Top-seeded Irish set to face Hokies, Cavaliers in ACC Tournament pool play
Aidan Thomas | Wednesday, May 26, 2021
The hype around Notre Dame baseball was built up a little bit last spring during the team’s 11-2 start, which included a road sweep of North Carolina. However, the season’s cancellation quieted any noise, as the hot start under first-year head coach Link Jarrett was written off as a fluke, and the Irish were picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the ACC in 2021. However, the Irish came roaring back to life in late February, starting the year 7-2, with all nine games on the road and six against ranked competition.
Fast forward to today, the Irish are 29-10 (25-10 in ACC play) and have the conference’s top seed entering the ACC tournament. At 40-12 under Jarrett over the last two seasons, the Irish have worked their way into the top 10 of almost every major national poll, and they hold serious aspirations for hosting a NCAA regional — and potentially a Super Regional. But first, it’s time for conference tournament action.
The ACC Tournament operates a little differently than most, as 12 of 14 teams qualify, with those squads being divided up into four pools of three teams. The pools play a two-game round robin with the winner advancing to the semifinals. In the event of each team in the pool tying with a 1-1 record, the highest seed advances, thus rewarding regular-season success with an easier path to the championship.
Notre Dame gets 8th and 12th seeds in their pool as the top seed, so they’ll see 12th-seeded Virginia Tech Hokies on Wednesday, and 8th-seeded Virginia Cavaliers on Friday. Winning both automatically advances the Irish, but due to being the highest-ranked team in the pool, a 1-1 record may be enough as well. Virginia eliminated Virginia Tech from contention with a 3-2 victory on Tuesday, but the Hokies can still play spoiler by beating the Irish on Wednesday. Notre Dame has not lost back-to-back games this season, and they swept both the Hokies and Cavaliers during the regular season, so the Irish will like their chances of escaping Pool A.
Notre Dame has battled through their successful season with a unique pitching approach to each weekend, as graduate student transfer John Michael Bertrand (7-1, 2.77 ERA) has been their only true starter, with a bevy of capable relievers tag-teaming to get the job done on Fridays and Sundays. Sophomores Tanner Kohlhepp (7-1, 2.56 ERA) and Liam Simon (5-1, 3.33), along with juniors Aidan Tyrell (3-1, 3.07) and Alex Rao (2-1, 2.84) have been among the most reliable out of the pen for the Irish. Sophomore Jack Brannigan, who is a staple in the middle of the lineup and at third base for Notre Dame, has also flashed his two-way ability, notching three saves and a 2.45 ERA in five appearances this season. Should they reach the championship game in the tournament, Notre Dame will play games Friday through Sunday, but the extra game Wednesday will be another piece in the puzzle for Jarrett. While ultimately this contest versus Virginia Tech doesn’t matter for advancing out of pool play, Jarrett may still opt to use Bertrand in hopes of having him available for a potential championship game on Sunday.
Offensively, Notre Dame boasts five regulars that have started all 39 games this season, and they’re led by senior first baseman Niko Kavadas, who has 16 home runs while hitting .303 on the season. Junior designated hitter Carter Putz is hitting a sizzling .316 with three home runs and three triples, while senior outfielder Ryan Cole has emerged to the tune of a .314 average, five home runs — two of which were walk-off blasts in ACC play. Throw in sophomore Jack Brannigan (.289) plus seniors Spencer Meyers and Jared Miller — both hitting .273 — and you’ve got a formidable offense that has proven capable of massive hot streaks and big innings, such as overcoming a 10-0 deficit against Boston College in the final three innings earlier this season.
Defensively, Notre Dame is the best in the business, leading the country in fielding percentage with a sparkling .986 mark, so the Irish won’t be likely to beat themselves, which can be a big threat for favored, higher-seeded teams.
Notre Dame faces the Hokies in which is ultimately a meaningless game for them (as they will only advance by beating Virginia) at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, while Irish fans count down to a weekend they hope includes three consecutive games, starting with Friday’s first pitch against the Cavaliers at 11 a.m. All games are to be played at Truist Park in Charlotte, North Carolina.