Notre Dame wins Alamo Irish Classic
Greg Hadley | Tuesday, March 1, 2016
As evening began to fall last Friday in San Antonio, it looked as though Notre Dame’s slow start to the 2016 season would continue.
Losers of three straight, the Irish were trailing Texas Southern, 5-2, heading into the bottom of the ninth. If they dropped the game against the Tigers, they would have no chance of defending their Alamo Irish Classic title from 2015.
Two walk-off hits and 24 runs later, Notre Dame (4-3) finished off the weekend with a flourish, defending its crown and building a three-game win streak heading into Spring Break.
“It’s always nice to win a tournament that you’re hosting,” Irish head coach Mik Aoki said. “The thing we try to emphasize is that if you take care of the little things and control the things you can control, we feel we’re a talented enough team that we’ll be able to compete at a high level.”
Those little things piled up at the plate for the Irish, who scored four in the ninth against Texas Southern to claim a walk-off win and then did almost the exact same thing two days later against Gonzaga to finish off the tournament. In between those two results, Notre Dame’s bats exploded in a 13-2 win over Incarnate Word on Saturday.
The key, Aoki said, was patience and resiliency.
“First and foremost, I was most pleased with the energy and engagement level of our team, in particular, the players that weren’t playing,” he said. “That was able to keep us grounded in the moment and worrying about doing the little things to keep it going.”
Against Texas Southern, the Irish did not have any one particular big at-bat but instead piled on five hits and took advantage of two passed balls to rally. Freshman designated hitter Connor Stutts had the longest hit of the comeback with a triple that tied the game, and freshman pinch runner Cole Daily came around to score when sophomore outfielder Jake Johnson slapped a single into right field to end the game.
“We had a bigger hole to dig out off against Texas Southern,” Aoki said. “We stayed confident and … showed a little toughness, and I thought it was exceptional.”
No rally was needed Saturday, as Irish hitters pounced on Incarnate Word in the first inning, scoring four runs to stake a lead Notre Dame would not relinquish. Nine different players combined for 15 hits, while sophomore left-hander Sean Guenther went 7 1/3 innings, surrendering just four hits and one earned run.
Senior Ricky Sanchez went 3-for-4 with a run and RBI against Incarnate Word, while also catching all nine innings in place of injured junior Ryan Lidge. In fact, Sanchez caught every single inning of the four games over the weekend, his most work behind the plate in his career at Notre Dame, Aoki said.
But the added workload didn’t slow Sanchez down. He battled opposing pitchers all weekend long, Aoki said, and that toughness at the plate paid off when he singled on a 3-2 count in the bottom of the ninth against Gonzaga to give his team the 7-6 win. Over the tournament’s four games, he hit .412 with three RBIs and five runs scored.
“Ricky is a very talented offensive player, and he has struggled at time for whatever reason, but he has a very mature approach to the plate this year, and although it’s a very young season, he’s been able to shorten his swing, especially with two strikes,” Aoki said. “In the first inning of the Gonzaga game, I think he had a nine- or 10-pitch at-bat.
“ … In previous years, Ricky wasn’t able to execute consistently, and the maturity he has had at the plate has allowed him to maximize the considerable amount of talent he has.”
Even in the very first game of the Classic, in which the Irish fell to Bradley, 4-3, Sanchez posted an RBI and run scored off one hit.
However, that offense was part of a three-run eighth that was not enough to support a strong outing from Irish junior right-hander Ryan Smoyer, who held the Braves scoreless through five innings and finished with a quality start of 6 1/3 innings and two earned runs. Bradley junior right-hander Matt Dennis kept the Irish hitters handcuffed for seven innings, allowing just four baserunners and striking out 10.
Winners of three straight, Notre Dame will next travel to Cary, North Carolina, for the USA Baseball-Irish Classic this weekend. The Irish will play Alabama on Friday, Brown and Bucknell in a doubleheader Saturday and Niagara on Sunday.