Irish snap losing streak, pound Huskies 11-2
Aidan Thomas | Wednesday, March 30, 2022
Notre Dame baseball needed to bust out of a slump, riding a four-game losing streak into Tuesday’s contest. As it turned out, a midweek battle with the hapless Northern Illinois Huskies (4-18) was just the recipe the Irish desired.
The Irish struck once in the first and then four times in the second for an early 5-0 advantage. From there, No. 13 Notre Dame (13-5) enjoyed a stress-free non-conference win, 11-2 over the Huskies.
At the plate, the Irish didn’t miss a beat. They bashed 14 hits for 11 runs. Leading the way was senior shortstop Zack Prajzner with three hits and a walk. Prajzner scored three times and notched a pair of RBI. Graduate student left fielder Ryan Cole also picked up a pair of hits, stole three bases and scored twice before exiting to a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning. Graduate student second baseman Jared Miller homered and drove in two runs in a multi-hit performance. He also stole two bases. Sophomore center fielder TJ Williams delivered a 2-5 performance out of the leadoff spot in the Notre Dame lineup. He drove in one run and scored twice.
Notre Dame utilized five pitchers in this one, starting with junior Liam Simon. He got the first eights, giving up two runs but just one earned. Four Irish pitchers followed in a scoreless bullpen effort.
Small ball, two big innings spark bats
Offensively, the Irish didn’t wait around. Miller blasted his first home run of the year in Notre Dame’s second at-bat of the game. The solo shot was all the first-inning scoring, but the Irish broke it open in the second. Cole bunted his way aboard with one out. A walk and double steal put a pair of runners in scoring position. Prajzner started his big day at the plate with a single to score one run. Williams followed it up by ripping a double that tipped off the third baseman’s glove for a 3-0 Irish lead. A groundout and passed ball scored two more runs, and Notre Dame led 5-0 after two innings.
“It’s not easy to come out and take command of a game like that,” Irish head coach Link Jarrett noted. “But they did that. They came out, played well, ran the bases well.”
The Irish stole seven bases on the day, improving to 30 steals in 37 attempts this season.
The Irish offense calmed down from there, scoring just once more until the sixth inning. That run came in the fourth, as Prajzner singled, advanced to second on a fielding error in right field and then scored on two wild pitches. However, up 6-2, the Irish did turn this non-conference clash into a laugher in the sixth. The Irish inflicted death by paper cut on the Huskies, chipping away en route to a five-run inning. Four consecutive singles opened the frame. Coupled with three stolen bases, including two from Cole, and another error, the Irish scored twice. Catcher’s interference loaded the bases, and a hit batter brought home a third Irish run. A groundout and sacrifice fly brought home two more for the 11-2 lead at the end of the inning.
Pitching bounces back
It’s been rough sledding on the mound for Notre Dame, particularly in their bullpen efforts. Their most recent loss saw a six-run implosion in the ninth inning cost them an ACC victory. As is the normal midweek setup, the Irish rolled with a bullpen day against Northern Illinois. While the quality of the competition was lower, the Irish arms looked sharper.
“The pitching was clearly the most important part of what we were trying to do today.”
Simon started the day on the mound and delivered two perfect frames, striking out three. He retired a pair in the third, but he did surrender a run. An infield single, walk and passed ball paved the way for a run-scoring ground out.
“We’ve seen Liam do things in training that are truly exceptional, but we haven’t found the right role for him,” Jarrett said. “So we thought, ‘let’s just get out there and start him.’” It turned into a solid effort for Simon, who has given up just two hits this season.
Freshman Roman Kimball entered and notched a strikeout, but a passed ball scored a second run, cutting the lead to three runs.
From there, Kimball electrified with his stuff, posting the best performance of his collegiate career. He struck out four in 2.1 innings, giving up just a bloop single to start off the sixth inning, earning the win.
“Efficient and in control,” Jarrett said of Kimball. “He’s got this climbing fastball. The extension, the angle that he releases the ball, it appears that it’s climbing through the strike zone and he gets some weird swings. And he’s got a curveball that plays off the fastball. The profile of those two pitches, when they’re on, it’s good. And you saw it tonight.”
Kimball’s classmate, lefty Jack Findlay, kept Kimball’s line scoreless by getting out of the inning. Findlay then struck out a pair in the seventh and another to start the eighth before exiting. Another freshman, Radek Birkholz, closed out the inning for the Irish. Sophomore Jackson Dennies struck out the side in the ninth to seal the victory.
Dealing with the adversity
Frankly, Notre Dame hasn’t dealt with this kind of adversity in a while. Prior to the four-game skid, Notre Dame had never lost consecutive games underneath Jarrett. Once ranked No. 1, the Irish fell to No. 13 with four straight conference losses.
“These guys show up to play the game, and that’s what I love about them the most. They work so hard in all phases of their career,” Jarrett said. “You know they’re going to be engaged. We had to go practice [indoors] all weekend. To come out at 10 AM on Sunday, and see the guys practice the way they did…I continue to marvel at their determination to be good at this. It doesn’t mean you’re going to play flawless baseball, but the intent is spectacular.”
Jarrett lauded the intensity and leadership present in those weekend practices, and he prepares to lead the Irish back on the road this weekend. Notre Dame plays Florida State this weekend on the road, looking to improve on their 2-4 ACC record.