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Saturday, May 25, 2024
The Observer

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Irish seek eighth straight midweek win after impressive weekend

Notre Dame takes on Central Michigan in final non-conference game at home

In the midst of a trying season in conference play, Notre Dame baseball found what it needed most over the weekend. The Irish picked up a sweep of Boston College at home, outscoring the Eagles 36-7 and slamming the door on a 10-game losing streak within ACC play.

Now holding an overall record of 20-18 overall and 5-16 in league action, the Irish will attempt to keep a different streak alive in Wednesday’s home tilt against Central Michigan. Notre Dame has won each of its eight midweek games this season, including three on home field this month. Ahead of a prove-it weekend series with No. 8 Wake Forest, the Irish cannot afford to break that trend against the Chippewas.

Believe it or not, the last meeting between Notre Dame and Central Michigan did not occur on a quiet, midweek afternoon. Try the NCAA Tournament. The Irish defeated the Chippewas 10-0 and 14-2 during the 2021 South Bend Regional before coming within a game of the College World Series at Mississippi State.

Pitching, Penney and power

While on its 10-game ACC losing skid, Notre Dame went without the full services of several key components. The pitching staff surrendered seven or more runs in all but one game, allowing at least 10 on five occasions. Junior shortstop Jack Penney went 7-for-37 at the plate, extending a disappointing start to the season into conference play. And an offense that ranked among the nation’s most powerful through the season’s first month hit a grand total of seven home runs.

To Notre Dame’s benefit, all three of those aspects snapped into form against Boston College. It started with the pitching, which headlined the weekend with a seven-inning no-hitter in Sunday’s 13-0 win. Remember the statistic about the Irish staff allowing seven runs in games? Notre Dame conceded only seven runs across the entire series against the Eagles, taking loads of pressure off its bats.

Senior right-hander Matt Bedford opened the weekend by bouncing back in a major way. After North Carolina teed off on him a weekend prior, Bedford allowed just one earned run in five innings on Friday. More impressively, he did it without his sharpest stuff, striking out no batters in his outing for just the second time all season. On Saturday, freshman right-hander Jack Radel dealt with all kinds of baserunner traffic (nine hits in five innings), but he gave the Irish a chance to win with only three runs allowed. Behind him in the bullpen, graduate transfers Bennett Flynn and Nate Hardman locked down a 9-4 win with four innings of one-run baseball.

On Sunday, Tobey McDonough answered the call, entering the game unexpectedly after a comebacker sent sophomore starter Rory Fox out. It would have been impressive for the graduate transfer from Brown to keep Notre Dame in the game — let alone contribute to a combined no-hitter. But he did just that, recording 10 outs and allowing just one baserunner. Don’t look now, but McDonough has allowed a single earned run in his last 10 innings pitched after a brutal start to ACC play.

As the pitchers performed, so did Penney, who compiled seven hits and six runs driven in across 12 at-bats against Boston College. Throughout the season, Penney’s problem hadn’t been his .200 batting average. Rather, he wasn’t doing enough extra-base hitting to make that average tolerable. Prior to kickstarting his active seven-game hitting streak on April 13, Penney went 10 straight games without a double, triple or home run, contributing very little to change the tides of a largely stagnant Irish offense.

Since that hit streak began, Penney’s power has come back to life. He has four doubles, one triple and two home runs in his last six games after going over a month without a long ball. Penney has also scored 10 runs in those six games, indicating that the bats around him are maximizing his contributions. Entering Wednesday’s game, Penney’s .253 average, .376 on-base percentage and .467 slugging percentage all suddenly clear the numbers he posted a season ago.

Along with Penney, Notre Dame as an offensive unit rediscovered its power stroke over the weekend as well. The Irish battered 11 home runs against the Eagles, touring the bases in every way imaginable. Senior outfielder T.J. Williams went deep on the first pitch Notre Dame saw on Friday night. Later in that game, freshman catcher Carson Tinney legged out an inside-the-park home run before belting a grand slam on Sunday.

Chippewas mirroring Notre Dame’s post-pandemic evolution

Over the last four years, Central Michigan has paralleled Notre Dame’s course on a season-to-season basis. In 2021, both teams reached the NCAA Tournament. In 2022, they both went back and had more success — Notre Dame by going to Omaha and Central Michigan by nearly upsetting Florida in the Gainesville Regional final. A season ago, they both won 34 games, narrowly missing out on the postseason field. Now, they both have five conference wins and must really get going to keep any dreams of June baseball alive.

However, unlike the Irish, Central Michigan has struggled much more deeply in non-conference play, posting a 13-27 overall record with its 5-13 mark in Mid-American Conference games. In year one under head coach Jake Sabol, the Chippewas have played 31 of their 40 games away from home and have had mixed results against Power 5 opponents. As an example, a March sweep saw Oklahoma State hang 34 runs on the Chippewas, who later turned around and handed Michigan State a 10-0 loss.

Over the weekend, Central Michigan traveled to Orlando to face another elevated opponent — UCF. The Chippewas won 2-0 on Friday thanks to a gem of a start from Ben Vitas. The senior right-hander claimed MAC Co-Pitcher of the Week honors by dealing a 133-pitch, complete-game shutout for Central Michigan’s first blanking of the season. However, the team’s lack of pitching consistency (CMU has no pitcher with an ERA below 4.40) made itself known in the weekend’s final two games, leading UCF to outscore the Chippewas by a 40-5 margin.

At the plate, Jacob Donahue leads Central Michigan’s qualified batsmen with a .378 batting average and .933 OPS. Though he went 1-for-11 in Orlando, he put together a five-hit game two Sundays ago against Bowling Green. Donahue is one of two Chippewas (Jake Brill) with a dozen stolen bases this season, helping Central Michigan lead the MAC with 84 thefts.

In the power and production departments, Central Michigan leans on Danny Wuestenfeld and Ely Stuart, who both have five home runs. Wuestenfeld has a 68-RBI 2022 season in his background, and he has driven in 26 runs with a team-high 13 doubles this year. Stuart, a former transfer from UC Riverside, leads the Chippewas with 32 runs batted in.

Notre Dame and Central Michigan will open play at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday evening at Frank Eck Stadium.