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Baseball

Irish drop heartbreaker in championship

| Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Over the weekend, the Irish traveled south to host the 20th-annual Alamo Irish Classic. After splitting the opening doubleheader Thursday, Notre Dame (4-3) walked off against Purdue to advance to the championship game, before falling in heartbreaking fashion to the Boilermakers (6-1) on Sunday.

Opening up the tournament, the Irish jumped out all over St. Louis thanks to a big sixth inning. Down 2-0 in the bottom half of the frame, Notre Dame scored a run and then loaded the bases for junior Eric Gilgenbach, who had hit a grand slam against LSU a week earlier. The right fielder did not disappoint the second time around, either, smashing the ball over the left field fence to put the Irish up for good. Sophomore right hander Andrew Belcik was masterful in relief, tossing 4 2/3 innings of one-run ball to help Notre Dame see out the 7-3 win over the Billikens (1-7).

But in the second half in the double header, the Irish went down again early to Incarnate Word. Despite regaining the lead in the sixth thanks to a Cole Daily single that plated sophomore Daniel Jung to make the score 3-2. But in the ninth, freshman Cole Kmet, who had already pitched 2 1/3 innings of scoreless work, gave up an RBI single and a two-run home run to put the Irish down 5-3.

On Saturday, Notre Dame relied on the backs of two freshmen, starter Tommy Sheehan and catcher David LaManna to push the Irish to the championship game. Facing an undefeated Purdue, the Irish fell behind early as the Boilermakers added two quick runs in the first. But junior second baseman Nick Podkul kept up his hot bat with a triple in the bottom half of the frame and was driven in moments later by junior center fielder Matt Vierling to cut the lead in half. In the third, Podkul got on base again with a single and scored on an error after a single from freshman Niko Kavadas to tie up the game. Sheehan settled in after the first inning, throwing five solid innings, and LaManna was a force behind the plate, recording four assists on put-outs. The game remained tied until the ninth, where LaManna stepped up to the plate with one out and drilled a walk-off, two-run home run to put Notre Dame up 4-2.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer

Irish junior second baseman Nick Podkul takes a swing during Notre Dame’s 5-4 win over Duke on April 28, 2017 at Frank Eck Stadium.

“I just like their overall approach,” Irish head coach Mik Aoki said of the performance of Notre Dame’s freshmen. “For David [LaManna] it was his second weekend of playing, so he had a chance to get over the nervousness. For [freshman outfielder] Ryan [Cole], this weekend was his first start, and some of the other guys, [freshman infielder] Jared Miller got his first start. I try to pay attention to the way that they handle it, the way that they go about playing and I think all of the freshmen to date have done a really good job, regardless of what their results have been, whether they’ve gotten hits or not, strikeouts or giving up hits, whatever it happens to be. There’s still a long way to go in their development but I think they’ve gone about the process the right way.”

Advancing to the championship Sunday in a rematch against Purdue, the Irish did not waste any time getting on the board. Daily led off the bottom of the first with a single to start off a wild inning that saw three stolen bases, a fielding error and a 2-0 Notre Dame lead. After Purdue plated a run in the top of the second, senior designated hitter Alex Kerschner led off the bottom of the frame with a double and was subsequently driven in by a single from LaManna.

Purdue managed to tie the game 3-3 in the fourth, but the Irish responded by scoring four runs over two innings, thanks to Cole’s ground-rule double in the sixth and a walked-in run and a wild pitch in the seventh.

Up 7-3 heading into the ninth, the Irish turned to Vierling to close out the win and the tournament. But the junior loaded the bases to start the inning, and three pitchers and five heartbreaking runs later Notre Dame found itself down 8-7.

“I think the biggest takeaway that I hope that some of the guys got is just the fragile nature of the game,” Aoki said on the loss. “We didn’t do anything horrible, we hit a kid and we walked a kid to start the inning, which is never the way you want it to begin when you’re up by four, but it happened. They got two base hits in a row, and you have to give credit where credit is due, they were able to get those hits and sustain the inning. … We exchange an out of a run … they hit two balls which were basically on the ground that are just out of one of our fielder’s reach.

“It’s just sort of the nature of baseball, it can be incredibly cruel, so you just have to respect how fragile wins are and never take things like that for granted. Until the game is done, it’s not done.”

Notre Dame next hits the diamond this coming weekend in Kissimmee, Florida, for a three-game tournament. The Irish open up against Youngstown State on Friday, with the first pitch set for 6:30 p.m.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby is a junior PLS/Economics double major from Smithtown, New York.

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