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Irish sweep Eagles in ACC play

| Monday, April 18, 2016

Matched up against one of the best pitching staffs in the ACC, Notre Dame used two sterling efforts from its own starters and one offensive explosion to sweep Boston College this weekend at Frank Eck Stadium.

The three wins push the Irish (21-12) to 9-7 and fifth place in the conference, with four ACC series remaining on Notre Dame’s schedule. None of the wins against the Eagles (18-14, 5-11) were blowouts though, as the Irish took the first two contests by 4-1 scores and then rallied from a five-run deficit Sunday afternoon for an 11-9 victory.

“Any time you have the chance to sweep in this conference, it’s a big change,” Irish head coach Mik Aoki said. “It’s such a competitive conference and BC is such a competitive team … so we feel fortunate and I’m really proud of how our kids competed all weekend long.”

The Eagles pitchers entered the series ranked in the top 30 nationally and second in the ACC in ERA and walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP), and through the first two games were able to hold the Irish bats relatively in check.

But Notre Dame sophomore pitchers Peter Solomon and Sean Guenther were even more dominant, as both picked up wins to move to 3-3 on the season. Solomon scattered three hits and one run over seven innings while striking out a career-high eight batters, and Guenther went 6 2/3 innings, giving up one run on six hits while striking out five.

“[Solomon’s] an enormously talented kid,” Aoki said after Friday’s game. “He struggled a little bit early in the year, just kind of inexplicably lost the strike zone a little bit here and there, and I think it affected him. But he’s done a remarkable job of working his way through that, and to do that when the season is in swing isn’t the easiest thing.”

“It begins and ends with their fastball command,” Aoki said after Saturday’s win. “These guys work off their fastballs.”

Solomon’s and Guenther’s dominance even had an effect in Sunday’s game, as the Irish bullpen was well-rested and able to record 26 outs after junior right-hander Ryan Smoyer walked three batters and hit another in the first inning.

“In retrospect, that was hugely important,” Aoki said. “We couldn’t have done it otherwise. … Really gutsy performances from a lot of people.”

All told, the Irish used eight pitchers Sunday, with none of them going longer than 2 1/3 innings. Aoki did, however, credit junior left-handed reliever Jim Orwick, who lasted the longest, for settling the game down and stopping Boston College’s offensive explosion.

Still, it was the Irish offense who powered the team to victory, collecting 17 hits, second most on the season, and scoring a combined seven runs in the seventh and eighth innings to erase a 9-4 deficit.

“We just kept keeping on and stayed determined to keep on doing what we’re going to do,” Aoki said of the offensive outburst. “When you’re up there for an at-bat, there’s no controlling what the game situation is — whether you’re up six, chasing six — so you just try to win the pitch, and our kids did a remarkable job of that today.”

Leading the way, senior left fielder Ricky Sanchez fell a triple short of the cycle Sunday, going 4-for-5 at the plate with three RBIs and two runs, including the game-winner in the eighth. Sanchez’s productive day at the plate marked a strong recovery after he went 0-for-6 in the series’ first two games. He now leads the team in batting average (.344) and slugging (.508).

“The biggest [change] from years past is that Ricky has made a tangible adjustment with two strikes,” Aoki said. “[I’m] so happy for him, because he’s a hard-working kid and he wants to be good, and he’s been great.”

Sanchez also drove in a run in Friday’s game with an RBI groundout, making him the team’s top run producer on the weekend, but he was by no means Notre Dame’s only offensive weapon. All told, the Irish got RBIs from all nine starters over the course of three games.

Senior first baseman Zak Kutsulis drove in two runs apiece in the final two games of the series, junior infielder Kyle Fiala chipped the game-winner Sunday, freshman outfielder Matt Vierling clinched things Saturday with a two-run home run and sophomore outfielder Jake Shepski picked up two RBIs Sunday.

“It’s great,” Aoki said of the team’s depth. “It showed up [Sunday]. It showed up in our ability to put different people in the outfield. … All of that stuff is remarkable.”

Vierling ended the series with just two hits, but his home run Saturday moved him to second on the team in four-baggers. Vierling also ranks third on the team in RBIs and has started every game this season for the Irish, who have won 13 of their last 15 games.

“We’re walking this fine line between playing loose and staying focused,” Vierling said of the team’s recent success. “It’s a perfect balance of, we’re having fun, but we’re hitting it very well, getting great pitching, great defense, and everybody is on board with the plan.”

Junior Cavan Biggio went 4-for-10 at the plate this weekend and added three walks, which moves him into the top five nationally for bases on balls. The second baseman also scored four runs and stole two bases in the series.

While Aoki stuck with the same lineup for all three games of the matchup, only one Irish pitcher saw the mound more than once this weekend.

Sophomore right-hander Brad Bass picked up the win Sunday, pitching 1 2/3 shutout innings while striking out two, and the save Friday by striking out three over two innings. The 6-foot-6 reliever has only four appearances since returning from an elbow injury earlier this season but has thrown five scoreless innings while picking up two saves.

“[Bass] brings huge confidence [to the team],” Solomon said after Friday’s win. “ … When he’s out there it looks like nothing bothers him; He just kind of does his own thing. I know all the guys behind him love playing behind him because he’s going to come out throwing strikes.”

Notre Dame has now won five straight and are 11-2 at home on the season, but the Irish will play five of their next six on the road, beginning Wednesday, when they face Michigan State in East Lansing, Michigan. First pitch is scheduled for 3:05 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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