For a team with sky-high postseason hopes, Notre Dame baseball has endured a rough go in midweek play over the last month. Entering the regular season’s final week, the Irish had gone 2-2 in such games since Easter, dropping two winnable contests to Michigan State. But Tuesday represented a chance to put those concerns to bed. Playing at historic Wrigley Field, coming off the momentum of finishing a hard-fought sweep on Degree Day and facing a floundering Northwestern ball club, all signs pointed to a statement victory from Notre Dame.
Those hopes blew away in the cold Chicago wind Tuesday evening. The Irish coughed up 5-0 and 7-5 leads in an 8-7, 11-inning loss to Northwestern. And like ivy on an outfield wall, Notre Dame’s unforced errors grew out of control. The Irish committed three recorded errors, walked seven Wildcats and hit four more. Northwestern’s numbers in those respective categories? Zero, one and one, respectively.
The game had a promising start for the Irish. After freshman starting pitcher David Lally Jr. escaped a bases-loaded spot in the first with a double play, the Irish went to work on Northwestern starter Matt McClure. First, graduate student catcher Vinny Martinez opened the second with a single. Graduate student right fielder Brooks Coetzee III then stepped in and tagged a 393-foot home run to left-center, his third of the year.
Notre Dame added two more in the third, with Coetzee collecting his third RBI on a single to make it 4-0. Then, in the fourth, another run came home on a bloop single by freshman infielder Estevan Moreno. Meanwhile, Irish pitching stranded five Wildcats in the first three innings. But their luck soon ran out.
As quickly as Notre Dame built up a 5-0 lead, Northwestern tore it down in the fourth. Working against junior reliever Sammy Cooper, the Wildcats brought seven men to the plate between their first and second outs. Cooper walked two and uncorked a wild pitch in the frame, pouring gas on Northwestern’s offensive fire.
The flames burned brightest at the top of the order, which evened the score. Evan Minarovic got the Wildcats on the board with an RBI single. Then, Kevin Ferrer delivered the first of his two key hits, a two-run double down the right-field line. Then, Stephen Hrustich roped a ball over the glove of junior left fielder Brady Gumpf. It skipped into and out of the ivy, bringing home two and tying the game at five.
The Wildcats nearly grabbed the lead, but Gumpf made an outstanding diving catch to record the third out with the go-ahead run 90 feet away. Both bullpens settled into the middle innings well from there. Northwestern’s Jack Dyke tossed two scoreless frames, while Irish junior Matt Bedford worked around consecutive singles in the sixth.
Notre Dame pulled out ahead once more in the seventh courtesy of some two-out magic. With the bases empty, junior center fielder TJ Williams and graduate student shortstop Zack Prajzner laced consecutive triples to take the lead. Then, graduate student first baseman Carter Putz yanked an insurance single to left. And with junior southpaw Ryan Lynch striking out the Wildcat side in the bottom of the frame, Notre Dame appeared in excellent shape.
All Northwestern needed was a bloop and a blast to retie the game off Lynch in the eighth. With one out, Tony Livermore legged out a softly hit infield single to first base. That set up Ferrer as the tying run. He made use of that designation, belting a two-run shot to left on a 1-2 pitch. Just like that, Notre Dame found itself in all-hands-on-deck mode late in yet another midweek game.
Offensively, the Irish response never materialized. The 8-9-1 hitters all struck out in the ninth, placing momentum firmly on the home side of the diamond. Notre Dame also looked shakier than ever in the field, with an avalanche of mistakes on the horizon. It began in the bottom of the ninth, when graduate student reliever Will Mercer allowed a Wildcat to reach on a wild strikeout and then plunked two more of them. However, he wiggled out of the bases-loaded, one-out jam, forcing extra innings.
In the make-or-break innings, Notre Dame’s bats failed to deliver. The middle of the order generated no more than a single in the 10th. An inning later, the Irish couldn’t capitalize on a leadoff single, going 0-for-2 with the go-ahead run at second base. Northwestern reliever David Utagawa stepped up, entering in the seventh and pitching 3 ⅔ innings of one-run ball.
The Wildcats didn’t need a single hit to walk off the Irish in the bottom of the 11th. On the mound, Mercer walked two (one intentionally), hit a man and threw a wild pitch. That gave Stephen Hrustich and Northwestern a second chance with the bases packed and two down.
Facing a full count, Hrustich rolled over to third base, where Moreno was playing out of his regular position due to a thinning Irish bench. All Moreno needed to do was scoop the ball up. After that, he could either run to third, toss the ball to second or throw it to first. He never reached that point, as his ill-timed fielding error allowed Northwestern to win the game.
With the loss, the Irish now sit at 29-20 overall. Their NCAA Tournament hopes will take a major hit barring a resurgent series at Boston College this weekend. Meanwhile, Northwestern picked up win number nine on the year to go with 38 losses.