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Stiffler era starts sour in series loss at Lipscomb

| Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Few opening weekends in recent memory were more anticipated than the one this year for Notre Dame baseball. After improbably reaching the College World Series last year and hiring new head coach Shawn Stiffler in the offseason, the Irish took the field on Friday with plenty of excitement behind them. Fifty hours later, hope turned to concern as Lipscomb took two of three games from Notre Dame in Nashville, Tennessee. The Irish fell 5-4 on Friday, battled to an 8-4 win Saturday, then crumbled late in Sunday’s 4-2 loss.

Notre Dame’s offense, returning four pieces from last year’s Omaha lineup, stumbled badly out of the gate. The team batted .110 with a lowly OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of .487 for the weekend. Only junior outfielder TJ Williams collected multiple hits, allowing the Bisons ample opportunity to steal a pair of games.

Game one

Notre Dame exploded for 17 runs in last year’s season opener, but Lipscomb starter Michael Dunkelberger made clear that it wouldn’t happen again. The junior, a South Bend native, stifled the Irish through four innings, allowing just one hit and earning five strikeouts. In the meantime, the Bisons offense took full advantage. Caleb Kietchup led off the first inning with a double and Alex Vergara plated him with a single. Then, in the third inning, Lipscomb expanded the lead to three. Irish starting pitcher Blake Hely left a slider over the plate, and Trace Willhoite sent it out of sight for a two-run homer to left. The graduate student pitcher exited after three innings, posting just one strikeout and allowing three earned runs. 

In the top of the fifth, Notre Dame forced Dunkelberger from the game with its own two-run blast. TJ Williams turned on a ball and hooked it inside the foul pole, bringing the Irish back within a run. Sophomore Jack Findlay, a star of Notre Dame’s 2022 postseason run, handled the middle innings on the mound. His command visited both extremes, as he struck out seven while also plunking three Bisons and walking three more. Findlay’s mistakes crossed the line in the sixth inning, as Lipscomb restored a 5-2 lead without recording a hit. 

Ahead by three, reliever Alex Brewer gave the Irish fits, retiring all nine hitters he faced leading up to the ninth inning. Notre Dame threatened in the final frame, scoring two unearned runs on a passed ball and wild pitch. However, Williams struck out with the tying run at first, and Lipscomb secured the game one victory. Brewer earned the win for the Bisons, while Blake Hely took the loss. Matthew Bohnert, who punched out two in the ninth, notched the save. Notre Dame benefitted from a pair of Lipscomb errors but posted only two hits on the afternoon.

Game two

Despite a loftier final score, Saturday’s game opened with a pitchers’ duel. Notre Dame sophomore Radek Birkholz and Lipscomb fifth-year Ethan Smith each opened with three scoreless frames, striking out eight combined batters. Smith cracked first in the fourth inning, uncorking a bases-loaded wild pitch to usher in Notre Dame’s first run. The bottom half of the inning saw Birkholz lose control, though. He walked Ketchup and drilled the next two hitters, setting up Willhoite to do damage again with a bases-clearing double down the left field line. From there, graduate student Aidan Tyrell and junior Matt Bedford did their job in following up Birkholz. Lipscomb scored once more in the fifth but remained silent the rest of the way.

Notre Dame’s offense was in dire need of momentum, but it was nowhere near Ken Dugan Field. Finally, in the seventh inning, the Bisons trampled all over themselves to surrender the 4-1 lead. Two hit batsmen, a double and a passed ball pulled the Irish within two, bringing graduate student outfielder Jack Zyska to the dish with two on and nobody out. The man who cranked 13 home runs in 2022 just missed his first of 2023, sending a ball deep to the left-center field gap. That ball scored both runs, evening the ledger at four apiece. 

Notre Dame promptly loaded the bags again and scored its next four runs without putting a single ball in play. Lipscomb plunked three more hitters, walked one and unleashed a wild pitch, handing the Irish an 8-4 lead. Logan Van Treeck, who would take Saturday’s loss, exited the inning with six of the seven earned runs to his name. Bedford shut the door with a pair of shutout frames and the Irish earned their first win under Shawn Stiffler. Aidan Tyrell, who tossed four hitless innings, was the winning pitcher.

Game three

Pitching dominated the early portion of Sunday’s contest as well. For the Irish, junior Jackson Dennies and graduate student Will Mercer combined to toss five scoreless innings. Braydon Tucker did the same for Lipscomb, carrying a 0-0 game into the sixth. Sophomore infielder Jack Penney broke through for the Irish in the sixth, crushing a home run to put Notre Dame up 2-0. The Bisons got one back in the bottom half, as Trace Willhoite picked up his sixth RBI of the series on a sacrifice fly.

Lipscomb turned the game around in the eighth inning. Irish freshman pitcher Rory Fox, who had cruised through the seventh inning, allowed two Bisons to reach with two out. He then surrendered the game-tying single to David Coppedge, forcing Stiffler’s hand. The skipper called upon another freshman arm, David Lally Jr., but Lipscomb remained on the prowl. Austin Kelly singled through the left side for the go-ahead run, and a throwing error scored a second runner. Notre Dame put two men on in the ninth, but Lipscomb held on for the 4-2 victory. Fox took the loss for the Irish, while Noah Thompson recorded the win with perfect seventh and eighth innings.

After the 1-2 start, Notre Dame will face UNC Greensboro in Greensboro, North Carolina next weekend. The Friday-Sunday series will have start times of 4 p.m., 2 p.m. and 1 p.m. ET.

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