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Irish roll Hokies, fall to Virginia in ACC Tournament pool play

| Friday, May 28, 2021

The ebbs and flows of postseason pool play can be extremely volatile. Entering the ACC Tournament as the No. 1 seed, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish saw the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, with a blowout victory in their tournament opener, 8-0 over Virginia Tech, only to see themselves eliminated by Virginia, 14-1, in their second contest. 

Because of the pool-play format, the Irish’s game against the Hokies, who had already dropped a game to the Cavaliers, did not matter, and as such, the Irish, playing as the road team, seemingly played very loose and dominated the tournament’s 12th seed. Everything went right for the Irish, as they outhit the Hokies 13-5, with three pitchers combining for the shutout. 

The game was a pitcher’s duel early, as Irish junior southpaw Will Mercer flew through four scoreless innings, but he was matched by Virginia Tech’s staff, who threw out Anthony Simonelli as an opener, a strategy that worked as he struck out the side against the top of Notre Dame’s lineup. After that, Jaison Heard shut down the Irish for three innings, before he finally gave up a run via a wild pitch in the fifth. 

In the bottom of the fifth, Mercer was the beneficiary of two great defensive plays; senior catcher David LaManna gunned down a potential base stealer at second, and senior left fielder Ryan Cole threw a one-hop dime from deep left to get the third out on an attempted two-out double. After the defensive gems, the Irish finally piled on some insurance runs, scoring three runs in the sixth. Senior second baseman Jared Miller drilled a home run to straightaway center field, Cole ripped a run batted in single, and the Irish notched one more run on a fielder’s choice for the four-run advantage. Junior reliever Alex Rao entered for the first of his three scoreless innings in the sixth, and Notre Dame added two more runs apiece in the seventh and the ninth innings. Miller slammed an RBI triple and then scored later in the inning for the 6-0 lead. Junior designated hitter Carter Putz scored on a sacrifice fly in the ninth, and junior Zach Prajzner polished off a 4-4 effort at the plate with an RBI single, accounting for the final 8-0 score.  

Notre Dame knew Virginia was going to be a tough outing, despite being the 8-seed. The Irish had swept the Cavaliers earlier this season, but UVA had not lost a series since April 18, winning nine of their final twelve conference games, before nabbing a victory in their tournament opener. Notre Dame prepared as well they could, saving their ace, grad student John Michael Bertrand, and their top reliever, sophomore Tanner Kohlhepp, for their Friday morning matinee battle with the Cavaliers, with a spot in the ACC semifinals on the line. 

Unfortunately, it simply wasn’t to be for the Irish, who were victimized by uncharacteristic power out of Virginia’s lineup, as the Cavaliers bashed four home runs, including three in a four-batter stretch, to open up a massive lead. With UVA ace Andrew Abbott (2.83 ERA) on the mound, hits and runs were hard to come by, as Notre Dame’s tournament run came to an end in pool play. The early exit likely dooms the Irish’s chances at being a top-8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but for the No. 7 ranked team in the country, hosting a regional is still a definite possibility. 

The game started off innocently enough for the Irish, as they recorded a nice double play in the top half of the first as part of a scoreless frame. But the second inning brought fireworks, and not good ones for Notre Dame. Virginia saw three different players leave the yard, despite hitting just 30 home runs in 50 games this season and facing a pitcher who had given up just four long balls all season. But all the numbers went out the window as Nic Kent, Alex Tappen and Jake Gelof all drilled dingers for the Cavaliers, staking UVA to a 5-0 lead. 

Although Notre Dame dinged up Abbott earlier this season, knocking him for six runs in four-and-a-third innings, they couldn’t break through against the lefty on Friday, despite some opportunities. Down 6-0 in the fourth, the Irish put their leadoff man on after a Ryan Cole single, and a two-out walk to sophomore Jack Brannigan put a pair of runners on, but that was the only thing going for the Irish. 

In the fifth, the Cavaliers completely busted the game open, as Gelof started the rally with a two-out walk, and then his brother, Zach Gelof, greeted Irish reliever, junior lefty Aidan Tyrell, with a three-run blast for the 9-0 lead. With just one out, Notre Dame tried to answer, putting runners on the corners for the top of their order, but a botched safety squeeze and a groundout ended the threat, as Abbott and his nine strikeouts continued to dance around the damage. Abbot finished with six-and-a-third shutout innings, scattering five hits and throwing 101 pitches.  

There was little action after Gelof’s three-run blast in the fifth — Tyrell was dominant after his initial mistake through the eighth inning. The Cavaliers added some meaningless runs for some insult to injury in the ninth. They notched five runs in the frame for a 14-0 lead. Regardless, the Irish couldn’t break through until two outs in the ninth inning, when freshman pinch-hitter Danny Neri pulled a single into right field to score a run.

As such, Notre Dame’s first part of the postseason ends with a disappointing pool-play exit. They became the fourth straight ACC top seed to fail to escape pool play. The Irish will await their NCAA Tournament seeding, which will be announced on Memorial Day during the selection show. 

The ACC Tournament will wrap up this weekend, as the eighth and ninth seeds, Virginia and Duke, battle in one semifinal, and second-seeded Georgia Tech draws third-seeded NC State.

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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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