May 10, 2015
NOTRE DAME, Ind. — There’s something about the final game of the regular season on the new FieldTurf artificial surface at Frank Eck Stadium that’s extra special to the University of Notre Dame baseball team. A year after Ryan Bull ended the 2014 campaign with a walk-off homer to sweep Atlantic Coast Conference foe Pitt, junior Kyle Richardson did Bull one better, clubbing a solo homer in the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday to complete the series sweep of No. 20 North Carolina and clinch a spot in the ACC Tournament for the first time in program history.
“You couldn’t have scripted that one any better,” said head coach Mik Aoki. “We did a great job chipping away at the deficit. We didn’t get too down on ourselves after being down 6-0 and we showed we can overcome some situations like that. I’m really proud of our players and really happy for them. We will enjoy this for a little bit and then we will turn the page and get ready for Western Michigan Tuesday night.”
After winning both games of a doubleheader against the Tar Heels Saturday (10-5 & 3-1), the Irish appeared to have awoken a beast in the series finale, as North Carolina exploded for six runs over the first two innings to jump out to a commanding lead.
However, Notre Dame just wouldn’t give up, as the Irish slowly chipped away at the lead by hitting homer, after homer, after homer, after homer to tie the game at seven entering the ninth frame. With two outs and a 0-1 count already on the board, Richardson dug back into the batter’s box. He made contact with a Trent Thornton fastball and sent it flying over the left-field fence for his first career homer that caused the Irish bench to sprint to home plate to celebrate the series sweep.
“I went up there just trying to help our team win a game and the way I do that with my approach is by trying to win each pitch,” said Richardson. “So I laid off the first one because he threw a good off-speed pitch in there and it wasn’t something I wanted. So sticking with what I’ve been doing all year, I looked for a fastball. I got the bat head out there and something magical happened. I haven’t hit many homers in my life — and none at Notre Dame — but it I just knew when I made contact that it had a chance to go.”
“I’m really happy for Kyle with that swing of the bat,” said Aoki. “There have been so many times where he’s put the bat on the ball this year and it ends up being a line drive right at someone. I’m absolutely thrilled for him.”
Notre Dame scored all but one of its runs on five homers, including two from junior Zak Kutsulis. The Homer Glen, Illinois native crushed a three-RBI home run to cut the Tar Heel lead in half in the second inning, before trimming UNC’s margin back to three in the fourth with a solo homer. It’s the first two-homer game of his career and the second for Notre Dame this season (Cavan Biggio at Mercer, Feb. 28).
The five homers was the most in a single game for the Irish since at least 2007 and also tied a program record at Frank Eck Stadium (1997 vs. Providence & 2002 vs. South Alabama).
Senior Robert Youngdahl joined the home run party in the sixth to cut the lead to 7-5, and sophomore Cavan Biggio responded with a lead-off homer to start the eighth that jumpstarted a big two-run inning that tied the game at seven. Later in the frame after a Kyle Fiala triple, sophomore Ryan Lidge reached base on an error on UNC first baseman Joe Dudek, which allowed Fiala to scamper home and tie the contest for the first time all day.
After Irish starter Nick McCarty (2.1 IP, 4 H, 7 R, 4 BB) struggled with command early in the game, Notre Dame turned to its bullpen to right the ship. Senior Matt Ternowchek (0.2 IP, 1 H, 2 BB), freshman Evy Ruibal (1.0 IP, 1 BB, 2 SO), junior Connor Hale (1.2 IP, 0 H, 0 BB), freshman Sean Guenther (2.2 IP, 2 H, 0 BB, 1 SO) and Brad Bass (3-0, 0.2 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 1 SO) were outstanding in relief to keep the Tar Heels off the scoreboard after the third inning.
Ruibal especially, provided a big spark to the squad, as he entered with a runner on base and the Irish already down 7-3. The Millburn, New Jersey native walked another batter immediately, but bunkered down and struck out back-to-back batters and then induced a groundout to get out of the jam.
“Evy did a really good job of changing the momentum of the game,” said Aoki. “I think those walks and free 90’s we gave them had us on our heels. He got us out of that inning scoreless. And then Connor and Gunny and Brad grabbed the momentum back. We were having clean innings. When you do that and you get some stops, it gives you a chance to get your legs underneath you offensively.”
“They were phenomenal, every single one of those guys,” said Richardson. “Everyone we called down there was ready to go. They set the ton right away and we were able to carry it through the rest of the game. If you look at the game through the last seven innings, that was a game that was very much in our control and our bullpen gets all the credit for that.”
With the pitching steadied, the Irish bats slowly chipped away at the lead all game, leaving just two runners on base.
Tar Heel starter Benton Bass (6.0 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 1 BB, 4 SO) earned the no-decision, while Thornton (2.2 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 0 BB, 4 SO) suffered the loss.
UNC jumped out to an early 6-0 lead on the strength of a first-inning, two-run homer from Tyler Ramirez and a second-inning, grand slam from Skye Bolt.
Biggio, Youngdahl and Kutsulis all turned in two-hit days, while Kutsulis became the second Irish player this year — and also the second in as many days — to record four RBI. Fiala waited until the eighth frame, but finally extended his on-base streak to 40 games. The streak started March 6 in the first game of the ACC season at Georgia Tech.
The series win gives the Irish its third ACC sweep of the season — including the second over a ranked team (No. 7 Florida State was the other). The last time the Irish swept three league foes was in 2008, when they beat Georgetown, Rutgers and Villanova.
Notre Dame now boasts series wins over Oklahoma, Clemson, Pittsburgh, Florida State, NC State and North Carolina this season.
The Irish (33-18, 15-12 ACC) wrap up the regular season with four games on the road. They travel to Western Michigan Tuesday for a 3:05 first pitch before closing out their ACC slate with a three-game series at Boston College (May 14-16). The 2015 ACC Tournament is set for May 19-24. The bracket will be finalized following Saturday’s final games.
–Russell Dorn, Assistant Media Relations Director