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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
The Observer


Irish move into May with pivotal Pittsburgh series

Notre Dame finished April going 8-2, now sit a game out of the ACC Tournament field

The do-or-die month of May has arrived for Notre Dame baseball. The month that removed the Irish from postseason contention a season ago could very well do the same this year. 

Or, if the final 10 games of April are any indication, it could work some magic on the Irish. Since going 1-10 between March 24 and April 14, Notre Dame has won eight of its last 10 games, most recently swiping a series win against No. 8 Wake Forest and triumphing on Tuesday at Michigan State. Now, the Irish head into a crucial series against Pittsburgh hoping not only to keep its momentum alive, but also needing to make a decisive push back into the ACC Tournament field.

Notre Dame has taken a series from Pitt in each of the last five full seasons. In April of last year, the Irish traveled to the Steel City and scored a combined 21 runs in its two victories. However, the Panthers struck back in late May, contributing to Notre Dame’s ACC Tournament elimination with a 9-5 win.

Standings check

With three weekends remaining in the regular season, Notre Dame and Pitt each have work to do to keep their seasons alive. A dozen teams qualify for the ACC Tournament, and the Irish and Panthers currently rank as the conference’s 13th-best and 14th-best teams, respectively.

At this point, Notre Dame appears in a good position to sneak into the tournament. With a 7-17 ACC record, the Irish sit a game behind both Boston College and Miami for the final spot in the bracket. Notre Dame has two elements working in its favor down the stretch. First, the Irish own the head-to-head advantage against both the Eagles and Hurricanes, having gone 5-1 against them this season. Second, Notre Dame doesn’t have a top-eight ACC opponent left on its schedule. Miami does with Virginia Tech next weekend, and Boston College deals with frontrunning Clemson two weeks from now.

Pitt, despite being 5-16 in the ACC and a game and a half back of the tournament, holds three games in hand on its competitors. Outside of a difficult series with Florida State next weekend, the Panthers will have full control of their own destiny in the final three weeks. They of course face Notre Dame, the first team ahead of them, this weekend. Pitt will then end the regular season against Miami, the closest team to it in the Coastal Division.

Panther problems

Unlike Notre Dame, which held on for a big midweek win Tuesday at Michigan State, Pitt comes into this weekend after taking a nasty loss. The Panthers fell 11-1 to Backyard Brawl rival West Virginia on Tuesday. What’s worse, they lost by such a wide margin on the big stage at PNC Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates.

However, in a similar vein as the Irish, Pitt played well out of the gate. The Panthers started the year 8-1, picking up Power Five wins over Washington, Oklahoma and California. But once ACC play started, Pitt took a nosedive and now owns a 10-22 overall record since March 8. Unlike the Irish, the Panthers have not found a surge in recent weeks, as they are still without a series win in conference play this season. On the bright side, Pitt managed to claim a win on the road at Clemson in its last ACC weekend.

Despite owning the least productive offense in the conference, Pitt features a couple of dangerous bats in its lineup. Junior infielder Luke Cantwell leads the ACC with a .513 on-base percentage, as he has taken 45 walks in 41 games while striking out just 28 times. Cantwell also leads the Panthers with 35 runs batted in. Just behind him in that category, junior catcher Jayden Melendez has 33 RBI on a team-high 13 home runs this season.

Probable starters

For Friday’s 6:30 p.m. game, expect Rhode Island transfer Ryan Andrade to toe the slab for Pittsburgh. He owns a 9.64 earned run average in 11 starts this year, and Pitt has not won a start of his since March 15. On the Notre Dame side, consistent senior Matt Bedford should get the ball. He made his best start of the season last Friday against Wake Forest, allowing zero earned runs on two hits in 5 2/3 innings. Bedford now owns a 0.79 ERA in five home starts this season.

On Saturday, Pitt will likely throw Ryan Reed for the 4 p.m. contest. Reed is in his first year as a college starting pitcher and is winless with a 6.47 ERA this season. Last time out against Bryant, he allowed just one earned run in 6 2/3 innings, striking out eight and walking nobody. For Notre Dame, freshman Jack Radel will be in line to start. He picked up the win against Wake Forest last Saturday, allowing three runs across 5 1/3 innings pitched and bringing his team-leading ERA to 3.86.

Finally, Sunday’s 2 p.m. game should feature former Auburn transfer Jack Sokol on the Pitt mound. Sokol’s 4.78 ERA leads Panther starting pitchers, as does his 5-2 record. After a bumpy March, he pitched to a 1.84 ERA in four April starts, including quality starts against Duke and Clemson. Notre Dame projects to oppose him with sophomore Rory Fox, who has made a start in each of the last six weekends.