March 2, 2014
CARY, N.C. - The University of Notre Dame baseball team put the “Fighting” in Fighting Irish Sunday afternoon against Appalachian State as the squad plated two runs in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game at three before sophomore Zak Kutsulis walked off the Mountaineers with a single in the 11th to give Notre Dame a 4-3 win on the final day of the USA Baseball-Irish Classic at the USA Baseball National Training Complex. With the win, Notre Dame earned a split on the weekend and improved its record to 5-6.
“I’m really proud of them,” said head coach Mik Aoki. “I thought on a day where we didn’t swing the bat particularly well we grinded through a win to keep us one game below .500 and to get us to .500 for the weekend. I thought it (the win) was really important for us. I thought everyone contributed to the win.”
To get to the 11th the Irish had to make quite a comeback in the ninth. After pinch hitter Brandon Burris cracked a solo homer over the left field fence in the top of the ninth inning to make the score 3-1, Notre Dame had three outs to try and extend the game. With one out, sophomore Lane Richards began the Irish rally with a single to right field. Juniors Conor Biggio and Mac Hudgins followed with singles of their own to load the bases for Kutsulis and force Appalachian State closer Robert Whaley to enter the contest. Whaley couldn’t get the job done as Kutsulis hit a sacrifice fly to center field to bring in Richards and freshman Kyle Fiala knocked a base hit, his first of the game, with two strikes to score Biggio from third and tie the contest.
The 10th inning came and went without much excitement and junior hurler Cristian Torres recorded two outs in the top of the 11th to bring Notre Dame back to the plate with a chance to win the game. A fielding error by shortstop Dillon Dobson got the inning going as senior Forrest Johnson advanced to first. A well-placed sac bunt by Hudgins moved Johnson to second and a wild pitch by Dallas DeVrieze advanced him to third. Up stepped Kutsulis, who knew a deep fly out, a single or a grounder would give his team the win. The Homer Glen, Ill., native got down in the count 1-2 before putting enough bat on the ball to rip it through the right side and give the Irish the thrilling victory.
“All day I was pulling off the ball so I was really focused on going the opposite way for those final two at-bats. In the last at-bat, with Forrest (Johnson) being able to advance on that passed ball, it made my job a lot easier. With one out I needed to put one in the infield or deep enough in the outfield. Not that there wasn’t any pressure, but it seemed like it relieved some of the pressure. I was hoping to get a fastball, but the first pitch was a curveball and I swung. I made a bad decision and took the second fastball so then I had to sit back and wait for off speed.”
“Zak is a competitive kid and I don’t think his swings had looked particularly good to that point, but he kept battling, which is one of the things we talk about a lot. Every single pitch is a new opportunity to do something good. He took that to heart and I’m proud of him.”
Torres (1-1) earned the first win of his career after recording two outs in the 11th. Senior Donnie Hissa also pitched well as he went 4.1 innings in relief with only the solo homer counted against him. Starter Robert Youngdahl earned a no-decision after going 5.1 innings and giving up two runs on three hits. Youngdahl struck out four but walked six as he continues to look for more control on the mound.
At the plate, Richards continued his impressive weekend with a pair of hits and two runs. In four games in Cary, the Pendleton, Ore., native batted .400 with six hits, two doubles, four runs scored, a walk and an RBI to raise his average to .278.
“For Lane it’s a matter of approach as it is for all of our guys,” said Aoki. “All of our guys have swings that are workable but it’s just a matter of having the right mental approach in this game is critical. I thought Lane did a good job of that this weekend.”
Playing their second extra-inning game in as many days, the Irish were extremely aggressive on the bases, often challenging the Mountaineer battery of starting pitcher Jeffrey Springs and catcher Ozzy Gonzalez. Notre Dame finished with six on the day, which is the most since the Irish tallied six against West Virginia April 15, 2011. Ca. Biggio was the big base stealer on the day as he had a team season-high three swipes.
Both teams struggled with runners on base as Appalachian State left 12 and Notre Dame stranded 10. The Irish have stranded 25 in the last two games against Youngstown State and the Mountaineers.
A continued concern for Notre Dame must be hit batters as it plucked three Mountaineers to up its season total to 18. On the contrary, the Irish turned two more double plays to increase its season total to 19. As a comparison, Notre Dame has only hit into five double plays this year.
After four games in Cary this weekend, the Irish return to the Tar Heel State next weekend to begin their annual spring break trip. Notre Dame will open its inaugural Atlantic Coast Conference slate with a three-game set at nationally-ranked NC State. The Irish will then head to Boone, N.C., to play App State for the second time in a little over a week before closing out the trip with a three-game series at ACC foe Duke.
--Russell Dorn, Assistant Media Relations Director