Kavadas, Cole and pitching propel Irish to home series win over Duke
Aidan Thomas | Monday, March 22, 2021
After the COVID-19 pandemic denied the Notre Dame baseball team a home game last season, the Fighting Irish returned home to Frank Eck Stadium for the first time since May of 2019. The team treated the home crowd to a fantastic display of pitching and timely hitting in their first two games, as Notre Dame won their fourth consecutive ACC series to start the season, taking two of three contests from the Duke Blue Devils.
The Irish claimed the first two games of the series, 6-4 (in 13 innings) and 6-2, before their bats went silent in the series finale, a 2-0 loss that left their record at 9-3.
“It was great, it’s comforting being in your own environment,” head coach Link Jarrett said, after coaching his first home series as the Notre Dame head coach. “To win the game Friday night is something I’ll always remember. Personally, for me, it was an enjoyable moment and a good weekend for the team.”
For Notre Dame, it was their pitching (2.32 ERA on the weekend) and timely offense from both expected and unexpected sources that did the trick.
In Game one, the Irish trotted out reliever Will Mercer to the mound, as the southpaw started the series opener for the second straight weekend. Mercer cruised through three frames, and Notre Dame capitalized on a leadoff single from sophomore third baseman Jack Brannigan, a walk to senior center fielder Spencer Myers, a pair of errant pick-off attempts and an RBI groundout to grab the early 2-0 lead.
However, Mercer tired, and Duke instantly struck back, sending ten men to the plate in the fourth. Three of the first four batters reached via single, cutting the deficit in half, and Irish reliever Liam Simon came on, but he couldn’t find the strike zone. Simon walked three of four men he faced, with a pair of wild pitches contributing to two more Duke runs. Graduate student Joe Sheridan came on and gave up a bunt single before escaping the frame, down just 4-2.
The game settled down for a bit, as Sheridan stabilized the Irish pitching, but Notre Dame saw seven straight hitters retired by Duke ace Cooper Stinson. However, after Sheridan escaped the sixth inning, despite surrendering a leadoff double, Notre Dame capitalized on the momentum swing, as senior Niko Kavadas launched his sixth home run of the season, a two-run bomb to right field that tied the score at 4 runs apiece.
For Game one, that was all the scoring fans would see for a long time, as Sheridan was absolutely dealing for the Irish, backed up by some stellar defense. In the seventh, junior right fielder Brooks Coetzee flashed a strong arm, as he prevented a potential leadoff double by gunning down the runner at second. Sheridan was perfect in the eighth and ninth, but the Irish did nearly nothing offensively, and the game rolled into extra innings. Sheridan escaped a tenth inning jam, created by consecutive one-out singles. However, the lefty reliever concluded a sparkling 6 ⅓ inning effort out of the bullpen by notching his third strikeout and inducing a fly out to right, letting out an emphatic yell as he left the mound. However, it was still three more innings before the game saw its conclusion.
Notre Dame continued its fantastic pitching effort with Tanner Kohlhepp, a sophomore right-hander who allowed just two hits and struck out four over three scoreless innings. That gave the quiet Irish bats just enough time to wake up, as they finally did in the 13th inning, sparked by Kavadas once more. The senior drilled a laser down the right-field line and beat the throw with a headfirst dive into second, firing up the home dugout. One batter later, with the winning run on third base, the Irish looked to reserve left fielder Ryan Cole to deliver the winning blow.
Cole is part of a rotation used in left field by Jarrett, and after Alex Brait had fouled a pitch off his knee, Cole entered for defensive reasons, according to Jarrett. Cole was 1-2 to that point with a bunt single, and the idea of a suicide squeeze had to be on the minds of some. But Cole had other thoughts, depositing a pitch deep over the left-field fence for the senior’s first career home run, a walk-off 2-run shot. He ended up starting the next two games and went 4-8 with a walk and 4 RBI on the weekend.
“We’ve been waiting for someone in that [left field] rotation to take ahold of that moment,” Jarrett noted on Cole’s surge in playing time. “We needed someone to take charge of some at-bats, and when you step up on Friday, you get an opportunity on Saturday.”
In Game two, it was more strong pitching and clutch offense from Kavadas and Cole that did the trick for the Irish. Left-handed graduate student John Michael Bertrand continued his blazing streak on the mound, notching his first-ever career complete game, needing just 111 pitches to complete the feat. He scattered five hits and four walks, allowed two runs and struck out six. His lone major blemish was surrendering a sixth-inning, two-run bomb to Duke’s RJ Schreck, which temporarily gave the Blue Devils a 2-1 lead.
That one-run advantage didn’t last long, as Notre Dame slapped a five-spot on the board in the bottom half of the inning. Junior designated hitter Carter Putz laced a triple before an HBP put runners on the corners for Kavadas. This time, the first baseman demonstrated his opposite-field power, lifting a high fly over the left-field wall for a 3-run blast that gave Notre Dame the lead for good. Cole, getting the start after Friday night’s heroics, tacked on all the necessary insurance just two batters later; the left fielder roped a single to center that took a strange hop over the head of the center fielder, rolling all the way to the warning track. Despite a near perfectly executed relay from the Blue Devils, Cole wheeled around the bases and beat the throw with a headfirst dive. The inside-the-park home run gave Notre Dame and Bertrand a 6-2 lead, one which marked the final score of the game. Bertrand allowed just two hits in those final three innings, as Duke hardly mounted a comeback.
While the pitching remained fantastic for the Irish in Game three, the bats simply did not show up. Duke’s Jack Carey twirled six one-hit innings and Marcus Johnson polished off the game with three hitless frames of his own. Cole had the only base hit for the Irish, and his single and walk were the only two Irish baserunners, who never had a runner in scoring position.
“Obviously a tough ending to a good weekend. Would have been a great weekend if we had been able to finish this one off today,” Jarrett said. “Carey pitched a great game. Fastball to both sides of the plate, the slider was in play, changeup was good enough.”
Duke scratched out runs in the first and second innings, which was just enough for their 2-0 victory. The bullpen remained fantastic for Notre Dame, as junior RHP Alex Rao fired 5 1/3 scoreless innings, giving up just one hit and striking out five. On the weekend, the Irish bullpen gave up one earned run on 15 2/3 innings of work.“
“He’s been much improved this year,” Jarrett said of Rao’s effort. “We’re just finding his role on the team … he pitched very well and continued to evolve in his role with the team.”
The Irish, currently ranked No. 17 in the nation, will wait until Monday to see whether they rise in the polls. At 9-3 in ACC play, Notre Dame is second in the Atlantic Division and they’ll have a chance to surge back into first when they welcome Louisville next weekend. The Cardinals are 7-2 in conference play, and they were ranked No. 8 in the country, prior to sweeping NC State this week. The Irish will take on Valparaiso on Tuesday in a non-conference game at home before the three-game set against Louisville, which begins next Friday, also at home.