouraging Sunday doubleheader showings.

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Sofia CrimiVarolli | The Observer
Irish graduate student Brooks Coetzee III makes contact with the ball in the Irish's March 26 matchup against Louisville.

Arnone, Martinez ready for four

Each ball club has a player coming in on a three-game home run streak. Northwestern outfielder Griffin Arnone accomplished the feat in the Wildcats’ series loss at Purdue. The graduate transfer from Elon terrorized Boilermaker fastballs, launching two bombs to right and an opposite field shot to left-center. With a walk in four straight games to boot, Arnone is seeing the baseball very well. That has also helped him to a seven-game hit streak in which he has posted an 1.186 OPS.

At the same time, Notre Dame has a graduate student transfer slugger swinging a hot bat. Vinny Martinez, the former Stanford man, went 5-for-10 and homered three times against No. 13 North Carolina. Going the other way on a Friday fastball and pulling two hanging breakers Sunday, the backstop was multi-dimensional in his attack. Despite appearing just twice in a 16-day stretch before the UNC series, Martinez has remained locked in. And if Sunday afternoon’s jolting bat flip was any indication, his confidence is over the moon. It’s hard to envision head coach Shawn Stiffler removing Martinez from the lineup Tuesday, but he may get left-handed junior catcher Danny Neri back in there against a righty-heavy Wildcat pitching staff.

Irish letting it fly at Frank Eck

Notre Dame has found a power surge in its first eight games at home. In their first 17 games — all on the road — the Irish hit only 13 home runs. Since returning to South Bend, however, they have already cranked 14 long balls. Their most recent act: an eight-dinger outburst in the weekend’s three-game series loss to UNC. 

Perhaps the most promising aspect of Notre Dame’s home hitting is that the whole lineup is getting involved. It all starts with the graduate students in the heart of the Irish lineup. Infielder Carter Putz carries a strong OPS of .902, with outfielder Brooks Coetzee (.803) and infielder Zack Prajzner (.787) not far behind. The numbers are creeping back up for outfielder Jack Zyska (5-for-22 on the homestand), but the 2022 team leader in home runs still has a .510 OPS. Those four have combined to leave the yard six times at Frank Eck.

Meanwhile, the rest of the batting order still largely lacks the everyday consistency of the veterans but has flashed its potential. Sophomore infielder Jack Penney has homered twice on the homestand, scoring seven runs. Freshman infielder Estevan Moreno is putting the ball in play more but is 3-for-27 since March 19. However, two of those hits were home runs — the most recent a three-run shot to center field Friday. With Martinez smashing the baseball as well, the Irish offense is becoming more of a top-to-bottom threat.

Wildcat arms look to build on Sunday success

In its first season under head coach Jim Foster, Northwestern has been all but a disaster on the mound. The Wildcats have pitched to a 9.08 team earned run average, more than three runs higher than the next-worst Big Ten team. Hitting .324, NU’s opponents have beaten it to a 3-19 pulp.

Despite the brutal start, the Wildcats threw well in Sunday’s doubleheader split in West Lafayette. Graduate student Michael Farinelli opened the day with a career-high nine strikeouts in 6.1 innings, fueling a 7-3 win. Then, in game two, junior Luke Benneche tossed five shutout frames before allowing a walk-off home run in the 10th. Overall, the Wildcats surrendered just three earned runs across 18 innings of work.

Beyond Arnone, Northwestern has two more formidable everyday threats at the dish. Sophomore catcher Alex Calarco has hit in bunches, earning a .329 batting average with nine multi-hit games. Even more impressively, Calarco has done said damage after opening the season an 0-for-18 slump. Next to him, senior catcher Stephen Hrustich contributes a unique combination of plate discipline and speed. The Georgia native enters with team-highs in walks (16) and stolen bases (four), along with an eight-game hit streak.

Notre Dame has taken four consecutive games from Northwestern, scoring 12 or more runs in three of them. Last year, the Irish visited Evanston and won 14-4 in seven innings. The teams will meet there again on May 16. Tuesday’s first pitch will fly at 5:32 p.m., and ACC Network Extra will begin its coverage at 5:30 p.m.