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Irish lose Game 1 heartbreaker in front of record-setting crowd

| Saturday, June 12, 2021

All week, Notre Dame head coach Link Jarrett touted the atmosphere that would be present at Dudy Noble Stadium in Starkville, Mississippi, and it did not disappoint.

“National Championship caliber type of game. That’s what it’s about,” Jarrett said. “Make no mistake, it doesn’t get any more intense or exciting than that.”

Unfortunately for Jarrett, the ND baseball team came out on the wrong side of an instant classic in Starkville, as the No. 7 Mississippi State Bulldogs won over the tenth-ranked Irish 9-8 in front of a Super Regional record crowd of 14,385.

The game featured eight lead changes as the Bulldogs ultimately rallied from a 7-3 deficit behind strong pitching from their bullpen, uncharacteristic sloppiness from Notre Dame’s nation-leading defense, and some timely home runs to seal the victory. The Irish find themselves with their backs against the wall, needing two straight wins in a raucous environment in order to keep their Omaha dream alive.

Notre Dame struck fast, as senior center fielder Spencer Myers drilled a single on the game’s first pitch, and senior left fielder Ryan Cole followed with a single of his own. Although a double play looked like it might end the chance, junior designated hitter Carter Putz came through with the RBI single for the 1-0 lead. The Irish seemed to have the number of Mississippi State ace Will Bednar, largely nullifying his dangerous slider, which is pretty much his only offspeed offering. 

“We were ready to go for the fastball and lay off that slider,” Notre Dame shortstop Zack Prajzner said. “He wasn’t able to locate it for a strike early, so we were able to hone in on the fastball.”

Despite the offensive success, after a regional in which the Irish never once gave up a lead once they had it, it took just two batters for them to see the score evened once more, with Tanner Allen sending an absolute bomb to right-center field in the bottom half of the inning. 

That back-and-forth type of baseball continued for several innings, with the Irish notching single runs in the second and third frames, on a solo blast from junior right fielder Brooks Coetzee and an RBI single from sophomore third baseman Jack Brannigan, but they left the bases loaded in the third, opening the door for the Bulldogs. Mississippi State leadoff man Rowdey Jordan drilled a one-out double and came around to score on a single, with an error in right field allowing Kamren James to advance to second on his base hit. Then Brannigan committed a rare error on the next play, booting a sharp ground ball, which allowed the Bulldogs to tie it at three. Irish starter John Michael Bertrand induced a 1-6-3 double play to escape further damage. 

Once again, Notre Dame didn’t record an out before retaking the lead, as junior shortstop Zach Prajzner doubled and Myers brought him around with a single for the 4-3 lead. But again, the Irish would lead the bases loaded without scoring more, as the missed opportunities promised to potentially haunt Notre Dame later. The Irish did seemingly break things open in the fifth, as Prajzner sent an absolute missile over the left-field fence for a three-run home run and a 7-3 lead. 

“We’ve been working on my approach all season, focusing on hitting singles up the middle, and I was just trying to make hard contact,” the Irish shortstop said after the game. “I felt good and I guess it went a little further than a single this time.”

Despite the four-run advantage, this game was far from over. 

Jordan singled to lead off the fifth inning for MSU, and Prajzner mishandled a ground ball for Notre Dame’s season-high third error of the game. Bertrand exited the game at just 65 pitches, signaling that Jarrett may want him later in the series, should the Irish extend it, but sophomore reliever Tanner Kohlhepp struggled to minimize the damage. James greeted Kohlhepp with an RBI single, then the hard-throwing right uncorked a wild pitch, putting a pair in scoring position. He induced a ground ball that would have scored a run regardless, but Prajzner’s throw was low for a fourth Irish error. With the lead back to just two runs, Kohlhepp then induced a run-scoring double play before an inning-ending fly-out.

“Those two errors of mine were in big spots,” Prajzner said. “I rushed a little bit, and that’s on me. We’re going to come back tomorrow and play the type of baseball we’ve played all year.”

