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Irish stay hot with trio of wins in Georgia

| Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A last-minute tournament change due to winter weather was not enough to cool off Notre Dame as the team swept three games this weekend at Claude Smith Field in Macon, Georgia, to win the Mercer Baseball Classic and stretch its winning streak to nine games.

The Irish (10-1) topped Belmont, 6-4, Friday night and then took both games of a doubleheader Saturday, defeating host Mercer, 8-2, before a 5-4 walk-off win over Akron later that day.

It was a weekend of baseball that almost didn’t happen for Notre Dame, as the USA Baseball-Irish Classic was canceled Thursday morning due to inclement weather in Cary, North Carolina. Left with few options, the Irish found an opportunity to play at Mercer, head coach Mik Aoki said.

“We ended up down at Mercer, in large part because of the graciousness of both the Mercer and the Belmont coaches,” Aoki said.

Akron (5-4), which had also been scheduled to play in the USA Baseball-Irish Classic, was also extended the invitation to play in Macon, and the Zips nearly ended Notre Dame’s winning streak in the final game of the weekend.

Akron scored three runs in the seventh inning to take a 4-3 lead, which it held entering the bottom of the ninth. Irish junior left fielder/catcher Ricky Sanchez reached base on an error to start the final frame, and junior shortstop Lane Richards followed him with a triple to tie up the game. After senior Robert Youngdahl drew a pinch-hit walk, Akron junior relief pitcher Daulton Mosbarger came in and threw a wild pitch, allowing Richards to score the winning run.

Even though the game’s outcome was in doubt until the very end, the Irish dugout remained optimistic, Aoki said.

“I just loved the way that our kids just continued to fight and to compete, and I loved the way that our dugout was,” he said. “It was full of confidence, and you just got the feeling that our kids felt like this game was going to be won.

“I just felt like the confidence level and the attitude never waned in any way, shape or form, so I was really pleased with that.”

After managing two home runs in its first nine games, Notre Dame hit four in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, an 8-2 win over Mercer (7-5).

Sophomore second baseman Cavan Biggio accounted for two of those home runs, while Youngdahl and sophomore third baseman Kyle Fiala added one apiece, with all of the four-baggers coming in the game’s first three innings.

Despite the power surge, Aoki said power hitting is not Notre Dame’s offensive identity.

“I think we’re going to hit some home runs here and there, but I don’t think that’s who our character is,” Aoki said. “I think who we are is a team that’s really going to be able to compete from pitch to pitch. I think that we’re a team that’s going to get our share of doubles and some extra-base hits.”

Notre Dame faced a tough test Friday night in Belmont junior starting pitcher Aaron Quillen, who struck out 11 batters. The team managed just two runs through six innings but broke open the game with two runs each in the seventh and eighth innings to top the Bruins (2-5). Aoki said the Irish were able to wear down Quillen, who departed the game after seven innings and 112 pitches.

“Our kids just did a phenomenal job of battling and competing, not letting swings or misses or strikeouts affect their psyche in any way, shape or form,” he said. “They stayed resolute in their desire to compete, and that’s what we did.”

Notre Dame will start ACC play with a three-game series against Georgia Tech in Atlanta, beginning this Friday.

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About Brian Hartnett

Brian Hartnett is a senior marketing major and journalism, ethics and democracy minor. The Carroll Hall resident hails from Clark, New Jersey and covers Notre Dame football, as well as other University topics.

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