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Sports

Irish geared to face red-hot pitcher in tournament opener

| Thursday, June 3, 2021

For the first time since 2015, Notre Dame baseball finds themselves preparing for an NCAA Tournament game — and for the first time since 2004, that game is going to be played on their home turf, at Frank Eck Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. Six years ago, the Irish entered the Champaign Region as no. 2 seed, scored 13 runs in an opening victory over Wright State, but they were then shut out in their ensuing two games, falling short of the regional final.

This year, Notre Dame has their own regional. And their first contest comes against the Central Michigan Chippewas, a somewhat familiar opponent to the Irish, who hosted the MAC champions back in April for a midweek non-conference game. The pair will face off again on Friday at 1 p.m.

Last time they played

There are minimal takeaways from that April clash between the Irish and Chippewas, as the non-conference nature of the game meant not every starter was playing and lesser-used members of the pitching staff got innings. The Irish did all their damage early, notching eight runs in the first four innings, torching Central Michigan’s JT Rogoszweski — who finished the year with a 7.86 ERA and opposing hitters battering him to the tune of a .363 batting average. Notre Dame owned the game 8-4. It’s hardly a preview of the level of pitching Notre Dame will have to contend with on Friday afternoon. Offensively, junior designated hitter Carter Putz was the star, going 4-4 and notching four of nine hits. And two of the six RBI, junior Jack Zyska and sophomore Kyle Hess — not regular starters — both reached base twice as well. 

On the bump, the Irish used a handful of bullpen arms, with some of the more prominent throwers featured in the earlier innings — sophomore Liam Simon got touched for two runs, but junior Alex Rao was lights out, twirling 4.1 innings of shutout work on 61 pitches and striking out five Chippewas in the process. Junior lefty Will Mercer, a likely candidate to receive a spot start this weekend, also recorded four outs without allowing a run in the game.

Previewing the pitching matchup

The Irish have been known for their unique approach to their pitching staff, with only John Michael Bertrand, a graduate transfer from Furman, being a regular starter. After his 12 starts, Mercer has the next most with 9, but in 16 appearances. After that? The Irish have 10 other pitchers who have started games (with a couple being injured now) but only one other, junior Aidan Tyrell, with more than three starts. So, how the Irish line up their staff on any given weekend is tough to guess, and it’s near impossible when it comes to a postseason environment.

The two likely options for Friday’s clash will be Mercer — who was stretched out in four or five-inning starts, frequently on Friday games for the Irish — or Bertrand — who head coach Link Jarrett may use early in the hopes of having him available if needed for an inning or two later in the regional. Although Mercer has a 4.81 ERA, he has been shut down as of late, with a 1.44 ERA over his last five appearances, including five shutout innings in the ACC Tournament. Mercer, Bertrand and Tyrell seem like likely options to receive starts this weekend, but with dynamic bullpen arms like Rao, Simon and sophomore transfer Tanner Kohlhepp available, Jarrett has a lot of ways to manipulate his arsenal of arms this weekend. 

For Central Michigan, it’s a lot more predictable — redshirt freshman Andrew Taylor has been, as described by Jarrett, “one of the best pitchers in the country,” starting 14 games and giving up just 12 earned runs and averaging over seven innings per outing. He’s 11-3 with a 1.21 ERA, holding opponents to a measly .171 batting average. While he hasn’t faced a power conference opponent this season, Taylor is nothing short of red-hot entering the postseason. In his final three starts, Taylor accumulated 21 innings, allowing seven total hits, zero runs, and notching 26 strikeouts. In his last seven starts, Taylor is 7-0 with a 0.59 ERA. Notre Dame has a good offense, but they have been shut down by quality pitching on a few occasions, being held to two or fewer runs on eight occasions. The Irish will need to be ready for an intense pitching duel on Friday and hope they can keep the Chippewas at bay long enough to either score a rare run off of Taylor or get him out of the game and get to the CMU bullpen.

Hitters to watch

Notre Dame actually has the lowest team batting average of any team in this regional at .270, with Central Michigan ranking second at .283. The Irish do have a deep lineup, though, with seven starters checking in above that .270 mark. Senior first baseman Niko Kavadas is the engine of this offense, hitting .288 with 16 home runs, and he’ll be looking to overcome a forgettable ACC tournament where he went 0-7 with seven strikeouts — a rare problem for Kavadas, who boasted a 1:1 walk-to-strikeout ratio before that cold stretch.

Senior outfielder Ryan Cole and Putz both are hitting above .300, combining for 28 extra-base hits. Speedy third baseman Jack Brannigan provides support to the meat of the order, usually hitting fifth and boasting a .282 average on the year with five home runs. He also has eight stolen bases, including a straight steal of home against Boston College. Look for Hess and Zyska to potentially get some run off the bench, given their earlier success against Central Michigan and solid seasons, with Hess hitting .258 and Zyska a perfect 5-5 on stolen bases this season. In a close game, manufacturing a run on the basepaths may be the difference-maker for Notre Dame.

Central Michigan is not a power-hitting lineup, with just 15 home runs as team on the year. However, this team has gaps, notching 87 doubles and 14 triples this season. And they’ve got a lethal top-of-the-lineup that can put runs on the board quickly. Zach Gilles hit .361 on the year with 21 stolen bases and four triples, also recording a .489 on-base percentage. He gets on base nearly half the time, and he’s fast when he’s there, which will be an inherent problem for the Irish to worry about, although they did hold Gilles to a rare 0-4 back in April. Mario Camilletti is another weapon, hitting .330 with a leading fifteen doubles while notching eight stolen bases in eight tries this season — not to mention his .512 on-base percentage. Although hitless against Notre Dame, Camilletti hit as the leadoff and did draw two walks, so he can impact the game in several ways.

All told, the Chippewas have eight players with at least six doubles, and six players with at least six stolen bases, six players with on-base percentages of over .400. This lineup has some studs at the top, and they can hit up and down the lineup, presenting a definite challenge for the Notre Dame staff this season.

Game prediction

Aidan Thomas — Sports writer

My pick is going to be simple — Notre Dame hasn’t lost back-to-back games all season, and I don’t foresee it happening with the lights at their brightest. It’s tough to picture the exact flow of this game without knowing who is pitching for Notre Dame, but my guess is that it’s Mercer, who will pitch really well early on, going toe-for-toe with Taylor. The biggest advantage for the Irish, in my opinion, is that there is no real drop-off from their starters to their bullpen, given that their bullpen is often starting games for them anyway. I think the Irish are capable of at least getting a run off Taylor and then scratching another one off of the bullpen to win a nail-biting opener.

Notre Dame 2, Central Michigan 1 

 

Liam Coolican — Sports writer

The South Bend regional might be the deepest in the country, so this is a must-win contest for the Irish. Central Michigan is not a bad team by any stretch, but they are arguably the weakest of the four teams in the regional. The Chippewas have some good hitters, but they haven’t faced many elite pitchers this year. The Irish pitching staff will take care of business — if it’s ace John Michael Bertrand on the mound, expect a bounce-back performance. Taylor will be one of the toughest pitchers the Irish have gone against this year, but the offense will get a few clutch hits in big situations as they’ve done so often.

Notre Dame 5, Central Michigan 2 

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