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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

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Irish prepare to host No. 8 Wake Forest

Irish look to extend three-game ACC win streak against surging Demon Deacons

Just when the vibes were at their highest for Notre Dame baseball in 2024, another setback came around. After launching 12 home runs and scoring 36 runs in a three-game sweep of Boston College, a Central Michigan team with an ERA of 7.78 (eighth out of 11 teams in the MAC) held the Irish to one hit, leading to their first midweek loss of the Shawn Stiffler era.

The one saving grace is that loss doesn't hurt the team's chances of a late-season ACC Tournament push. However, the Irish will need to regain their confidence fast to extend their season-high three-game winning streak in conference play. For the third time in their last four series, Notre Dame will take on a ranked opponent, with No. 8 Wake Forest standing as the second-highest ranked team on Notre Dame's schedule all season.

The Demon Deacons have been one of the steadiest teams in the country. As a unit, they aren't dominant offensively (eighth in the ACC with 324 runs) or on the mound (sixth in the ACC with a 4.88 ERA.) However, they don't have an obvious weakness and are coming off a series win over No. 10 Florida State (although, like the Irish, they followed a strong offensive weekend with a midweek shutout loss.)

There are certainly some elite pieces to the roster, though. Irish fans may remember Friday's probable starter, Chase Burns, who opposed Notre Dame in Game 3 of its 2022 Super Regional series when he was still at Tennessee. Though he started strong, seventh-inning home runs by David LaManna and Jack Brannigan made Burns the pitcher of record in the 7-3 Notre Dame win that sent the Irish to the College World Series. That's largely been a blip on the radar of a stellar collegiate career, as he's already hit the 100-strikeout plateau for the third straight year. Offensively, Nick Kurtz is tied for the ACC lead with 17 homers and ranks third in slugging percentage, with teammate Jack Winnay also cracking the top 10.

Notre Dame can't match that level of star power, so they'll need to make sure everyone is firing on all cylinders to pull off the upset. It's very helpful that senior outfielder TJ Williams returned Wednesday after missing Sunday's game following a hit-by-pitch around his eye the day before. Williams' growth offensively has been a huge boost to the lineup all season.

The team's pitching is in as good of a spot as it's been all season. The Irish have allowed five runs or fewer in five straight games, something they hadn't done in more than two consecutive contests all year before this stretch. Last weekend's starting pitchers (senior Matt Bedford, freshman Jack Radel and sophomore Rory Fox) allowed just four earned runs in 11 2/3 innings of work.

Those numbers likely would have looked better if Fox hadn't been forced to exit after 1 2/3 innings when a line drive struck his forearm. Stiffler expressed optimism after the fact that Fox wouldn't miss much time, but we'll see if he makes his regular Sunday start. Pitching was an underrated part of Notre Dame's last ACC series victory, and they'll need it to be sharp again to have more success.

The Irish and Demon Deacons are currently slated to play Friday at 6:30 p.m., Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at noon at Frank Eck Stadium. However, with rain in the forecast, these starting times are subject to change.