Irish open season with series win over No. 9 LSU
Tobias Hoonhout | Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Opening the season on the road is never easy. Add into the mix the first collegiate baseball for 14 freshman on the roster — and against a top-10 opponent in LSU — and the task gets a lot tougher.
But Notre Dame made a statement this weekend, as the youthful Irish (2-1) used some big bats and timely pitching to win their first series over a top-10 team since 2015.
Opening on Friday night against the Tigers (1-2) in front of a record LSU crowd, Notre Dame seemed up to the challenge through the first five frames, sprinting to a 5-0 lead behind the bats at the top of the order. Junior shortstop and leadoff hitter Cole Daily started off 2 for 2 with two runs, and was driven home in the third by junior second baseman Nick Podkul’s two-run single.
But in the sixth, the Tigers got right back in it with a grand slam off Irish graduate student left-hander Scott Tully to cut the lead to 6-4.
In the eighth, Irish head coach Mik Aoki turned to right hander Matt Vierling in relief after a one-out double, but the junior gave up a three-run homer to set Notre Dame back for good.
Despite the heartbreaking 7-6 loss, the Irish came back with a vengeance in game two. Notre Dame’s top half of the lineup jumped out all over LSU starter Zack Hess for eight runs in three innings, highlighted by a two-run single by freshman Niko Kavadas and followed by a two-run shot from junior right fielder Eric Gilgenbach. But the Tigers kept it close to three runs in the fourth to make it 8-5, prompting Aoki to move to the bullpen early after pulling freshman starter Tommy Sheeehan in the fifth.
Aoki turned to another freshman — left-hander Cole Kmet — who subsequently stifled LSU with four shutout innings of one-hit work to earn his first collegiate save and Notre Dame’s first win of the season.
“I think he just showed tremendous mental toughness,” Aoki said of Kmet, who is also a tight end on the football team. “[He’s] a kid who I think is a winner, I think he got himself into like three 3-0 counts and retired the guy on each and every one of them, did it in a pressure situation. … [He] really limited the damage. He just got on the mound, he fell behind, got into a little bit of a negative thing, put himself behind it, worried about the next pitch and competed in the strike zone, which is what you need to do.”
In Sunday’s finale, the Irish put in their best team performance of the weekend. Led by the bat of Gilgenbach — who hit a three-run blast and a grand slam — and a rotation of seven pitchers over nine innings, Notre Dame dominated the Tigers 11-3.
After LSU took a 1-0 lead in the third, the Irish answered right back. After a leadoff walk by Podkul, a foul-out by Vierling and a walk by Kavadas, Gilgenbach stepped to the plate and drilled a one-out bomb to center field to put the Irish on top 3-1. The Irish added three more in the top of the sixth to make it 6-2, before Gilgenbach blew the hinges off the door with a grand slam in a five-run ninth to seal the series for Notre Dame.
“He started in our lineup early in the year last year, really struggled, swung and missed a lot and I think that one of the things that led to him having some success in the latter half of the year when he got back into the lineup was that he was able to take the swings and misses and put them behind him,” Aoki said of the junior right fielder. “ … He’s a kid who has power. He needs to trust that, he always gets himself in trouble when he tries to force it, and I think that he has slowly began to buy into the idea that if he makes solid contact enough, by virtue of the fact that he’s a kid who has power in his bat, that some of those balls will leave the yard … happy to see a really good kid get rewarded by having a really good weekend for us.”
Aoki was also impressed with the performance of his young team in such a hostile environment, particularly on the mound.
“Cole Kmet was obviously terrific, I thought Tommy Sheehan did a really good job navigating through five innings essentially without his breaking ball or changeup, he didn’t throw any off speed pitches for a strike, so for a young kid to do that in an atmosphere like Alex Box [Stadium] and against a team like LSU, I thought he showed a pretty high level of maturity,” Aoki said. “ … Some of those other kids I thought did really well, [freshman pitcher] Tommy Vail and even [sophomore pitcher] Andrew Belcik, who closed out the Sunday game for us, he was a kid who didn’t pitch a whole lot for us last year, and I thought he went in there, threw strikes, did great.”
Notre Dame next plays this Thursday in San Antonio in the Irish Alamo Classic, in which it will face Saint Louis, Incarnate Word and Purdue.