Baseball: Notre Dame Sweeps North Carolina In Back-To-Back Seasons
Oh, how the tables have turned.
As little as two years ago, the thought of Notre Dame sweeping North Carolina on the diamond was a pipe dream at best, asinine at worst.
In 2019, the Tar Heels were the ACC Tournament champs and hosted a regional and super regional in the NCAA Tournament. They went on to just miss out on a trip to Omaha for the College World Series, but the program was in a healthy place.
The opposite was true for Notre Dame. The Irish hadn’t won an ACC Tournament game or appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 2015. After the season, then-head coach Mik Aoki was fired with a 24-30 overall record.
But that summer, the Irish hired a new head coach in Link Jarrett from UNC Greensboro, and ever since that's made all the difference.
Notre Dame swept North Carolina in Chapel Hill in their ACC opening series in 2020, but most college baseball analysts wondered if it were a fluke. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the remainder of the season less than a week later before the Irish had the opportunity to show they were legit.
Now 32 games into the 2021 season, such questions no longer exist.
On Sunday, No. 8 Notre Dame (24-8, 21-8 ACC) completed its second sweep of North Carolina (20-21, 14-16 ACC) in as many seasons. Over the course of the three-game series, the Irish outscored the Tar Heels 36-17 by hitting .385 as a team with 11 doubles and five home runs.
“The guys were into it,” Jarrett said. “I can't say enough about all phases of [how we played] this weekend.”
The series started off with a strong pitching performance from the Irish as senior left-handed pitcher Will Mercer and sophomore righty Tanner Kohlhepp combined for a six-hit shutout.
Kohlhepp was particularly impressive, allowing just three base runners in four and one-thirds innings.
The Irish won 4-0.
“Anytime you win on Friday,” Jarrett said, “it obviously gives you a little more of a relaxed feeling coming to the stadium on Saturday.”
On offense, the Irish did what it took to manufacture runs on just six hits of their own. They first got on the board in the bottom of the fourth, when sophomore third baseman Jack Brannigan belted a solo home run the other way.
Later that inning, Notre Dame junior right fielder Brooks Coetzee was plunked on an 0-2 count and then advanced to second on a wild pitch. With two outs, sophomore second baseman Kyle Hess came through with a clutch single up the middle to score Coetzee.
The score remained 2-0 until the bottom of the eighth when Notre Dame took advantage of a few North Carolina mistakes to push two more runs across the plate. Irish designated-hitter Carter Putz led off with a single before the Tar Heels proceeded to commit four errors.
It wasn’t pretty, but Notre Dame did what it took to win despite various external factors inhibiting offensive success.
“The conditions today were tricky,” Jarrett said. “That wind was blowing probably 20 to 30 miles an hour, and with the sun, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.”
That would change on Saturday and Sunday.
The bats woke up immediately for Notre Dame on Saturday, as the No. 8 Fighting Irish jumped out to a 12-2 lead through six innings.
A throwing error by Brannigan at third base assisted North Carolina in scoring three runs in the top of the seventh, and Irish starting pitcher John Michael Bertrand was knocked out of the game after giving up 11 hits and two earned runs in six and two-thirds innings.
Still leading 12-5 after seven innings of play, the Irish then allowed six runs in the top of the eighth and needed to use three different pitchers to stop the bleeding.
To manufacture the runs, North Carolina walked three times and also hit a single, a double and a three-run home run. The Tar Heels were also aided on the basepaths as junior right-handed pitcher Alex Rao balked with one out and the bases loaded and then threw a wild pitch to allow another North Carolina run.
In the bottom of the eighth, the Irish displayed resolve now up just 12-11. Putz led the inning off with a single and Brannigan followed that up with a double to right center field. But then back-to-back infield pop ups left the Irish with two outs.
Shortstop Zack Prajzner came up next and struck out on a 2-2 changeup that somehow ricocheted off of the catcher’s knee and shot into fair territory.
There was no shot at throwing out Prajzner at first on the dropped third strike and Putz had the wherewithal from third base to break for home and score an insurance run.
North Carolina went on to get one run back in the top of the ninth, but Notre Dame held on to win 13-12.
That means, what would end up being the winning run was scored on a strikeout.
In the game, Notre Dame registered 15 hits, with Brannigan, Coetzee and Ryan Cole recording three hits apiece.
With the series already in hand on Sunday, No. 8 Notre Dame punished North Carolina by a count of 19-5 on 21 hits, including six doubles and a home runs from Putz, Coetzee, Prajzner and senior catcher David LaManna.
All five of North Carolina's runs came in the first two innings, as left-hander Joe Sheridan started on the bump for the Irish and gave up five hits, two walks and five earned runs before coming out of the game in the top of the third.
Notre Dame was able to steady the storm by employing four relief pitchers throughout the rest of the game. Junior left-hander Aidan Tyrell was particularly dominant, throwing four innings of two-hit ball with six strikeouts.
Also this past weekend, No. 6 Louisville was swept by Clemson on the road. No. 8 Notre Dame now has sole possession of first place in the ACC standing and is the odds on favorite to claim the No. 1 overall seed in the conference tournament later this month.
With Notre Dame’s scheduled trip to Central Michigan on Tuesday postponed, the Irish won’t return to action until Friday when they host another ACC series against No. 25 Florida State (23-16, 15-12 ACC).
The entire series will be broadcasted on the ACC Network.
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