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No. 14 Irish walk off, split series with No. 7 Louisville

| Monday, March 29, 2021

Playing in the ACC, the Irish have frequently welcomed high-profile opponents to Frank Eck Stadium, but it’s been a while since Notre Dame boasted a team that could generate hype for a weekend series. But, that hype and energy was felt this weekend, as the No. 14 Irish hosted the No. 7 Louisville Cardinals for a top-15 ACC series, shortened to two games after a weather-induced cancellation on Sunday. 

“I think it’s really neat — first pitch, the student section was pretty much full,” head coach Link Jarrett said. “This might have been the first time there’s been a game of this magnitude in terms of rankings played here.”

The series was gritty from the first pitch on Friday afternoon to a game-ending blast by senior left fielder Ryan Cole on Saturday, as Notre Dame split the two games with Louisville, dropping Game 1, 7-4, before emerging victorious, 5-3, in the second game. 

The first game looked like a made-for-TV pitcher’s duel, as Notre Dame graduate student Joe Sheridan made his first start of the year, with a 0.00 ERA out of the bullpen on the year. Sheridan’s most recent appearance was 6 ⅓ shutout innings of relief, but his opponent on the bump was just as impressive, with junior Michael Kirian taking the ball for Louisville with a sparkling 0.70 ERA prior to the series. Sheridan lived up to the hype in the early innings, needing just 24 pitches to fly through three innings, facing just ten batters in the process. Kirian had more struggles before settling in, as the top of the Notre Dame order jumped all over the Louisville ace. Senior centerfielder Spencer Meyers roped an opposite-field single on the first pitch he saw, and junior designated hitter Carter Putz drilled a missile that one hopped up against the left field fence, scoring the speedy Meyers with ease. However, Kirian notably settled down and utilized a lot of first-pitch breaking balls to keep Notre Dame hitters off-balance — he didn’t give up another hit until the fifth inning. 

Meanwhile, Louisville chipped away at Sheridan, with some help from uncharacteristic sloppy defense from Notre Dame. After a leadoff single, Louisville looked primed to put runners on the corners with another single, but Irish junior shortstop Zach Prajzner tried to catch the trail runner napping after a big turn at first, but he airmailed the throw, scoring one runner and sending the other to third. A sacrifice fly from Louisville’s top prospect, sophomore first baseman Alex Binelas, a potential top-10 selection in the MLB Draft, gave the Cardinals the lead, and Sheridan would surrender one more run after Cole gave a diving effort in a sinking line drive only to see it bounce away for a double, leading to a RBI single. Sheridan saw eight Louisville hitters in the inning, giving up three runs and stranding two more. In the fifth, it was the big bat of Binelas doing more damage, as he drilled a Sheridan offering for a two-out, two-run home run, for a 5-1 lead. 

“There were some balls that just fell in and extended some innings,” Jarrett said of the deficit. “The home run definitely hurt. Binelas is a really good player.”

However, the Irish weren’t rolling over in their high-profile home clash, as they battled hard in the fifth inning, forcing Kirian out of the game. It was the top of the order and two-out magic doing the trick, as a Meyers single and Putz double put runners on second and third, and three consecutive walks chased Kirian from the game and closed the deficit to 5-3. 

“I was impressed that we could navigate [Kirian] pretty well and get him out of the game relatively early,” Jarrett said of the offensive effort. “We grinded out some at-bats, scratched away enough to get him out of there. If he’s still pitching into the 7th inning, it makes the rest of the weekend that much tougher.”

Unfortunately, the comeback was not to be for the Irish. Louisville’s senior lefty Adam Elliott came in and retired seven straight in relief for the Irish, overshadowing three fantastic innings of relief from Notre Dame sophomore pitcher Tanner Kohlhepp. Elliott wavered briefly in the eighth, giving up an absolute bomb to Irish senior first baseman Niko Kavadas, who deposited Ellitot’s offering well over the 400 foot mark in center field. That brought Notre Dame within one, but it was as close as they would get. Louisville notched two more runs in the ninth, with Binelas notching his fourth RBI of the game. The 7-4 lead stood up, as the Irish couldn’t muster any ninth inning magic, dropping the opener. 

For Game 2, Notre Dame sent their ace, John Michael Bertrand, to the mound, and the left-handed graduate student delivered a beauty of an outing once more, limiting a powerful Louisville offense to two runs over seven innings of work. The Cardinals entered the series averaging over eight runs per game in conference play, but Bertrand made things look easy in the early going, firing three perfect frames. He allowed single runs in the fifth and sixth innings as his only blemishes, but for a while, it looked like it would be enough for Louisville, who saw Luke Seed open his outing with six shutout frames. However, down 2-0 in the seventh, the Irish woke up, as senior second baseman Jared Miller singled, eventually scoring on a two-out RBI single from junior Brooks Koetzee. With runners on second and third and two outs, Notre Dame saw a small lineup change pay dividends, as sophomore Jack Brannigan was bumped up from ninth to eighth in the order and blasted a double to center for the 3-2 Notre Dame lead. 

Bertrand was relieved by junior Alex Rao in the eighth, and Rao got through one inning, but ran into trouble in the ninth, as Binelas did more damage with his second home run of the weekend to tie the game. Brannigan, a two-way player, relieved Rao and escaped the frame with no further damage. However, the tie game didn’t last long, after senior catcher David LaManna laced a single with one out to bring up Cole. And Cole, who didn’t have a home run to his name throughout his career with the Irish, simply stepped up and hit his third in six games, nearly duplicating his walk-off against Duke with a two-run shot over the left field wall, handing Notre Dame the 5-3 victory and series split.

“I think all we’ve seen this year is really good pitching. These ACC weekends are tough,” Jarrett said. “Stringing together good at-bats is key. Get baserunners, threaten them, and you’re going to see those results … I’m excited to see us step up, threaten, drive some balls in the gaps.” 

The late offensive surge was not only a huge win for the Irish, but it was a monkey off the back, as Notre Dame defeated Louisville to snap a 20-game losing streak against the Cardinals. 

It’s a short week for the Irish, as their conference series will start on Thursday this week, due to Easter. They play a three-game set at Pittsburgh, before returning home to host Georgia Tech in two weeks.

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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