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Irish notch victory in their first home game

| Thursday, March 17, 2016

Wind whipping up to 40 miles per hour and temperatures in the mid-50s doesn’t qualify as good baseball weather by most people’s standards.

But those conditions were just about perfect for Notre Dame on Wednesday, as the Irish (7-8, 0-3 ACC) kicked off their home schedule at Frank Eck Stadium with a 10-3 win over Toledo.

It was a group effort for Irish head coach Mik Aoki’s squad, as nine different batters combined for 12 hits and five pitchers scattered six hits and three runs among them. Those 12 hits marks the second-highest total for Notre Dame this season.

“Overall, our bats were good, we played it clean defensively and we pitched pretty well,” Aoki said. “ … Our kids were swinging at the right pitches.”

Early on, however, nature was not kind to the Irish, as the wind helped the Rockets (2-14-1, 0-0 MAC) take the first lead of the game.

In the top of the first, Toledo sophomore first baseman Dalton Bollinger cracked what would have normally been a lazy fly ball to right-center field. Instead, it caught a gust and bounced over the wall for a ground-rule double that scored senior shortstop Deion Tansel, who had reached on a single.

From there, Toledo loaded the bases as Irish senior right-hander Michael Hearne hit one batter and walked another to load the bases. However, he rallied with two strikeouts to strand all three runners.

But the wind returned the favor in the bottom of the fourth, as the Irish collected four runs on four hits. Senior shortstop Lane Richards began the inning with a line drive that crested into the right-center gap for a triple, then scored on an RBI groundout from junior catcher Ryan Lidge.

Freshman right fielder Connor Stutts followed with a mammoth blast pushed along by a breeze that cleared the right field wall and then some. It was the freshman’s second collegiate home run and served as a response to Bollinger’s first-inning double.

“I got jammed a little bit,” Stutts said. “I was thinking away and I just reacted to it. I’m just happy to get something started for the team to beat them. …

“Right field was pretty rough. You had the sun and the wind. You just try to get as many reps as you can in batting practice and just hope they stay in the yard when you’re on defense.”

Junior second baseman Cavan Biggio and sophomore left fielder Jake Johnson followed Stutts with back-to-back singles, and senior designated hitter Ricky Sanchez brought them both home with a line drive double to right that got pushed by the wind all the way to the wall.

By the end of the fourth, the Irish led 7-1 and had knocked Toledo’s starting pitcher, senior Kyle Slack, out of the game.

Hearne, meanwhile, did not need nearly as much run support as he was provided by his teammates. Following his wild first inning, he went on to retire 12 of the next 13 batters he faced, allowing no hits over that period of time. He was rewarded with his first win of the season and first decision in 11 months after undergoing Tommy John surgery early last year.

“I noticed the umpire was giving a little bit more on the edge of the plate, and I started hitting that a little bit,” Hearne said. “They were taking it, so I was taking what they were giving me and getting a lot more swings and misses on my changeup outside of the zone after that.”

Even Hearne benefited from the gusty weather, as he posted a career-high seven strikeouts by utilizing its effect on some of his pitches.

“My changeup was really moving and the wind was helping it out a lot,” Hearne said. “It was going with my tail. I was also locating my fastball really well. They really set each other up.”

But the Irish did not rely solely on wind power to claim the win. Notre Dame manufactured six of its 10 runs with a combination of singles, wild pitches, stolen bases, sacrifices and errors.

In the top of the second, freshman center fielder Matt Vierling started things off by slapping a hard grounder up the middle that Toledo sophomore second baseman Matt Hansen bobbled, allowing him to reach first.

Richards followed with a soft line drive to right field, Lidge advanced both runners on a ground out to third base, and Stutts lofted an easy fly ball to center field that scored Vierling.

With two outs, freshman third baseman Cole Daily drew a walk to put a man on first and second, and Biggio took advantage with a single to right, scoring Richards and sending Daily to third. The next batter, Johnson struck out to end the inning, but not before Slack buried a pitch that got past the catcher for Daily to race home for an insurance run.

In the bottom of the sixth, freshman Nick Podkul, who came in as a defensive replacement for Daily in the top of the inning, ripped a single up the middle, stole second and then advanced to third on a fly out from Biggio. He came around to score on a single by Johnson, who then made it to third on a single to right field by Sanchez and crossed the plate after Vierling chopped a groundball that handcuffed the shortstop for an error.

“That was a kid, Slack, who doesn’t walk a lot of people,” Aoki said. “We managed to get two walks and a hit-by-pitch, so we made them earn their outs. Our at-bats up and down [the lineup] were really good. Our quality at-bats, which is something we track, was probably as high as it’s been since we were at down at Incarnate Word [on Feb. 27].”

The Irish only have one day off as they travel to Raleigh, North Carolina, for a three-game series against ACC foe North Carolina State this weekend. First pitch on Friday is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.

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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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