Notre Dame baseball: A happy homecoming

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Notre Dame baseball players wandered out to Frank Eck Stadium whenever they could take a break from finals to sneak a peek at the newly installed FieldTurf this past week.

They walked around and tested the bounciness of the turf. They laid on the turf. They walked out to center field for a closer inspection of the silhouette of a shamrock.

By the time the Irish ran off the synthetic turf following Friday night's inaugural game on the synthetic surface, the Irish had another reason to savor the moment on their new turf.

Clutch defense, gutty pitching and timely hitting helped the Irish upset No. 24 Clemson, 2-1, Friday night.

"I thought our kids did a good job of playing with energy, and certainly, no doubt about it, the field was a boost for them," Notre Dame coach Mik Aoki said. "They were excited about being out here, and exams ending also probably gave them a little bit of a boost, too."

Notre Dame's victory gave the Irish a shining moment in a rough season. The Irish (18-30 overall, 5-20 Atlantic Coast Conference) played 17 "home" games on the road at sites ranging from Westfield and Gary, Ind., to Kalamazoo, Mich. Notre Dame hosts Clemson (30-20, 12-12) on Saturday at 2:05 p.m. EDT, and on Sunday at 12:05 p.m.

Pat Connaughton worked eight innings to pick up his second victory against five losses. The 6-5 right-hander allowed one run on three hits, surviving eight walks (no strikeouts).

Connaughton's competitive nature made up for any lack of command of his off-speed pitches.

"At the end of the day, I'm going to compete for the guys in the locker room for as long as they let me stay out there," Connaughton said. "That's what I pride myself on."

Irish head coach Mik Aoki said Connaughton, who is on Major League Baseball draft boards ranging from the first through the fifth rounds, made pitches in tight situations to leave 10 Clemson runners on the bases.

"He's got to get better with the breaking stuff," Aoki said. "He has an electric arm, but he has a long way to go."

Donnie Hissa entered the game in the ninth and pitched out of a one-out jam with Clemson runners on the corners, using a breaking ball to strike out the final two batters.

Exceptional defense bailed out the Irish. Kyle Richardson made a stunning over-the-shoulder running catch just ahead of the center-field wall to rob Clemson's Shane Kennedy of an extra-base hit in the seventh. The next Clemson batter, Jay Baum, hit a double.

Notre Dame also escaped trouble in the eighth. First baseman Phil Mosey made a diving catch with runners at second and third. The Irish squirmed out of a bases-loaded jam in the third inning.

Notre Dame scored its runs in the third inning. Kevin DeFilippis walked and scored on Richardson's triple. Richardson scored on a sacrifice fly to right by Cavan Biggio.

Turf time

Aoki said the new turf will have a huge impact on the Irish baseball program. The turf will give the Irish additional opportunities to get in more games and more practices, and will have great appeal to recruits.

"In the conference we're in now and the facilities they have in that conference, Clemson has a beautiful facility, Florida State has a beautiful facility," Aoki said. "I'm not saying we need to keep up penny-for-penny with the Joneses, but we certainly need to put ourselves in a position where our facility isn't going to be the decision that a kid makes between coming and not coming here."

Notre Dame's turf does not include any dirt cutouts. Even the pitching mound is entirely turf. The consistency of the field will eliminate bad hops.

"As a developmental piece, that's really important for your fielders to come in and have confidence in the surface they're playing on, and develop good habits," Aoki said. "It encourages them to be aggressive on defense, which I think is great."

Irish catcher Forrest Johnson said the road-weary Irish were glad to finally have a home game that was truly at home. The seven-month project was originally slated to be ready by mid-March, but the severe winter knocked that finish date out of the park.

"It's been pretty rough," Johnson said. "It's a gorgeous playing surface, and we're really happy to get out here."

Third baseman Kevin DeFilippis said there wasn't much of a transition to artificial turf.

"You can kind of see sometimes the ball, when it gets caught up in the turf, it gets slowed down a little bit," DeFilippis said. "At the same time, balls in the infield kind of scoot through there."

Closing the gap

Former Major League All-Star Craig Biggio, whose sons Cavan and Conor play for the Irish, attended Friday's game and thinks the Atlantic Coast Conference is providing the Irish with great competition and believes the Irish are closing the gap.

"These boys aren't too far away, one play here or there, a cut-off man, a ground ball to a middle infielder and get a run in, and this is a .500 team," Biggio said. "If they played fundamental baseball, and every single one can point the finger at themselves, it's been an accumulative thing watching from the side, but I'm excited for them, because they're not that far away."

Clemson000000010 -- 1 4 0
Notre Dame00200000x -- 2 6 0

Matthew Crownover (L, 6-5), Garrett Lovorn (8); Pat Connaughton (W, 2-5), Donnie Hissa (9; S, 3).

2B -- Cavan Biggio (ND), Phil Mosey (ND), Tyler Krieger (C), Jay Baum (C).

3B -- Kyle Richardson (ND).

T -- 2:23. A -- 716.

CRallo@SBTinfo.com