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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

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Irish head to East Lansing after big series win

Notre Dame goes after Spartan team that set it back a season ago

The vibes around Notre Dame baseball haven’t been this high in quite a while. Since completing a 10-game conference losing streak in the middle of April, the Irish have won five of their last six games in ACC play. They swept Boston College and most recently rallied for a dramatic series win against then-ranked No. 8 Wake Forest, getting a walk-off home run from senior center fielder T.J. Williams to end their nine-game homestand.

Now, with its ACC Tournament hopes back in clear view, the Irish will head to Michigan State for the April finale on Tuesday night. Notre Dame will enter the midweek contest with a 22-20 overall record and a 7-17 mark in ACC play. Michigan State, on the other hand, brings records of 19-21 overall and 7-8 in Big Ten action to the matchup. The teams were supposed to have already played on April 2 at Frank Eck Stadium, but rain wiped out that game.

Living on the long ball

As the weather has warmed up, Notre Dame has rediscovered its power stroke in the second half of April. Across their last two ACC series wins, the Irish have slugged 20 home runs, including nine this past weekend.

The surge has started at the top of the lineup, where Williams hit three home runs during the recent homestand. Each of them came on the first pitch he saw, including two in the first inning. In the Wake Forest series, Williams homered on the first pitch Notre Dame saw on Saturday night and the last offering it faced on Sunday afternoon.

In the cleanup spot, sophomore second baseman Estevan Moreno continues to act as an extra-base machine. Notre Dame’s breakout star ranks within the top 10 for ACC slugging percentage, cranking it up a notch with a four-home run week. Moreno tagged two home runs last Sunday against Boston College before belting a pair that traveled a combined 901 feet on Saturday night. Only graduate outfielder David Glancy (12) owns more Irish long balls than Moreno’s 11 this year.

Another graduate student, third baseman Simon Baumgardt, clocked three home runs on the homestand. He showed a knack for the big moment against Wake Forest, first taking superstar right-hander Chase Burns deep for a go-ahead shot in Friday’s seventh inning. Then, immediately after Notre Dame lost the lead in the eighth inning on Sunday, Baumgardt smashed a leadoff, game-tying solo job on the first pitch he saw. Without that crucial swing, Williams’ walk-off never would have been possible.

Senior first baseman Connor Hincks also had a two-home run series, including a shot of his own against Burns’ fastball on Friday. Finally, junior catcher Joey Spence has stepped up for injured freshman Carson Tinney (torn ACL), homering in back-to-back ACC series. Though it’s unclear if or how head coach Shawn Stiffler will use him against left-handed pitching, his 467-foot missile off Michael Massey on Sunday turned plenty of heads in the Irish dugout.

A magnified midweek

Do you remember the last time Notre Dame took a series from an opponent ranked inside the top 10? It wasn’t that long ago — April 21-23 of last year against No. 8 Virginia. As great as that sweep felt for the Irish, the positive emotions didn’t last very long. Notre Dame lost 12-5 at Michigan State two days later, walking nine batters and conceding seven runs in the seventh inning or later.

What was worse, that game wasn’t the first time Michigan State had beaten Notre Dame. The Spartans had gone into South Bend two weeks earlier and robbed the Irish in extra innings. Those midweek losses, coupled with a 1-3 final week of the regular season, denied the Irish an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

After what happened last Wednesday at Frank Eck Stadium, Notre Dame doesn’t have much margin for error outside ACC play. Heck, it doesn’t have wiggle room within the conference either. Every game means that much more as the month of May looms, and that applies to Tuesday’s visit to Michigan State.

Scouting Sparty

Like Notre Dame, Michigan State has turned itself around after a mid-April skid. The Spartans endured a disastrous week from April 7-14, losing 10-0 to Central Michigan before being outscored 42-3 by a Purdue team the Irish blew out at home. That all amounted to a season-high-tying five-game losing streak. 

But since then, the Spartans have won six of their last eight games, taking conference series from Penn State and Ohio State. During that stretch, Michigan State has scored at least six runs in every game. That trend will oppose Notre Dame’s streak of allowing seven runs or less in nine consecutive contests.

Michigan State’s lineup features three everyday players who rank near the top of every team category. Outfielder Jack Frank is hitting .360 and leads the Spartans with seven home runs, 34 runs batted in and 17 stolen bases. Fellow outfielder Nick Williams has a .336 batting average with a team-high .446 on-base percentage and 31 RBI. And infielder Dillon Kark hits .327 with 34 RBI. All three players have at least 11 doubles on the season. 

The Spartans approach the Notre Dame game knowing that a rivalry with Michigan looms on the weekend, so they will want to play their best baseball all week along. Tuesday’s first pitch will fly at 7 p.m. in East Lansing, Michigan.