Notre Dame baseball finds reset button after landing in Wake Forest pool at ACC Tournament

Mike Berardino
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Injuries and inconsistency have pockmarked Notre Dame baseball’s first season under coach Shawn Stiffler, but a chance to hit the reset button beckons this week in Durham, N.C.

Seeded No. 8 in the 12-team ACC Tournament, the Irish (30-22) open Pool A play on Wednesday morning against Pittsburgh (23-30). The Panthers dropped two of three at home to Notre Dame in early April in the only regular-season series between the two teams.

The Irish outslugged Pitt in a high-scoring weekend that saw the clubs score 45 combined runs. Notre Dame, which won just four of 10 series while posting a 15-15 mark in conference play, was six outs away from sweeping the Panthers before squandering a three-run lead on April 8.  

That setback was emblematic of a regular season that has seen the Irish struggle to build on last year’s magical run to the College World Series. After going 41-17 and reaching Omaha for just the third time in program history, Notre Dame is hoping to find its stride again when it matters most.

With the college baseball postseason upon us, here’s a need-to-know breakdown to help you follow along:

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Who's on deck?

An even bigger opportunity looms Friday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park with a scheduled 7 p.m. showdown against top-seeded Wake Forest (45-9). The Demon Deacons, who sit atop Baseball America’s national rankings, are the first ACC team since North Carolina in 2017 to storm through ACC play without dropping a series.

Notre Dame avoided a sweep with a 3-1 road win over Wake Forest in the series finale on March 19. Left-hander Jack Findlay struck out 10 in outdueling sophomore lefty Josh Hartle, but Findlay underwent Tommy John surgery in late April and is out for the season.

Saturday’s semifinals will feature the survivors of four three-team pools. Should Notre Dame advance, it would meet the top team from Pool D on Saturday at 1 p.m.

Fourth-seeded Miami headlines Pool D which includes No. 5-seeded Duke and ninth-seeded N.C. State. The Hurricanes are ranked 10th in Baseball America’s latest Top 25, while Duke is No. 19.

How to watch

Starting with Tuesday’s tripleheader and carrying through Saturday’s afternoon semifinals, the ACC Network will televise all games up until Sunday’s noon championship game.

ESPN2 will broadcast that winner-take-all event with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament at stake.

Fearsome foe

Wake Forest is loaded.

Nine Deacons were named first- or second-team all-conference in voting announced Monday.

Topping that list is junior right-hander Rhett Lowder, who went 12-0 with a 1.73 ERA to claim his second straight honor as conference pitcher of the year. The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder boasts shoulder-length locks and a devastating changeup to go with a heavy mid-90s sinker.

Projected as a top-10 overall pick this July in the Major League Baseball draft, Lowder has allowed just five home runs and a .216 batting average in 88 2/3 innings. He scattered three hits and a walk while striking out seven over seven innings in a 4-1 series-opening win over Notre Dame on March 18 in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Tom Walter, in his 14th season at Wake Forest, was named ACC coach of the year. It’s the first such honor for a Deacons coach in more than two decades.

Irish All-ACC standout

Notre Dame pitcher Aidan Tyrell pitches during an NCAA baseball game against UAB on Sunday, March 5, 2023 in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Conference awards were decidedly scarcer for Notre Dame this spring.

Super senior lefty Aidan Tyrell, named second-team all-ACC on Monday, was the only Irish player honored. Tyrell, 8-2 with a 2.74 ERA that ranks third in the league, recorded 10 outs in relief of Jackson Dennies in that Game 1 loss to Lowder and the Deacons back in mid-March.

Tyrell’s nine-inning rates of 7.81 strikeouts and 3.29 walks are modest when compared against the league’s top pitchers but he ranked third among ACC hurlers in batting average allowed (.230). A two-time captain and valuable swingman, Tyrell stepped into Findlay’s rotation spot after the staff ace went down.

As a pitching staff, Notre Dame ranks last among 14 conference teams in nine-inning strikeout rate (8.57) and sixth in walk rate (3.74) while its 4.48 ERA ranks seventh.

Walk softly

Last year’s dynamic offense is a distant memory for the Irish.

Senior shortstop Zack Prajzner batted .300 while starting all 52 games during the regular season, but he was not listed among the ACC’s year-end honorees.

While Virginia (ranked ninth in the country by Baseball America) led the ACC with 502 runs and a combined on-base/slugging percentage of .958, the Irish lineup put little fear in opposing pitchers this season.

Notre Dame enters the ACC Tournament with 295 runs scored and a per-game average of 5.67. Among ACC teams the Irish rank 11th in home runs (60), 13th in OBP (.350) and 14th in slugging (.407).

Four ACC teams have reached base at a higher clip than Notre Dame has slugged. Eight ACC teams in all have reached base at least 40 percent of the time.

In a rare deviation from that pattern, Notre Dame outscored Virginia 25-13 in a three-game sweep last month at Frank Eck Stadium. That was the only series sweep against ACC competition for the Irish this year.

Stiffler's formula

This would be a great time for Stiffler to reach into his equipment bag for whatever lit a fire under his Virginia Commonwealth teams the previous two years.

In 2021, the Rams ripped off 22 straight wins before falling to eventual national champion Mississippi State in the Starkville regional.

Last May, VCU went on a 17-game tear that included an upset of host North Carolina in the Chapel Hill regional.

Stiffler also led VCU to the NCAA Tournament in 2015 during a 10-year run at the helm.

This spring, however, half of Notre Dame’s ACC series wins came at home against teams that failed to qualify for this week’s tournament: Florida State and Louisville.

Follow Notre Dame football writer @MikeBerardino on Twitter.