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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Irish handle Harvard, come up empty in season-ending loss to Arkansas

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Sofia CrimiVaroli | Irish first baseman Karina Gaskins waits for a pitch during Notre Dame's 9-1 win in six innings over Indiana at Melissa Cook Stadium on April 12, 2023.

Irish first baseman Karina Gaskins waits for a pitch during Notre Dame’s 9-1 win in six innings over Indiana at Melissa Cook Stadium on April 12, 2023.

Notre Dame softball saw its season come to an end Saturday night at the NCAA Fayetteville Regional. Needing four consecutive victories to win the regional, the Irish notched one before suffering a shutout at the hands of No. 11 Arkansas. With the elimination game loss, Notre Dame ends the season 30-19-1, beginning its summer in the regional round for the 24th consecutive full season. After the games, Irish head coach Deanna Gumpf reflected on the 2023 campaign.

“There’s so much about this team that is really, really cool,” Gumpf said. “They play pretty good softball, but I think it’s the stuff that happens off the field. I’m just around a lot of really incredible women, and that’s what I’m gonna take with me.”

All Gaskins, no brakes for Notre Dame in 5-2 defeat of Harvard

When Irish junior first baseman Karina Gaskins gets going at the plate, it’s nearly impossible for opposing teams to answer. Harvard found itself in that spot during Saturday’s first elimination game. To complement three opposite-field hits, Gaskins tied Notre Dame’s NCAA Tournament record with five runs batted in. 

“Karina [Gaskins] is one of the best hitters in the country. She had some tough at-bats, but that’s the game,” Gumpf said. “The great thing about Karina is once she got some protection around her, people start throwing her pitches and good things are happening for her.”

Gaskins, who finished the season with a phenomenal 1.238 OPS, did damage early against Harvard. After Notre Dame’s first two hitters singled, Gaskins stepped in and drilled Crimson starter Riley Flynn’s offering to the right-center gap. That first-inning hit, a long single, gave Notre Dame an immediate 2-0 lead.

In a similar fashion to her Friday start, Irish graduate pitcher Payton Tidd looked sharp early on. Though she conceded a solo home run to Kendall Jean in the second, Tidd worked through the first three innings on 41 comfortable pitches. But she wavered in the fourth. Savannah Fitzpatrick tied the game with a first-pitch double, forcing Gumpf’s hand. The skipper pulled Tidd, turning the keys over to sophomore pitcher Shannon Becker.

After Becker guided Notre Dame out of trouble, the Irish offense wasted no time untying the game. With two outs and a runner on in the fourth, Gumpf challenged a foul ball. Video review determined the ball hit junior catcher Carlli Kloss, extending the inning to Gaskins. 

With the go-ahead run in scoring position, the Irish slugger worked the count full before tagging a ball out to right. It sailed just over the fence, rebuilding the Irish lead to 5-2. Gaskins’s 15th round-tripper of the year marked Notre Dame’s first of the weekend.

Working with a three-run lead, Becker delivered her best outing in over a month. She retired 10 of her first 12 batters, striking out three consecutive hitters at one point. Her only worrisome spot arose in the seventh, when the Crimson singled twice with two outs. With Harvard’s season on its last breath, two-hitter Trina Hoang stepped in as the tying run. But Becker kept her focus, ending the game with a groundout to third. 

Delce denies Irish, advancing Arkansas to regional final

As Notre Dame turned around to face Arkansas in another elimination game, starting pitching grabbed the headlines. The Irish threw freshman Micaela Kastor against five-year Razorback ace Chenise Delce. And though the experience gap between them amounted to 529 innings, both thrived under the bright lights. 

But Delce had a little extra for Notre Dame. Going the distance, she blanked the Irish and received just enough help from her offense in the 5-0 Arkansas win.

“I thought [Chenise] Delce did a great job with her drop ball — locating very, very well to get some chases from us,” Gumpf said. “I give her a ton of credit, because I don’t think we’re that easy to keep off the board. She was dealing, and she did a great job.”

Kastor ultimately gave her team seven innings in the circle as well, but her longevity looked far from a sure thing early on. Kastor labored through the first two innings, struggling to throw strikes and concerning two runs. The Hogs plated one in the first without leaving the infield, as Kastor plunked two and forced a run home on a walk. Then, in the second, Raigan Kramer dropped an RBI single into center field. Despite the rocky start, Kastor flipped a switch after inning number two.

“After getting over the environment around me, I used it to fuel me in a way,” Kastor said. “That’s the first time I’ve experienced something like that. So I just fed off the energy around me, used my teammates as support and just let the amazing defensive plays that they were coming through with keep me fired up.”

By the time her sixth inning was done, Kastor had still surrendered just two runs., settling in masterfully. Like Friday’s relief outing, she kept her offense in the game. But unlike Friday’s 5-4 loss to Oregon, the Irish never made a move on the scoreboard.

Their first chance came in the second, when graduate student designated player Lexi Orozco reached second base with nobody out. The next three hitters battled, but they all went down swinging. An even bigger opportunity presented itself in the sixth. Entering the inning with just two hits — both by Orozco — Notre Dame quickly got to work. Senior third baseman Joley Mitchell singled. Then junior catcher Carlli Kloss walked. All of a sudden, the Irish had their five-RBI star, Gaskins, coming to the plate as the go-ahead run with nobody out. 

But the big hit wasn’t meant to be. Gaskins grounded into a game-changing double play, and Orozco followed with an inning-ending flyout. In the top of the seventh, Arkansas made sure Notre Dame never flirted with another rally. As Kastor’s pitch count climbed above 100, she made a crucial mistake to Razorback slugger Rylin Hedgecock.

Ahead 0-2 in the count, Kastor served up a hittable pitch, and Hedgecock nearly hit it to Missouri. The three-run shot to left, her 21st of the year, put Arkansas ahead 5-0. As if Chenise Delce needed any more help, she received plenty before recording the final three outs. In earning her 21st win of the season, Delce struck out seven in her seven shutout frames.

“I thought we fought hard for about six innings, and it was a heck of a ball game,” Gumpf said. “I think if we could get things going offensively, this game looks a lot different.”

A few question marks, particularly in the lineup, surround Notre Dame heading into 2024. But the Irish can undeniably hang their hat on the performance of their young arms this weekend. Kastor and Becker combined to throw 15 of Notre Dame’s 20 innings in Fayetteville at a 3.00 ERA. 

The big three Irish sluggers, two of whom are eligible to return next year, enjoyed productive weekends as well. Karina Gaskins went 4-for-9, driving in six runs. Mitchell went 4-for-11 and scored three runs while moving to the leadoff spot. And, to finish her lone season in South Bend, Orozco went 5-for-7 and reached base in all three games.