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Saturday, May 25, 2024
The Observer

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Irish snap losing streak against Butler, head to North Carolina

Notre Dame returns to the win column before challenging road series

The final score of Notre Dame baseball's first win since March 23 is misleading, but only slightly. An 11-2 margin of victory usually indicates a dominant performance by a team's offense, a high-scoring thriller that excites all in attendance.

Wednesday night's game between the Irish and Butler was more of a slog than a slugfest, though. Nineteen different pitches took the Frank Eck Stadium mound under the lights, including 12 Bulldogs, one of which was starting catcher Cade Vota, who only faced one batter (he flew out to center). There were four errors, four wild pitches, three passed balls, three hit batsmen and 13 walks between the two teams. Game 7 of the World Series this was not.

What it was, however, was a badly needed victory for the Irish, whose seven straight losses entering the night were its most since at least 2009. And it's not like they didn't earn it. Graduate student outfielder David Glancy continues to be one of the hottest hitters in the conference, launching his third home run in his last five games just two batters into the night. The Irish took advantage of Butler's wildness on the mound and in the field, putting together multi-run efforts in the fifth and sixth innings.

But the most encouraging development for Notre Dame came on the bump. Eight Irish pitchers surrendered just six hits (and only two for extra bases) on the night while striking out 13 hitters. Pitchers like graduate student Tobey McDonough, graduate student Will Jacobsen and sophomore David Lally Jr. — arms the Irish were counting on entering the season — delivered solid outings amid what has been a rough 2024 so far.

One victory won't change the trajectory of this Irish season, at least in the moment. But it was a reminder that the Irish have more in the tank than their record may indicate. They've lost 13 of 15 ACC games, but eight of those defeats have come by three runs or less, and five by just a singular run. They still have to prove they can carry this success into conference play, with a daunting series against No. 13 North Carolina on the horizon. Now, though, they at least have a little momentum to bring into it.

Irish transition to North Carolina seeking road redemption

Ten years ago, during Notre Dame's first season as an ACC program, the Irish lost each of their first 10 conference road games. That 2014 team, which went 22-31, ran into high-powered foes — such as No. 6 North Carolina State and No. 1 Florida State — away from home early.

Since then, no Irish baseball team has started 0-10 on the road in ACC play. But if this year's squad cannot take the first of its three games this weekend at North Carolina, the 2014 team will have company. The 2024 Irish have faced an even tougher schedule to start their road slate, going winless at No. 16 Virginia Tech, No. 10 Florida State and an NC State ranked 19th as recently as last week.

Two weekends ago in Raleigh, the Irish twice came within a breath of breaking up their dismal start outside South Bend. On both Friday and Saturday, the final two days of the series with NC State, Notre Dame led by multiple runs through five innings. But the Irish bullpen caved in on itself, allowing a combined 10 runs in eight innings throughout the second half of the two games.

In the end, NC State walked off with 7-6 wins in each contest, rallying back from a 6-4 deficit in the ninth inning of the series finale. Notre Dame also had chances to win in 4-2 and 4-3 losses at Florida State in mid-March but struggled to break through against the Seminole bullpen.

The Irish now head to Chapel Hill looking to build on their midweek victory over Butler -- a win that snapped an overall losing streak of seven games. With its RPI rating having slipped down to 36th in the nation, Notre Dame could use a jolt against a North Carolina program it has good history against since joining the ACC.

Last season, the Irish and Tar Heels played a highly competitive series that flipped the calendar from March to April in South Bend. Friday's game, a 10-8 Carolina win, saw the Irish score each of their runs on long balls. Current sophomore second baseman and senior center fielder T.J. Williams both went deep as the eight and nine-hole hitters, putting Notre Dame ahead 8-4 through eight innings. But the Diamond Heels answered with a six-run ninth inning, concluding with a go-ahead grand slam by third baseman Johnny Castagnozzi.

After rain and snow pushed Saturday's game to part of a Sunday doubleheader, North Carolina claimed the series with a 5-2 win. Connor Bovair, who now pitches out of the Tar Heel bullpen, fired off eight innings with just two runs allowed. Notre Dame then countered with a 9-2 victory to split the doubleheader and salvage a game out of the series. The Irish launched three more home runs in that contest, including one from current junior shortstop Jack Penney.

Ranked 13th in the nation, North Carolina is having another sharp season at 26-7 overall and 11-4 within the ACC. With a 20-0 start to the year on home field, the Tar Heels have a chance to do serious damage against an Irish team still reeling on the road. Carolina has won 24 consecutive games in Chapel Hill dating back to last year, when the Tar Heels' season ended at the Indiana State-hosted Terre Haute Regional.

Offensively, North Carolina has turned a healthy balance of speed, power and average into 291 runs, which rank third in the ACC. Each of North Carolina's nine position players with at least 18 starts carry a batting average above .280. Casey Cook, whose 48 runs batted in rank second in the conference, leads everyday starters with a .370 average. 

North Carolina's extra-base power comes from all angles, and it begins with Albert Osuna and his team-leading 15 doubles. Anthony Donofrio, the only Diamond Heel with multiple triples, has four on the season. Five different Carolina hitters own eight or more home runs, with Parks Harber and Vance Honeycutt carrying 11 and 10, respectively.

As the ACC's most efficient baserunning team, North Carolina has 57 stolen bases in 61 attempts this season. Honeycutt and Donofrio both rank inside the conference's top five for base-stealing, combining for 33 thefts.

While North Carolina's offense went cold during its 2-1 loss to South Carolina on Tuesday, its pitching was the issue during last weekend's series loss at Virginia. The Tar Heels' starting rotation of Folger Boaz, Jason DeCaro and Shea Sprague gave up a total of 12 runs in 12 1/3 innings. Their usually solid bullpen got roughed up as well, blowing an 11-6 lead in last Thursday's 14-11 loss.

The North Carolina series will be Notre Dame's last multi-game road trip between now and mid-May. The Irish will host Boston College, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh and Toledo over the four weekends following this one.

Friday's series-opening first pitch will fly at 6 p.m. with games following at 2 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday.