Editor’s Note: A version of this story originally appeared for The Observer on Apr. 28, 2017.
For 13 pitches on Wednesday evening, Patrick McDonald was immaculate.
The freshman right hander entered Notre Dame’s eventual 5-0 win over Eastern Michigan in the seventh inning with the Irish ahead 1-0.
Nine pitches, nine strikes and three strikeouts later — baseball’s “immaculate inning” — he led the Irish (20-22, 8-13 ACC) into their dugout.
“I didn’t know until I got back into the dugout and my teammates told me,” McDonald said, noting he could not remember throwing such an inning before. The feat has only been achieved 82 times in the history of the MLB, most recently by Cincinnati’s Drew Storen 10 days ago against Baltimore.
But McDonald kept the streak going when he returned to the bump in the eighth inning against the Eagles (17-24, 8-4 MAC): He struck out the first batter he faced — once again in three pitches.
Twelve pitches, 12 strikes, four strikeouts.
Pitch No. 13 was true, dropping Eastern Michigan freshman second baseman Drake Peggs into a 0-1 hole awaiting McDonald’s 14th offering.
“It was supposed to be an inside fastball,” McDonald said.
Peggs lined it into shallow center.
“It ran over the plate,” McDonald said. “He got his barrel out to it and hit it up the middle.”
The streak over, and with a runner on base with only one out, Irish head coach Mik Aoki walked out of the dugout and called down to the bullpen for junior lefty Sean Guenther, Notre Dame’s closer.
Just like that, the fleeting moment was over. McDonald’s final line: 1 1/3 innings, four strikeouts and one hit on 14 pitches.
“Everything was working today,” McDonald said. “Fastball, changeup, especially the slider. But I was especially able to locate the pitches and just working off of that really worked out.”
“He’s dominated the bottom half of the strike zone,” Aoki said of McDonald. “When he has the fastball going and he throws the breaking ball off of it, he’s been pretty tough. [Tuesday] he was really good. Came in in a tight little spot and got a punch out, then pitched a really clean inning after that.”
Indeed, McDonald took just 11 pitches to go 1 1/3 innings Tuesday against Valparaiso, though he only recorded one strikeout. In his last three appearances, dating back to April 18 against Central Michigan, McDonald has tossed five scoreless innings while allowing just three hits and striking out seven batters. He has averaged just 11.8 pitches per inning.
“He’s hit for us this year, too,” Aoki said. “I think of Patrick as just a baseball player. He’s been able to do a good job of keeping his emotions in check. I think he does a good job and just work from pitch to pitch. He’s able to execute his pitch and not get to caught up in the ups and downs or get caught up in the game situation. And he’s done that. It’s really nice to see his growth as the year has gone on.”
McDonald — who has also made 20 appearances, 19 starts, in the outfield for Notre Dame this season, recording 14 hits — said working with both the pitchers and the fielders has kept him engaged this year.
“It’s a little bit more difficult,” McDonald said. “But it’s not bad as long as you have 100 percent focus in what you’re doing at that time — like if you’re hitting, then all your focus is on hitting, and if you’re pitching, all your focus is on pitching.
“You just have to dedicate a little bit more time to it.”
McDonald and the Irish turn their focus to ACC foe Duke this weekend in an important series for ACC postseason seeding. The top 12 seeds after the regular season advance to the championships, where they play in four pools. Currently, seeds No. 8-12 are all tied with an 8-13 conference record — including Notre Dame and the Blue Devils (22-21, 8-13) — while Boston College and Georgia Tech sit at 6-15 in the final two spots.
Notre Dame finishes its conference slate by hosting Duke and No. 2 Louisville — the conference’s current top seed — then taking to the road against the Eagles (16-22, 6-15), all three-game series.
“We try to keep the same approach that we’ve been on for seven weeks or so now,” Aoki said of the big weekend ahead. “ … Because quite frankly, whether it goes really well or it goes really poorly, it really doesn’t matter because, when it’s all said and done, where we want to be at the end of the year is not going to be dictated by this particular weekend.
“I’ve felt good going into every series all year long.”
Notre Dame and Duke, weather permitting, take to the Frank Eck Stadium turf for a double header at 4:05 p.m. Friday. The series finale is slated for 1:05 p.m. Saturday.