After two games, 23 innings and nearly eight hours of baseball on a frigid Sunday at Charles L. Cost Field, the Pitt baseball team snapped a seven-game skid and earned its first ACC win of 2017.
The Panthers (8-9 overall, 1-5 ACC) avoided a sweep against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (6-12 overall, 2-4 ACC) by taking game two of Sunday’s doubleheader in 12 innings, 2-1. Notre Dame won the series opener 10-5 Friday, then eked out a 4-3 win in 11 innings in game one of Sunday’s doubleheader.
Nobody played a bigger role in Pitt’s first conference win than senior right-hander Josh Falk, who pitched eight shutout innings Sunday in what might have been the finest start of his college career.
“I think the biggest thing is to have the confidence back,” Falk said, referencing the team’s lengthy losing streak after a strong start to the season. “This win definitely puts us back on the fact that we need to win games, and if we do all the right things — pitching, defense and hitting — we’ll definitely do that.”
The series opener Friday night featured more offense than each of Sunday’s games combined.
Panthers redshirt senior Jacob Wright led off the bottom of the first inning with a triple down the right field line on a full-count pitch. Junior designated hitter Kaylor Kulina followed with an RBI single, then senior shortstop P.J. DeMeo brought Kulina home on a two-out double to give Pitt a 2-0 lead.
The Fighting Irish quickly got a run back on cleanup hitter Matt Vierling’s solo home run to lead off the top of the second inning.
With no scoring over the next three innings, Notre Dame surged ahead in the sixth. Again the Fighting Irish struck with a leadoff homer, this time from third baseman Kyle Fiala, to tie the game at two. Catcher Ryan Lidge then brought Vierling home with an RBI single to put Notre Dame on top, 3-2.
The Fighting Irish then blew the game open with one swing of the bat in the eighth. After three walks loaded the bases with one out, right fielder Jake Shepski took Pitt reliever Isaac Mattson deep for a grand slam to make it an 8-3 game.
The Panthers fought back in the bottom half, cutting the deficit to three. DeMeo brought center fielder Frank Maldonado home with an RBI triple, then scored on third baseman Nick Banman’s RBI groundout. But Notre Dame answered with two more in the top of the ninth to seal the 10-5 win.
After weather concerns pushed Saturday’s game to Sunday afternoon, the Fighting Irish kept up their hot hitting to start Sunday’s doubleheader while Pitt’s bats remained cold.
Fiala got things started for Notre Dame with a one-out single, then scored on a passed ball by Panthers catcher Manny Pazos after a double by second baseman Nick Podkul. Vierling led off the top of the fourth with a double for the Fighting Irish, then advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt and came home to score on a wild pitch to give Notre Dame a 2-0 advantage.
Banman then started the bottom of the fifth for Pitt with a double off the right field wall, becoming the team’s first baserunner to reach second base. Fighting Irish pitcher Michael Hearne nearly stranded Banman there, but he couldn’t corral a wide throw to first base on a would-be groundout, allowing Banman to score the first run of the day for the Panthers.
Notre Dame threatened to add to its lead in the sixth, loading the bases with two outs. But Pitt starter Matt Pidich battled back from a 3-1 count to strike shortstop Cole Dailey out and end the inning, and his teammates rushed out of the dugout to congratulate their pitcher.
The Fighting Irish put together a similar threat in the seventh, prompting head coach Joe Jordano to remove Pidich after 100 pitches with runners on first and third and two outs. Senior Sam Mersing relieved Pidich out of the bullpen and struck Podkul out to get out of the jam.
Vierling moved from center field to the mound for the eighth inning looking for his third save of the season for Notre Dame, but a double down the right field line by DeMeo in the bottom of the ninth inning sent the game into extras.
Shepski delivered another big hit for the Fighting Irish in the top of the 11th, putting them back on top with an RBI single. He came home to score on left fielder Jake Johnson’s RBI double, giving Notre Dame a 4-2 lead. Vierling clinched a 4-3 win for the Irish by turning a hard-hit ground ball by DeMeo into a double play.
The Panthers went into the series finale looking to avoid an eighth-straight defeat and a second-straight series sweep.
Pazos got the scoring started, reaching base safely on a bunt thanks to a bad overthrow by Fighting Irish pitcher Brad Bass. Pazos wound up on third base after Shepski misplayed the ball in right field, then scored on an RBI single by second baseman Alex Amos to give the Panthers a 1-0 lead.
Bass settled down and found a groove after the error, pitching 6 2/3 innings without giving up an earned run. But Falk was even better.
“Under the conditions and circumstances, it was phenomenal,” Jordano said of Falk’s performance. “He’s a lion on the mound. He’s going to come at you, he’s going to compete and he always gives us an opportunity to win a ballgame.”
Falk tossed eight scoreless innings in the best start of his Panthers career, allowing four hits and three walks while striking out six. But Jordano pulled him after throwing 108 pitches, sending sophomore closer Yaya Chentouf out for the ninth.
Chentouf couldn’t record an out, as he gave up back-to-back singles then threw the ball away on a sacrifice bunt attempt, allowing the tying run to score. Jordano then went back to the bullpen, calling on R.J. Freure to try to keep the game tied.
In order to keep the game tied, Freure needed to pull a Houdini — escape a bases-loaded jam with nobody out — and that’s exactly what he did. Freure struck out Shepski before getting Johnson to line into an inning-ending double play on an incredible play by first baseman Caleb Parry. The redshirt senior saved three runs by snaring a scorching line drive down the right field line and stepping on first base just in time.
Pitt got two runners aboard in the bottom of the ninth, loaded the bases in the bottom of the 10th and put two more runners on in the 11th. Each time, Notre Dame found a way to get out of the inning, until the bottom of the 12th when the Panthers’ fortunes changed.
Pazos laced a one-out single just past Fiala’s outstretched glove at third base, bringing Maldonado home to score the winning run.
“That’s the best feeling in the world,” Pazos said about delivering the walk-off hit and being swarmed by his cheering team, who had rushed the field to congratulate him.
Jordano said it was huge for his young team to snap its skid and pick up its first ACC win.
“We can’t teach experience. They’ve got to live it,” Jordano said after the series finale. “I’m just proud of the way they kept grinding. Even in the first game, when Notre Dame took the lead in the 11th inning, we came back and had our opportunities again there. That’s what it’s all about.”
Pitt will travel to Kent, Ohio, for a nonconference showdown with the Kent State Golden Flashes Tuesday night at 6 p.m.