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Irish jump out to early lead in win over Cougars

| Wednesday, April 13, 2016

It wasn’t quite a blowout or a cakewalk, but Notre Dame was never seriously challenged in a 6-3 win over Chicago State on Tuesday night at Frank Eck Stadium.

The Cougars (7-24, 1-8 WAC) entered the game ranked 284th in the nation according to RPI ratings, Notre Dame’s worst opponent of the season. But the Irish (17-12, 6-7 ACC) never pulled away after scoring all their runs in the first three innings, resulting in a score that made the game look much closer than it actually was, according to Irish head coach Mik Aoki.

“We just didn’t seem to get the hit we needed to,” Aoki said. “There were a couple of balls that I thought we hit fairly well when we had opportunities for guys to score, but it always seemed like we were getting guys in scoring position when there was already two outs.

“You get one more hit in one of those situations, ball falls in, and I think it’s a very different-looking ball game.”

Overall, the Irish went 5-for-14 at the plate with two outs but just 2-for-10 with runners in scoring position.

Still, Aoki’s squad burst out to an early lead thanks to senior first baseman Zak Kutsulis, who smacked a pitch to right field in the bottom of the first that was knocked down by the wind and dropped in for a hit. Chicago State senior right fielder Chris Hipchen dove for the ball but missed it, allowing it to roll all the way to the wall and Kutsulis to reach third standing up.

It was Kutsulis’s second triple on the year, and he trotted home midway through the next at-bat when Cougars freshman pitcher Josh Willis buried a ball in the turf for a wild pitch.

Willis was not the only hurler struggling with control early on though. Irish junior right-hander Ryan Smoyer, who missed his usual Friday start last week against Miami (Fla.) due to a weather cancellation, walked three of the first four batters he faced but recovered to go three no-hit innings and collect his third win of the season, tied for best on the team.

“He’d been struggling with a few things, and we wanted to get him out there to work some stuff out,” Aoki said of Smoyer. “And I think, by and large, he had a rough first inning, but he did a nice job of managing that. He’s gotta be better than that. The plan is for him to pitch again this Sunday [against Boston College].”

The Irish manufactured three more runs in the bottom of the second, as freshman right fielder Matt Vierling singled on a line drive up the middle then advanced to second when sophomore left fielder Jake Shepski walked.

Both runners advanced a base when senior shortstop Lane Richards laid down a sacrifice bunt down the third-base line, and Vierling then scored on an infield single from junior third baseman Kyle Fiala.

Fiala, who missed nearly a month with a hand injury, finished the game 2-for-3 at the plate with a walk, run and RBI in just his second game back and said he could feel the flow of the game returning to him.

“I feel like my timing has been good. That’s usually something that takes some time,” Fiala said. “Just seeing pitches helps it. While I was out, I was standing in on bullpens occasionally, just doing anything I could so that my timing was back when I got in the game. It’s been off a little bit, but it’s getting there.”

Junior catcher Ryan Lidge then grounded out to Willis to score Shepski, but junior second baseman Cavan Biggio appeared to end the inning with a lazy pop up down the left-field line. However, Chicago State freshman left fielder Jeremy Cole lost the ball in the sun, and it hit off his glove and chest near the line, allowing Fiala to race home.

The Irish finished their scoring for the day in the third when senior left fielder Ricky Sanchez started things off with a single on a ground ball to the shortstop that he hustled out. Sanchez then came around to score when Vierling lined one down the right-field line for a triple, his first of the season. Vierling then tagged up to score when Shepski flied out to right field.

Irish senior catcher Ricky Sanchez takes a swing during Notre Dame’s 6-3 win over Chicago State on Tuesday at Frank Eck Stadium.Kathleen Donahue | The Observer
Irish senior catcher Ricky Sanchez takes a swing during Notre Dame’s 6-3 win over Chicago State on Tuesday at Frank Eck Stadium.

Once Smoyer left the game, replaced by senior right-hander Nick McCarty, the Cougars were able to claw back to within three, getting their first runs of the game in the top of the fifth. They started the inning with three straight singles to load the bases and then grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, scoring one, before singling again to add another.

Chicago State’s third run resulted from a walk, stolen base, ground ball and wild pitch from senior right-hander Joey Cresta, who followed McCarty.

The Irish have now won five straight midweek games and will have the chance to extend that streak Wednesday in a home contest against Valparaiso. The contest was originally scheduled for last week but was postponed due to inclement weather.

Notre Dame has won its last four meetings with the Crusaders and will send senior left-hander Michael Hearne, who sports a perfect 3-0 record and 3.18 ERA, to the mound. First pitch is scheduled for 6:05 p.m. at Frank Eck Stadium.

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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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