Notre Dame weathers ACC challenge from Wake Forest
Zach Klonsinski | Monday, April 4, 2016
Notre Dame and Wake Forest were just trying to play a normal, three-game series this weekend.
Mother Nature had other ideas.
In the end, however, the Irish (15-11, 6-6 ACC) weathered the storm a little better, taking two of three from the Demon Deacons (18-12, 5-7 ACC) at Frank Eck Stadium in conference action.
The fun started at about the last possible moment in Friday night’s series opener. With Wake Forest staked to a 5-4 lead, two outs, runners on second and third and a 1-1 count on Irish freshman right fielder Matt Vierling, the game was delayed by freezing rain and high winds. After a 33-minute delay, Vierling took a cut at the first pitch and hit a soft grounder to Wake Forest sophomore shortstop Drew Freedman. Freedman’s throw was wide of first, however, and Irish junior pinch runner Torii Hunter Jr. and senior first baseman Zak Kutsulis scored to give Notre Dame its fifth walk-off victory of 2016.
“That was pretty high up there,” Irish head coach Mik Aoki said when asked where Friday night’s contest ranks among the most bizarre games he’s coached. “ … You’ve got kind of a hail/rain delay, and then obviously, you’ve been in that situation where some sort of negative play wins or loses a game for you, and you kind of feel for Freedman a little bit there on that play.
“But yeah, that was a pretty funky game, that’s for sure.”
The Irish spotted the Demon Deacons three runs on two hits, two walks, one hit batter and a throwing error by junior catcher Ryan Lidge in the top of the first inning and trailed the entire game before walking off. Junior right hander Ryan Smoyer struggled to find the strike zone for most of the game. Smoyer threw for 4 2/3 innings and allowed four runs on four hits, four walks, one hit batter and two wild pitches.
Mother Nature interfered again Saturday, as the forecast called for snow so the second game of the series was postponed to Sunday, when the teams played a doubleheader.
Wake Forest came out on top in a high scoring first game Sunday, pulling away for a 15-13 victory as it rode the big inning past the host Irish. The Demon Deacons scored three runs in the second, four in the sixth and a whopping seven in the top of the ninth to blow open what had been an 8-7 game entering the final frame.
Notre Dame, trailing by eight entering the bottom half of the ninth, mounted a valiant comeback attempt, trimming the final margin to just two runs and bringing the winning run to the plate, but senior shortstop Lane Richards grounded into a fielder’s choice to end the game.
Senior utility man Ricky Sanchez went 3-for-4 game at the plate with an RBI while catching six different Irish pitchers — the Demon Deacons, on the other hand, used eight different players on the mound. Richards also finished 2-for-5 with three RBIs.
Notre Dame jumped out to an early advantage in the series’ rubber match Sunday afternoon though, using aggressive base running to capitalize on a couple Wake Forest miscues and build a 2-0 lead after the first inning. The Irish added another run in the third and two more in the fourth to build a 5-0 lead.
That would be more than enough for sophomore right hander Peter Solomon.
Solomon struck out the side in the first and held a high-powered Wake Forest offense to just two runs on five hits while striking out eight Demon Deacons, the highest total for any Irish pitcher this season, en route to a 10-2 victory.
“I was able to throw the curve ball for a strike early in the count, so that let them not just sit on the fastball the whole time,” Solomon said. “And then fastball in, slider late, just down: They were chasing it so I just kept throwing it.”
“I thought Pete was outstanding,” Aoki said. “I thought he was really, really good. Commanded his fastball, commanded — the slider and the curveball kind of went back and forth, but at the end of the day the slider was probably the better pitch for him than the curveball was.
“ … I thought he was really, really in command. I thought he did a really good job.”
Aoki said a combination of Solomon’s pitching and the Irish defense being sharper in the rubber match was the key to turning the day around after committing four errors in the first contest.
“We just didn’t give them as many free 90s,” Aoki said of the difference between game one and game two. “Even when you think about some of the balls that fell in … it’s kind of one of those really weird days because you don’t usually don’t see that out of our defense.
“So as happy as I am winning two out of three, I can’t help but feel like we gave one away.”
Due to the length of the first game and ACC travel curfew rules, the final game of the series was shortened to just six innings, technically giving Solomon the complete game victory.
Notre Dame gets Monday off before its back on the Frank Eck Stadium turf Tuesday to host rival Michigan at 6:05 p.m.