Irish conclude 9-game road trip with sweep of Virginia
Aidan Thomas | Tuesday, March 16, 2021
Notre Dame baseball was picked to finish last in the ACC’s Atlantic Division and 13th out of the 14 teams in the conference.
But somebody clearly forgot to tell the Irish.
After another impressive weekend, this one resulting in a sweep of No. 21 Virginia, Notre Dame (7-2, 7-2 ACC) wrapped up a nine-game road trip to start their season. The Fighting Irish have not played a game at home. They’re one of just two teams to have not taken the field at their home stadium in the ACC this season, and they’re the only squad in the conference to have not lost a conference series. Their 7-2 record is good for a 1.5 game lead in the Atlantic Division over Louisville, and the best overall record by a game in the ACC. The Irish rose to No. 17 in the Division I baseball poll, and No. 15 in Baseball America’s rankings.
This weekend marked the fourth consecutive road series that Notre Dame has won, dating back to last year’s truncated season. And this one was a satisfying sweep, as the inconsistent Irish bats broke out in a big way, blasting seven home runs in three games against a strong Virginia pitching staff. The big offensive output was a welcome sight for Notre Dame head coach Link Jarrett, who noted the immediate jump into conference play as a definite obstacle in getting their bats warmed up.
“MLB guys play 20-25 games in spring training and see a lot of pitches before the season,” Jarrett said. “We haven’t played any midweek games, and we’ve jumped straight into ACC play.”
Indeed, Notre Dame lost its only pre-ACC non-conference weekend due to some COVID problems, forcing the team to play its first nine games of the year on the road against conference foes. That led to some inconsistent offensive efforts, but in three wins over the Cavaliers, the Irish posted scoring outputs of 10, 12 and eight runs.
“We saw some elite starting pitchers this past weekend,” Jarrett said. “We’re still striking out way too much, but when you get some home runs, some extra-base hits, you can score runs and offset that a little.”
That was certainly the case in game one, as Notre Dame teed off against Virginia’s ace, senior Andrew Abbott, knocking him out of the game after 102 pitches and just four-and-one-third innings. Notre Dame got their first runs in the third inning, when a two-out strikeout hit the dirt and allowed junior designated hitter Carter Putz to reach first. Senior second baseman Jared Miller took three balls in the ensuing at-bat, got the green light and blasted an absolute bomb to left field for the 2-0 lead.
However, Notre Dame quickly found itself facing a deficit, as giving up four runs in the third. The Irish did not have normal Friday starter Tommy Sheehan available due to injury. Jarrett said that he wouldn’t rule Sheehan out for the season, but it’s possible he’s out for the season, as there’s no current timetable on his return. That left the Irish with a bullpen game to navigate, and after junior Will Mercer navigated two scoreless innings, he got banged up in the third, and Notre Dame left the inning trailing 4-2. A double steal sparked an Irish comeback, however, as a sacrifice fly, followed by an RBI single from the No. 9 hitter, sophomore third baseman Jack Brannigan, tied the score. Brannigan, who came around to score to give the Irish the lead for good, finished the weekend with seven hits, all singles, good for four RBI.
“Very rarely do you have all nine guys keyed in at the same time. So whether your 1-2-3, or you’re 7-8-9, the goal is to do what you do, and to do it at a high level,” Jarrett said of the production from Brannigan as well as up and down his lineup.
Notre Dame would cling to a 6-5 lead into the eighth inning, as Joe Sheridan was lights out in relief for the Irish, shutting down the Virginia bats after entering in the fifth. In the eighth, Notre Dame put away the game, courtesy of a three-run blast from junior right fielder Brooks Coetzee. The Irish would win 10-5, as Sheridan closed things out to put a stamp on a beautiful five-inning performance in relief. The UCF transfer has been been dominant so far out of the bullpen, with eight shutout innings on the season, allowing just three hits and striking out eight, seven of which came in Friday’s effort.
The series-opening win set the tone for Notre Dame, who did not trail for the rest of the series. The Irish faced another starter with electric stuff in Griff McGarry, but again, Notre Dame battled and drove up his pitch count, eventually jumping on McGarry for three runs between the third and fourth innings. McGarry threw 82 pitches and left after three-and-two-thirds frames of work. Putz and Miller knocked in runs in the third inning with a sacrifice fly and RBI groundout, and Brannigan added to the lead in the fourth with a run-scoring single.
Notre Dame sent its one true starting pitcher to the mound in graduate student transfer John Bertrand, and once again, the veteran hurler delivered a gem. Outside of allowing three runs in the fourth, Bertrand was nearly untouchable, as he gave up just five hits and needed just 89 pitches to produce seven innings of three-run ball, which was plenty enough for the Irish offense. Bertrand has tossed 14 innings and allowed four runs in his past two starts, after getting roughed up in a short outing against Wake Forest.
“He’s had great fastball command, and he keeps guys off-balance” Jarrett said. “With his change-up, he gets weak contact, and we just need to play great defense behind him.”
The Irish did that, as they didn’t make an error — they have just three in their first nine games — and immediately backed up Bertrand’s one shaky inning with a five-run fifth. The middle of the order again did damage for the Irish, as Miller drilled an RBI double, sandwiched by hits from Putz and senior first baseman Niko Kavadas. After an error and an RBI groundout gifted the Irish two more runs, Coetzee torched an offering from Kyle Whitten, notching his second home run of the series, and Notre Dame led 8-3.
Bertrand needed little more help, as he fired four perfect innings during his outing, and Alex Rao closed out the game with two innings in relief. Brannigan notched two more RBI in the game as part of a four-hit effort that led Notre Dame to the 12-4 win.
The storylines remained much the same for Notre Dame in the series finale. Again the Irish raced out to a hot start, this time courtesy of Kavadas’s big bat, as the first baseman sent his fifth home run of the season into orbit for an early 3-0 lead in the first inning. Sophomore right-hander Dominic Cancellieri gritted through two innings, leaving the bases loaded in the inning, but he departed in the third as the Cavaliers brought home two runs. Junior southpaw Aidan Tyrell entered and escaped the inning with no further damage. He kept Virginia at bay until the fifth, by which point his offense had given him some more breathing room. Kavadas nearly had a second three-run bomb, but he settled for a long sacrifice fly to the warning track to bring home one run, and Coetzee slapped a single through the right side for a 5-2 Notre Dame lead.
Virginia got a run back in the fifth, but that was all they would get. Sophomore Tanner Kohlhepp locked down the result with four-and-two-thirds innings of shutout relief, and the Irish tacked on single runs in the final three innings to secure the 8-3 win and the series sweep.
Offensively, it continued to be a team effort for Notre Dame, who saw a lot of production from the meat of its order; Putz, Miller, Kavadas and senior catcher David LaManna occupied the 2-5 spots in the order and hit .426 on the weekend, with 14 RBI, while Coetzee was 6-13 out of the 7-hole, with a pair of home runs, and Brannigan was 7-11 at the bottom of the lineup. As a team, Notre Dame hit .365 and scored 30 runs against a Virginia team that had given up 38 runs in its first 12 games and held opponents to three or less runs on nine occasions.
On the mound, Notre Dame held the Cavaliers to a .204 batting average, posting a 3.00 ERA for the weekend. The Irish will be back in action, and back at home for the first time since 2019, against the Duke Blue Devils (6-6, 3-3 in ACC Play) on Friday at 4 p.m.