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Notre Dame fends off UIC comeback

| Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Notre Dame stormed to an early lead against Illinois-Chicago, then held off a comeback attempt from the Flames (9-11, 2-1 Horizon), coming away with a 9-5 win at Frank Eck Stadium on Tuesday.

All of Notre Dame’s offense came in the first three innings, as the Irish (9-10, 1-5 ACC) put up five runs in the second and four in the third.

“That’s what you’re looking for,” Irish head coach Mik Aoki said. “Their pitcher was coming at us with fastballs early on, and I thought we did a pretty good job of getting ourselves on time.”

Freshman right fielder Matt Vierling got things started in the second with a single up the middle, then advanced to second on an error by Flames freshman third baseman Alex Dee, who could not handle a grounder from Irish senior shortstop Lane Richards. The next batter, sophomore designated hitter Jake Shepski, laid down a sacrifice bunt that pushed the runners to second and third.

Senior catcher Ricky Sanchez followed up with a hard grounder that was rerouted by the mound then bounced off the glove of the second baseman, scoring Vierling and allowing him to reach first. Senior center fielder Kyle Richardson then executed a safety squeeze perfectly, scoring Richards.

With two outs, freshman third baseman Cole Daily kept the inning alive against Flames freshman right-hander Reid Birlingmair with a single through the left side of the infield, putting runners at the corners.

Junior second baseman Cavan Biggio then blasted a ground-rule double to score Sanchez and advance Daily to third. Sophomore left fielder Jack Johnson and senior first baseman Zak Kutsulis then followed with back-to-back singles, the first of which scored Biggio. Vierling ended the outburst with a fly out to right field, but in total 10 Irish batters came to the plate in the inning.

Junior second baseman Cavan Biggio slides into third during Notre Dame's 9-5 victory over UIC Tuesday. The Irish are back in action Friday for a weekend series at Virginia Tech.Michael Yu | The Observer
Junior second baseman Cavan Biggio slides into third during Notre Dame’s 9-5 victory over UIC Tuesday. The Irish are back in action Friday for a weekend series at Virginia Tech.

“We strung, like, 10 quality at-bats together there,” Aoki said. “My sense is that their [pitcher] is kind of more a short-burst kind of kid, and he got extended just a little bit beyond where he’s comfortable going, which led to him to lose the zone.”

Birlingmair’s inability to find the zone became all the more apparent in the third, as the Irish scored four runs with just one hit. After Shepski reached on a dropped fly ball by UIC sophomore left fielder Joe Rossi, Birlingmair fell apart, walking three straight batters. Head coach Mike Dee pulled Birlingmair in favor of freshman Charlie Cerny, but it made no difference, as Biggio tripled down the right field line to clear the bases and make it 9-0.

“I definitely want to be aggressive early in the count, especially with the bases loaded,” Biggio said. “In that situation, we needed to get a few runs across, and you know that new guy wants to get off to a good start, pounding the zone early, so I was ready to go and he made a mistake.”

Biggio ended the game 2-for-5 at the plate, driving in four runs while scoring one himself.

The strongest hitting night, however, belonged to an Irish player who was not even expected to start before the weekend. Sanchez went 3-for-3 with a walk, an RBI and two runs while also catching all nine innings in place of junior Ryan Lidge, who missed his seventh game of the season due to injury.

“I was just looking fastball and trying to keep it as relaxed as possible,” Sanchez said. “I haven’t caught this much in my entire life, but my job is just to be ready whenever my name is called.”

After the third inning, Notre Dame’s offense quieted, producing just three hits over the next five innings. Meanwhile, UIC began to chip away at Notre Dame’s lead, scoring a run apiece on six hits in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. The Flames’ nine spot in the lineup was particularly productive, with catchers freshman Wyatt Mascarella and sophomore Gabe Dwyer both doubling in a run.

In the end, however, Irish senior left-hander Michael Hearne was able to limit the damage and produce a quality start of six innings and two earned runs for his second straight win.

“He was doing a good job of commanding his fastball, especially in against the righties,” Aoki said of his pitcher. “It’s important for him to do that so that the changeup is more effective. … He commanded even some of the few breaking balls he threw.”

The Irish have just one day off before they travel to Blacksburg, Virginia, to face off against Virginia Tech. After two ACC series this year, Notre Dame is still looking for its first series victory, having been swept by No. 4 Louisville and dropping two of three last weekend to No. 13 North Carolina State.

The Hokies have also gotten off to a rough start in conference play and are losers of seven straight. The three-game series is slated to start Thursday, with first pitch coming at 5:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday and noon Saturday.

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About Greg Hadley

Greg Hadley is a senior from Rockville, Maryland, majoring in political science with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He served as The Observer's Editor-in-Chief for the 2015-2016 term and currently covers Notre Dame baseball and women's basketball.

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