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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

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Irish baseball takes huge step with series upset of No. 8 Wake Forest

Irish take series on Williams’ walk-off home-run

When senior outfielder T.J. Williams connected with the first pitch in the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday, it would have been understandable if the 792 fans inside Frank Eck Stadium didn’t believe what they were seeing. Time and time again this season, the Irish have let winnable games slip through their fingers, especially against the premier teams in the ACC. The Irish entered the weekend 0-7 in conference games decided by two runs or fewer, then fell to 0-8 on Friday when a three-run eighth inning propelled No. 8 Wake Forest to a 4-3 win.

But the tide had already begun to shift on Saturday. Three homers in the opening inning, including one of the very first pitch of the game by Williams, set the tone for the team’s biggest victory of the season. Then, when Williams’ towering drive landed in the left field shrubbery, they officially one-upped themselves.

“All year, personally, I’ve been, like, ‘I got to get these guys a win in a close game, I got to figure out a way to get them a win in a close game,’ and we just haven’t been able to push the right buttons, make the pitch or get the hit or make the play, at the right time. And today we were able to hang in there against the ropes a little bit, kept giving ourselves opportunities for swings, and Simon and TJ gave us big ones,” head coach Shawn Stiffler said.

Unlike Saturday’s 11-3 drubbing, it didn’t come easily. Neither team held anything back in the rubber match, which contained everything from a controversial overturned call that cost the Irish two runs (which came around to score eventually), a run-scoring balk and defensive miscues amidst a driving wind on both sides. Yet despite leading almost the entire game, it seemed like deja vu might set in when Wake star Nick Kurtz put the Demon Deacons ahead in the eighth with a two-out, two-strike, two-run double.

But before nihilism could take its course, the Irish offense did what they’ve done all season: answer. The very first pitch in the inning’s bottom half was stroked well over the left-field wall by graduate student infielder Simon Baumgardt. Had the Irish preserved Friday’s lead, Baumgardt would’ve been the hero thanks to a go-ahead two-run shot off Wake Forest ace Chase Burns, who struck out 14 hitters in seven innings of work. The positive results from Baumgardt and Williams were validation for the approach that Stiffler has preached all season.

“We anticipate every pitch is a strike, and we talked to our guys about being ready and assume strike and take the ball and so on. When your better players are up, you’ve got to give them opportunities to change the game and win the game for you,” Stiffler said.

Power was a huge source of Notre Dame’s success once again. After slugging 12 home runs in a sweep of Boston College the prior weekend, the Irish launched nine more, taking advantage of a Demon Deacons pitching staff that, while solid overall, has struggled to keep teams in the ballpark all season. But, most winning teams are built from the mound out, and the team’s starting pitch staff continued to roll. Senior Matt Bedford and freshman Jack Radel both set career-highs in innings pitched in the first two games of the series and sophomore Rory Fox came just one out away from matching his. The trio held their opponents to six earned runs in 15.2 innings pitched for a 3.44 ERA.

“The confidence that you’re seeing [from] Rory Fox and Jack Radel right there, they’re just growing in confidence and I think that’s what you’re seeing out of them,” Stiffler said.

Suddenly, an Irish team left for dead is now just one game out of an ACC Tournament spot, with the other two teams the Irish have won ACC series against (Boston College and Miami) the teams they hope to chase down. Another home series against conference bottom-feeder Pitt awaits in a week, although the Irish would be wise not to overlook their midweek game at Michigan State after being one-hit by Central Michigan on Wednesday. But there’s real momentum around an Irish team that was spinning its tires for so long, giving them something to play for as the home stretch intensifies.

“We’re right back in this thing now to qualify for the tournament,” Stiffler said. “So we have good baseball left in us, and I’m just so proud of our guys, that we’re going to make these next two weekends of ACC play really meaningful. We’re in playoff baseball right now, which is what’s really cool.”