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No. 1 Irish baseball blasts Valparaiso

| Wednesday, March 16, 2022

On Tuesday afternoon, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish played their home opener at Frank Eck Stadium. And, for the first time in 21 years, the Irish entered the contest ranked No. 1 in the nation by a major poll. Sitting atop both the Baseball America and Perfect Game polls, the Irish welcomed the Valparaiso Beacons.

“I was not going to ignore it. I told them it’s a reflection of how they played,” Irish head coach Link Jarrett said. “But it doesn’t mean anything when you walk out on the field.”

Jarrett also noted that he felt he needed to address the ranking to avoid the Irish playing with undue pressure.

And, despite the pressure of their vaunted ranking, the Irish enjoyed a stress-free midweek victory over their in-state opponent. The Irish scored a pair of runs in each of the first three innings to take early control of this one. Coupled with more outstanding pitching, the Irish cruised to a 12-1 victory over Valparaiso.

Senior right fielder Brooks Coetzee led the Irish for a second straight non-conference game. He went 3-4, falling a triple short of the cycle. He scored twice and drove in two runs, both of the latter on a monster home run in the third inning.

“They had been pitching me soft, so I was sitting on the off-speed pitch,” Coetzee noted. “He gave me a curve and I put a good swing on it.”

Jarrett commented on Coetzee’s all-around talent on the diamond: “He can bunt, he can run the bases, and he might be the best right fielder I’ve ever coached.”

The Irish also received multi-hit performances from freshmen DM Jefferson and Jack Penney. Penney doubled twice, knocking in a run in the second and kickstarting a six-run eighth inning.

The Irish started in ideal fashion, as freshman southpaw Jack Findlay retired the Beacons in order. He struck out the first two he faced with off-speed offerings. In the bottom half of the frame, the Irish pushed two runs across. Sophomore center fielder TJ Williams walked and stole second. He scored when senior left fielder Ryan Cole lashed a single to right field. Williams entered into the starting lineup two weekends ago and has made an immediate impact as the leadoff man.

“There’s an energy to his game that’s infectious. The guy wants to play,” Jarrett said, noting with a laugh that he sometimes has to tell Williams to stop diving to make catches in batting practice. “The arm strength out there is elite. He adds a dimension out there that very few do.”

The Irish added another run later in the inning, as Cole scored on a sacrifice fly.

Findlay needed just five pitches in the second to induce three popouts, and the Irish then doubled their lead. This time, it was doubles from senior right fielder Brooks Coetzee and freshman second baseman Jack Penney bringing home the first tally. Then, freshman designated hitter Jefferson sent Penney scampering home with an RBI single. The Irish completed their early-game onslaught in the third inning. Sophomore catcher Danny Neri sparked a rally with a two-out double, and Coetzee made the Beacons pay. He launched his team-leading fifth home run, an absolute moonshot that cleared everything in left field, including the Frank Eck Stadium sign, which is well behind the 330-foot marker on the left-field fence.

Coetzee’s blast made it 6-0, and the game settled down from there. Using the midweek game as an opportunity to see a bunch of arms, Jarrett rotated in six pitchers. Findlay took the first turn through the order and fired 2.1 innings of shutout ball, allowing two hits. Senior Alex Rao cleaned up the third inning and fired a hitless fourth. Freshmen Caden Aoki and Roman Kimball were next in line and continued to fluster Valparaiso bats. Aoki, in particular, impressed in two shutout innings. He struck out three, flashing a strong mix of pitches.

“We saw Caden do what he’s done against us in live pitching. Command of four pitches, he was good today,” Jarrett said.

Kimball issued two walks in the seventh but Valpo couldn’t make strong contact, failing to generate any runs. Ultimately, neither freshman wavered, maintaining the shutout through seven innings.

However, the Beacons did get one in the eighth. Irish junior reliever Liam Simon, making his first appearance since the season opener nearly a month ago, gave up a solo shot, cutting the Notre Dame lead to 6-1. The Irish responded, however, and eliminated all doubt regarding the outcome. Penney doubled, and Williams brought him home with a single. Senior pinch-hitter Jack Zyska then entered the game and, in just his ninth at-bat of the season, blasted his third long ball. That gave Notre Dame a 9-1 lead. Sophomore pinch-hitters Nick Juaire and Brady Gumpf ripped RBI doubles for three more runs. That extended the advantage to the final score of 12-1.

The Irish take on Louisville, on the road, in a conference series this weekend. The first game is Friday at 7 p.m.

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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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