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Notre Dame Baseball

Eyes on Omaha: After historic run, Notre Dame seeks next step

February 18, 2022
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It’s been eight-plus months, and yet it’s been every day.

Last June, a College World Series berth on the line, Notre Dame nearly rallied itself from a 7-1 deficit to keep alive its dream of a trip to Omaha, Nebraska, and the former TD Ameritrade Park – now Charles Schwab Field – host site of the CWS.

But the Irish, who had squandered a 7-3 Game 1 lead and dominated Game 2 at Mississippi State, fell just short, and the Bulldogs ran through the CWS en route to college baseball’s top prize.

Today, Notre Dame – ranked as high as No. 4 in preseason national polls, yet picked third in the Atlantic Coast Conference Atlantic Division by league coaches – returns almost intact on its new quest for the program’s first trip back to the CWS in two decades.

The Fighting Irish are scheduled for three games this weekend in Deland, Florida, at the Hatter Classic, hosted by Stetson.  

“I think everyone was happy with how last season went, but we know we were one win short,” said ND junior infielder/relief pitcher Jack Brannigan. “At the end of the day, that Game 3, losing that one was tough, and it kind of left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.

“I speak for myself when I say I think about that game almost every day, and I’m sure everyone else on the team does and they want to get to Omaha just as bad. I think getting that taste of success and going to the Super Regional was good, but we’re not satisfied with that.”

Added sixth-year senior pitcher John Michael Bertrand, the staff ace and one of five team captains, “I think it’s very difficult, right? You try to put a good spin on it, yeah we lost to the national champs, but at the same time, you want to be the national champs. It’s a sour taste, but I think everyone uses it as motivation, right? We competed with those guys, we beat ourselves, and we just use that to come in next year and focus on each pitch better, focus on winning each inning, each third of the game and each game will take care of itself after that.”

PROJECTED STARTERS

Game 1 (7:00 PM): LHP Aidan Tyrell (’21: 5-1, 2.70 ERA) vs. Manhattan RHP Tyler Fagler

Game 2 (4:00 PM): LHP John Michael Bertrand (’21: 8-2, 3.20 ERA) vs. Stetson LHP Jonathan Gonzalez

Game 3 (9:00 AM): RHP Austin Temple (N/A) vs. Delaware RHP Joey Silan

THE OUTLOOK

Gone from last year’s ACC Champion Irish squad, which closed 34-16 and made the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in 15 years, are record-setting slugger Niko Kavadas, an 11th-round pick of the Boston Red Sox, and fire-balling relief pitcher Tanner Kohlhepp, a fifth-round draft pick.

The sum of the parts, however, might be greater this year – with eight starting position players returning, the bulk of the innings pitched from a year ago, the experience gained from that 50-game run and, of course, an influx of new talent blended between heralded freshmen and meticulously curated graduate transfers.

“It’s huge,” ND coach Link Jarrett, 45-15 in less than two full seasons at the helm due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said. “I feel like I’ve coached one full year at Notre Dame. I know it’s two, but it feels like one long one. The ability of a Jared Miller and a Brannigan and a Bertrand and (Ryan) Cole and (David) LaManna to help the younger and new, altogether new players adapt to what we’re doing, it just makes our coaching more efficient. So that’s big.

“And the confidence of the returning guys, after what we were able to do last year and how close we felt like we were, there’s a lot to be said for that, too. They walk out like you saw (at a recent practice) with a little more understanding of what we’re doing and where we hope what we’re doing can take us.”

In addition to Bertrand, Jarrett revealed that Miller, LaManna, Carter Putz and Aidan Tyrell had been voted team captains for the 2022 season, which has been slated for a full non-conference schedule and a home debut March 15 against Valpo.

The 24-year-old Bertrand is back for a sixth season in college baseball, his career having started at Furman University before it shuttered its program. Among the graduate transfers is Bertrand’s former Paladin teammate, southpaw Matt Lazzaro. Right-handers Austin Temple and Ryan McLinskey have joined the Irish program after their careers first unfolded at Jacksonville and Seton Hall, respectively.

Tyrell, Bertrand and Temple, in that order, are expected to start this weekend for the Irish in tilts scheduled against Manhattan (tonight, 7), host Stetson (Saturday, 4 p.m.) and Delaware (Sunday, 9 a.m.).

“A lot of people get caught up in projections, they get caught up in rankings, and I think what’s special about this team is that we’re focused on one game at a time,” said Bertrand, older brother of Notre Dame linebacker and 2021 leading tackler JD Bertrand. “And not just one game at a time but we break that game down into innings and you break each inning down into each pitch and it’s like how can we battle for that pitch, how can we get that starting pitcher of the opposing team to start using more pitches, can we battle 3-2, can we get deeper into counts and reach into that bullpen on Friday nights to cause a little more chaos.

“And then on the reverse side, we’re trying to attack hitters. We’re not focused on roles or anything like that, everyone is fine taking the ball because they know as soon as they take the ball that they’re the man for the job and that’s what they’re going to go do. They’re going to go attack the hitter and attack every team with our game plan. So I think that’s kind of the special recipe, being able to have a focus and a control on what you’re looking at for that weekend and that game.”

Without the bat of Kavadas to anchor the center of the Irish lineup, Notre Dame has projected a bit of a return to Jarrett’s preferred approach of chaos and havoc on the basepaths. Brannigan, Miller, Putz and Zack Prajzner all started every game a year ago for the Irish, who added freshman outfielder DM Jefferson, among others, to its crop of newcomers.

“DM Jefferson is a freshman outfielder, left-hander hitter, who’s been a very explosive, dynamic player for us. Since Day 1, quite honestly, in the fall,” Jarrett said of the 6-foot, 200-pound Bethesda, Maryland, native Jefferson. “He could play any outfield position and obviously you have a (designated hitter); I don’t look at people as DHs but at some point, you’ll make the lineup out and there’s going to be a DH, so he’s a candidate for that.

“The freshman arms that we have, (right-handers) Roman Kimball and Radek Birkholz will, we’re trying to absorb the loss of Kohlhepp,” Jarrett said. “And Kohlhepp was one of if not the most effective reliever in the country as the season progressed. Somebody is going to have to absorb some of that leverage-work, and we hope that those two guys can contribute.

“Brannigan, we’re trying to get a little bit more out of him on the mound. The stuff is clearly there, it’s the repeatability of the stuff and giving him a chance to have efficient innings. So that’s where we’re trying to go. He’s not new, but we need his inning total to be more than it has, so it needs to have a new look when he’s on the mound.”

Since fall, Jarrett has emphasized a need for more strikeouts from his pitching staff – of which the roster listed 22 arms – and that aforementioned more versatile lineup. Now, the opportunity to see those elements for the first time has arrived.

“I think we have a lot more pitching depth, I think we have a lot more variables throughout the entire team,” Bertrand said. “You’re missing a few key pieces from last year’s returners, whether it’s a Niko (Kavadas) or a Tanner (Kohlhepp), but at the same time you have an insurgence of new guys, new arms, new hitters. I wouldn’t say it’s the same (team), I’d say it’s pretty different, but we kind of take whatever we have and use it to our advantage. …

“Putting more pressure on opposing pitchers, stealing bases, small ball, stringing together at-bats, probably not going to prioritize the long ball as much.”

 
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