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Irish ready for matchup with Wolfpack

| Friday, March 18, 2016

Fresh off its first home game of the season, Notre Dame will try to carry the momentum from its mid-week win over Toledo onto the road as it faces No. 13 North Carolina State in a three-game series this weekend.

The Irish (7-8, 0-3 ACC) pounded the Rockets, 10-3, on Wednesday to near the .500 mark early on in the season, but Irish head coach Mik Aoki’s squad has already gotten off to a poor start in ACC play this year, getting swept by No. 5 Louisville on the road last weekend.

The Wolfpack (14-5, 1-2), like the Cardinals, are coming off an NCAA tournament berth last season, but their start to conference play in 2016 has been similar to that of the Irish, as they dropped two of three to unranked Boston College last weekend.

Beyond the ACC, however, the two teams have had divergent paths. While Notre Dame has played just one game at home, North Carolina State has played 15, collecting an 11-4 mark over that time. The Wolfpack average 5.37 runs per game and have a .296 batting average, while the Irish put up just 4.53 runs and hit .244.

Still, the Irish enter this weekend’s matchup with momentum after cruising past Toledo. Notre Dame’s offense collected 12 hits, its second-highest total of the season, while senior right-hander Michael Hearne struck out a career-high seven batters while retiring 12 of the last 13 batters he faced.

Hearne yielded the mound after five innings, and four Irish relievers revolved through to keep the door firmly closed against the Rockets, a performance Aoki said he was pleased with.

“It was nice to get our bullpen guys some work in the back half of that game,” Aoki said. “[Senior right-hander] Dave Hearne got in there for an inning, so hopefully he feels good. … [Freshman right-hander] Matt Vierling got in. … He gave up a home run but I think Matt is a kid whose role on the mound needs to expand, and he needs some experience out there. So I feel good about where we’re at.”

North Carolina State, meanwhile, split a two-game series against Indiana State at home this past Tuesday and Wednesday, dropping Wednesday’s contest against the Sycamores, 11-7.

Both the Wolfpack and the Irish sit near the bottom of the conference standings now, but despite Notre Dame’s three losses to the Cardinals (15-2, 3-0), Aoki said he still took some positives away from the series, as the Irish lost two games by a single run and nearly matched last year’s conference champion blow for blow.

“I thought save for the first inning of the second game, we pitched it incredibly well all weekend long, and I thought we defended it — again, save for that one inning … very well,” Aoki said after the losses to Louisville. “I thought our at-bats all-weekend long were incredibly competitive against a really elite pitching staff, which aside from that one inning I thought we matched them pitch for pitch essentially. And so I’ve been really encouraged by the way in which we’ve competed.”

Despite that, Aoki is shuffling his rotation slightly this weekend. Junior right-hander Ryan Smoyer will start the first game as he did against Louisville, but sophomore left-hander Sean Guenther will move up from the final game of the series to the second, while sophomore right-hander Brandon Bielak will be bumped in favor of junior left-hander Scott Tully.

Vierling might come in for relief as he did against Toledo, but he is also one of Notre Dame’s top offensive weapons, batting .304 in 15 starts this year with two home runs, tied for the team lead with fellow freshman outfielder Connor Stutts, who collected one of his long balls against the Rockets on Wednesday.

The Wolfpack, on the other hand, have gone yard far more often, led by senior catcher Chance Shepard. Shepard has single-handedly outslugged the Irish this year, posting seven home runs to Notre Dame’s six. He is tied for sixth in the nation in four-baggers.

Notre Dame faces North Carolina State in its second ACC series of the year this weekend at Doak Field at Dail Park in Raleigh, North Carolina. First pitch is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.

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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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