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Baseball

Strong first inning leads Notre Dame past Central Michigan 8-3 in home opener

| Thursday, March 19, 2015

Forty-five degrees isn’t exactly baseball weather, but that didn’t stop the Irish in their home opener Wednesday, when they cruised to an 8-3 victory over Central Michigan.

Notre Dame (15-4, 3-3 ACC) wasn’t able to take the field at Frank Eck Stadium last season until May 9 because of an extended winter and FieldTurf installation. This year’s earlier start in the home schedule was matched by the team’s hot start against the Chippewas (13-8, 0-0 MAC).

The Irish got on the board first in the bottom of the first inning after senior right fielder Robert Youngdahl walked with the bases loaded to drive in freshman left fielder Jake Johnson. Johnson got on base with a lead-off double that took a big bounce in front of first base before skipping into right field, and the hit extended his consecutive on-base streak to all 19 games of the season.

A sacrifice fly to center field from sophomore catcher Ryan Lidge brought in a second Notre Dame run. Lidge finished the game with three RBIs and two hits, crossing the plate once himself as well.

The catcher put together a .264 batting average last year as a freshman, which has spiked to .317 so far this season. Irish head coach Mik Aoki said while Lidge was always a talented player, he attributes Lidge’s improvement in 2015 to a rapid development last summer.

“He’s been able to continue that, and he’s done a really good job, and he’s been really solid behind the plate, and he’s been giving us some good offense and some timely hitting, so I’m happy to see him have some success as well,” Aoki said.

Notre Dame tacked on two more runs in the first to extend its lead over the Chippewas to 4-0 and push Central Michigan sophomore starter Jordan Grosjean’s pitch count to 41 throws after the inning.

The Irish continued to torment Grosjean in the bottom of the third. Junior shortstop Lane Richards connected on a two-out single to center field that darted right over the starter’s extended glove, and the hit knocked in Lidge for the fifth Irish run of the night.

Like Lidge, Richards has seen a vast improvement at the plate from his previous two seasons at Notre Dame, in which he averaged .246 and .254, respectively. His two hits and two RBIs Wednesday brought his season average up to .329.

“In the past, a pitcher sort of slowing down his bat with a breaking ball or a changeup would sort of change the outcome of the at-bat, and I think he’s done a really good job of just trying to compete from pitch to pitch and not letting the prior pitch affect the current pitch,” Aoki said of Richards’ improvement at the plate.

The Chippewas got on the board in the top of the fourth and threatened to cross the plate again with two outs and runners on first and third. However, the Irish turned their nation-leading 30th double play of the year to squelch their progress.

Though Central Michigan outhit Notre Dame on Wednesday, 10-9, Aoki said his team’s defense keeps him from worrying about men on base and opponents’ hits too much.

“I think it’s the idea of just being able to kind of create the type of contact that we want,” he said. “We’re not a prolific strikeout team, so as long as we’re sort of dictating the terms upon which the contact is being made, we’re fine.”

The Irish added on two more runs in the bottom of the fifth and a final score in the seventh, making Central Michigan’s final two runs — one each in the top of the eighth and the ninth — a moot point.

Notre Dame sophomore right hander Ryan Smoyer pitched 4 and 1/3 innings to earn the win in his second start of the season. Smoyer lasted just 2 and 1/3 innings in his first start in a March 11 matchup with Savannah State.

“We just want to give Ryan some innings and, hopefully, he continues to improve and all that kind of stuff,” Aoki said. “… I think if we’re going to be a good team, and we’re going to be able to compete at a high level in these midweek games, we’re going to need him, and we’re going to need some other guys to really help us out.”

Grosjean was tagged with the loss, while Irish sophomore left hander Scott Tully allowed just two hits and one run in 3 and 2/3 innings of relief.

Notre Dame continues its homestand this weekend, with a three-game series against No. 16 Louisville at Frank Eck Stadium.

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