Although Mississippi State was on their third pitcher of the afternoon already in the sixth inning, the staff began to settle in for the Bulldogs, as Preston Johnson put down the Irish in order, holding them scoreless for the first time in the Super Regional. All told, Johnson threw 2.2 innings of one-run relief for the Bulldogs, stopping the incessant bleeding caused by Notre Dame’s relentless offense. 

“Locating multiple pitches for strikes, the curveballs for both guys were really good,” Prajzner said, reflecting on what helped Johnson and the MSU staff succeed late in the game. “They were constantly getting ahead — we weren’t hitting those pitches early in the count.” 

“His breaking pitches were effective, and he kept them down, he added. “It was very sporadic quality contact. Every one of the guys they ran out there were totally different types of very good arms.”

In the bottom half of the inning, Rowdey Jordan punished Kohlhepp for walking the #9 man in the MSU order, blasting a home run to center field for the Bulldogs’ first lead of the game.

Again, however, Notre Dame responded — this time with a pair of doubles from Brannigan and Prajzner to tie the game in the top of the seventh. But Kohlhepp was victimized by the long ball once more, after notching a pair of strikeouts in his half of the seventh inning. After striking out the #3 and #4 hitters in the lineup, the Tennessee transfer battled Logan Tanner for seven pitches, before the power hitter lost a full-count offering over the right-field fence for the 9-8 lead.

Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the late-game lead meant it was Landon Sims’ time in Starkville. One of the nation’s best closers, Sims held SEC opponents to a .108 batting average this season and a .153 average for all opponents, and he looked the part on Saturday evening. He mowed down six straight Irish hitters in two perfect innings to lock down the save and the victory. He flashed a fastball that played up to 97 miles per hour and seemed to rise out of his hand with a wipeout slider.

“[Sims] is a tough kid out there, and he makes big pitches for his team,” Jarrett said. “We prepared for him, but it’s a little tough to simulate or prepare for that type of climbing fastball.” 

The Irish’s best chance was with senior first baseman Niko Kavadas at the plate with two outs in the eighth. But after an intense ten-pitch battle, Sims painted the outside corner with a 96mph heater, catching Notre Dame’s cleanup man looking to end the frame. Putz, Brannigan and Coetzee went down in order to finish the game. Kavadas didn’t see too many quality pitches to hit on the day, as he was aboard three times with two walks and an HBP, but he was 0-2 with a strikeout and ground out in his two official plate appearances. 

“He looked like he was on it. He laid off a couple of tough pitches and had some good bats,” Jarrett said. “His blows help us and we’ll need a couple in these next few days.”

“This one hurts, but I think we showed these fans and the world that we’re not a joke,” Prajzner said. “We’re super confident that we can bounce back — we’ve done it many times, losing the first one and winning the next two.”

Indeed, that is a practice that the Irish familiarized themselves with this season, as they played three-game ACC series every weekend and only lost one. On three occasions, including their first two series of the year, Notre Dame lost the opener on Friday only to win the following two games and win the series. The stakes have never been higher, but Jarrett emphasized that the Irish treated every series like a Super Regional, with the end goal to win at least two of three every weekend — and that mentality doesn’t change due to the elevated pressure level. 

“We better pull it off or that’s it,” Jarrett said. “We haven’t lost back-to-back games in two years. We better regroup ourselves and go. These guys are resilient — we’ve been in this grinder before. They just have to execute better, and they’ll bounce back.” 

Notre Dame used their ace and top reliever in game 1 of this series, but they’ll need some other guys to step up tomorrow. Junior southpaw Will Mercer seems likely to get the start, but it hasn’t been officially announced by the Irish. Regardless of who is on the bump and for how long, Jarrett isn’t worried.

“That’s one of the strengths of our team, the versatility of our pitching staff,” the Irish head coach said after Saturday’s game.

Game 2 will have the first pitch at 6 p.m. Notre Dame finds their backs pressed up against the wall, but the Irish aren’t out of it yet. 

“It’s a three-game series for a reason,” Jarrett said. “They have to beat us twice.”

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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