Because cold weather swept through Western Pennsylvania in the early part of last weekend, Pitt baseball’s series vs. Notre Dame was delayed two days. The three-game set, originally scheduled to begin on Thursday and end Saturday so that both teams could avoid playing on Easter Sunday, instead will push into next week.
It also meant that the Panthers would have to face off against the iconic Catholic university on one of the holiest days in the religious calendar. Pitt head coach Mike Bell joked that he was concerned about what forces could work against a team trying to best Notre Dame on such a day.
“A lot of teams out there will look at an ACC schedule and go ‘How are you supposed to beat Notre Dame on Easter Sunday?’” Bell said.
But after a 3-2 win over the 13th-ranked Fighting Irish on Sunday, Bell and his Panthers have regained some of the swagger lost during a recent four-game losing streak.
No. 24 Pitt (13-9 overall, 9-8 ACC) grabbed a dramatic, 3-2 victory over No. 13 Notre Dame (12-5 overall, 11-5 ACC) with a late home run from junior right fielder Nico Popa. Junior righty Matt Gilbertson was brilliant on the mound for the Panthers, who found relief in a tense game.
“Wins are always better than losses,” Bell said postgame. “But more importantly, we just played good baseball.”
Bell was not pleased with the way his team has played over the recent skid, but was proud of his team’s ability to put a frustrating week behind them by winning on Sunday.
The scoring began in the fourth inning, when junior left fielder Ron Washington Jr. hit a line-drive, solo home run off of the scoreboard in left field to give Pitt not just their first lead of the series at 1-0, but their first since the Panthers played Bucknell on March 24.
B4 | #17 Pitt 1, #12 Notre Dame 0
— Pitt Baseball (@Pitt_BASE) April 4, 2021
Bell repeatedly heaped praise on the veteran Washington postgame, saying that he is “quietly” putting together a solid season. Bell added that Washington’s homer was key to jumpstarting a Pitt team that was muddling through a four-game skid.
“Ron Washington, I felt like really, really has had great at bats through the year and came up with a big home run to give us a lead,” Bell said. “To play with a lede is huge for your baseball psyche, instead of having to come from behind.”
Panther starting pitcher Matt Gilbertson delivered a dazzling start in defense of that slim lead. It was a quintessentially-Matt Gilbertson performance, one made possible by precision location and capped by his passion.
Bell said that Gilbertson has constant energy and that his presence during the six days of the week on which he doesn’t pitch, are just as important to Pitt as his one day on the mound. His energy was on display all afternoon and for good reason. It was the Panthers’ first home win of the season and provided welcome respite from the brief losing streak.
“It’s our first home win and we’ve played too many games at home, honestly, for this to be our first one,” Gilbertson said. “We needed this one and all day we knew this one was pretty important.”
The lone blemish on Gilbertson’s line came in the seventh. Notre Dame center fielder Myers beat out an infield hit to lead off the inning and advanced into scoring position on a sacrifice bunt. Gilbertson got the second out of the frame by way of a routine fly ball to right field, but allowed a game-tying hit to the next batter.
With two down and Myers on second in the top of the seventh, leadoff hitter Ryan Cole slapped a single. Myers scored easily to tie the game.
Gilbertson was replaced by closer Jordan McCrum at the end of seven innings, having given up just one run, but still he left with the game at a tie. McCrum locked down the top of the eighth with a 1-2-3 inning.
Then in the eighth, Pitt came through with the kind of clutch hit they had been desperately missing. Jordan Anderson started the rally with a one-out infield single. A throwing error by Irish second baseman Jared Miller on the play sent the ball careening around the backstop and allowed Anderson to move all the way up to third. Notre Dame then went to the bullpen, calling on sophomore righty Liam Simon to replace starter John Michael Bertrand. But Simon was rocked immediately. Popa took Simon’s third pitch over the fence in right field to give Pitt a 3-1 lead.
All @nicopopa3 does is hit clutch homers!!
— Pitt Baseball (@Pitt_BASE) April 4, 2021
Popa took a spirited trip around the bases and was mobbed by teammates upon returning to the dugout. Despite surrendering a run, McCrum polished off the 3-2 win in the top of the ninth. Popa’s game-winning home run was cathartic and, according to Bell, gave the Panthers the necessary confidence to put last week’s struggles behind them and close out Sunday’s victory.
“I think it allowed everyone to get bigger,” Bell said. “And what I mean by that is, it allowed everyone to take a deep breath and say ‘Okay, we got this.’ Usually when it’s a one-run lead, guys are on nails. … [Popa’s home run] allowed guys to breathe a little bit.”
The Panthers and Irish will conclude their series on Monday. First pitch is slated for 1 p.m. from Charles L. Cost Field.