CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – A nip-and-tuck, back-and-forth affair in Notre Dame’s first NCAA tournament appearance in nine years turned into a late-inning blowout as the Fighting Irish (37-21) slammed four home runs and eight extra-base hits in a 13-7 victory over Wright State (41-16).
Round-trippers by Cavan Biggio, Ryan Bull, Robert Youngdahl and Zak Kutsulis accounted for eight of the runs and powered Notre Dame as the Irish took advantage of a fairly stiff breeze blowing out of Illinois Field to raise their home run total to 42 after hitting just 11 a year ago.
Bull finished with three extra-base hits and four RBI while Youngdahl duplicated Bull’s four RBI day with three hits of his own. Ryan Lidge added three hits. Biggio and Kyle Fiala each had two.
“We made some big swings and some big plays, but if the wind continues to blow like this, we’re going to have some coaches that are going to age about 15 years over the course of the next two or three days,” said Irish head coach Mik Aoki.
Notre Dame’s 13-run outburst was the most the Irish have scored in a game this year since its 14-1 victory over Incarnate Word on Feb. 19 – the fifth game of the season.
After Wright State jumped to a 3-0 lead in the top of the third, Notre Dame answered with four runs in the third on two-run doubles by Bull and Youngdahl.
Wright State tied it in the sixth, Notre Dame took a 5-4 lead in the bottom half of the inning, and then fell behind again, 6-5, before the Irish exploded for two runs in the seventh and six runs in the eighth to turn a one-run game into a cruise across the finish line.
Kutsulis’ solo shot in the sixth put the Irish on top, 5-4, and Bull’s two-run blast an inning later put the Irish on top for good, 6-5.
“To be honest with you, I focused on things I couldn’t control last year, and I’ve gone through a maturation process,” said Bull, who raised his RBI total for the season to 27 after managing just 10 in 104 plate appearances in ’14.
“I just learned to focus on the things I could control, which has helped me share some of the things I went through last year with the younger guys.”
It was one of those younger guys – sophomore second baseman Biggio – whose three run shot in the eighth finally gave the Irish the breathing room they were seeking. Youngdahl added a two-run homer four batters after Biggio’s big blast to put the game out of reach.
“A frustrating loss for us,” summarized Wright State head coach Greg Lovelady. “I thought we did a lot of great things today, and we had an opportunity going into the eighth inning.
“But in the end, they just made more plays than we did. They made more pitches and they got the big pitches when they needed them. We thought it would come down to the bullpen and we blinked first.”
Senior righthander Scott Kerrigan didn’t last long for the Irish. He surrendered two runs in the second and another in the third, prompting Aoki to pull him after three innings and six hits allowed.
Aoki tabbed speed-changing lefthander Scott Tully to start the fourth and he was effective for 2 2/3 innings before Ryan Fucci hit his team-leading 14th home run to tie the game in the sixth. Tully surrendered two more runs in the top of the seventh on RBI doubles by Sean Murphy and Michael Timm.
From there, Aoki went to 15-game starter Brandon Bielak, a hard-throwing righthander who limited the Raiders to one run – a solo shot by Andrew McCafferty to lead off the ninth -- over 2 1/3 innings.
“We looked at Scott (Tully) and Brandon as guys that might be good matchups for this team,” Aoki said. “To be honest with you, I thought Wright State did a phenomenal job of making some adjustments.
“Brandon presents some issues because he’s got a changeup and a slider, and he’s got a pretty good fastball. As long as he’s on top and working downhill, he’s pretty tough. He’s a kid who, outside of these last three appearances, has been in our rotation and has pitched in some really big spots for us.”
Meanwhile, Notre Dame thrashed Wright State relievers Trevor Swaney and Blair Logan for nine earned runs on nine hits.
“It certainly didn’t start out the way we wanted it to,” Aoki said. “We thought Scott (Kerrigan) would be a little sharper than he was. But I’m proud of the way our kids continued to compete.”
Aoki named sophomore righthander Ryan Smoyer (9-0, 2.13 ERA) the starter for Saturday night’s game against the winner of Illinois-Ohio. Wright State plays the loser of Illinois-Ohio University Saturday at 1:00 p.m. ET.