Irish’s magical turnaround season ends in Game 3 loss to Bulldogs
Aidan Thomas | Wednesday, June 16, 2021
Despite holding a seemingly secure 10-5 advantage in Monday night’s deciding Game 3, Mississippi State decided to bring in closer Landon Sims for a four-inning stint to end the Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s season. The decision to go with Sims so early demonstrated the respect Notre Dame earned this season as a baseball team that can not only dominate you on their best days, but can scrape together unthinkable rallies. On Monday, the Irish tried to pull one more Houdini escape act, but the seventh-ranked Bulldogs just had a little too much in the tank, scoring six runs in the second inning and holding on for an 11-7 victory. Although the Irish never did come closer than four runs, they had the tying run on deck in the ninth inning, and they were robbed of several runs — one via a home run ball that drifted just foul, and another two due to an outstanding catch by the SEC Player of the Year Tanner Allen in right field.
“We knew this was a very tough draw,” head coach Link Jarrett said. “They’re an elite team. It’s unfortunate that you feel like you have a team that’s capable, and you run into this group in their stadium.”
Mississippi State playing in “their stadium” was certainly a factor all weekend, particularly as they ran up the score early. The series attendance eclipsed 40,000, setting a NCAA record for a three-game college baseball series, and the home advantage was in full effect for the Bulldogs on Monday night.
“When you have the largest crowd in the history of a three-game college series, that’s going to be a factor,” Jarrett said. “I didn’t think our guys were overwhelmed by it.”
Notre Dame did play a much cleaner game, at least defensively, than they did in the series-opening loss where they made four errors. After an error to open the game, the Irish played their usual great defense with a few highlight plays, but Mississippi State put together some great at-bats and punished some poor pitches from Notre Dame.
Notre Dame got off to a hot start, as senior left fielder Ryan Cole drilled a home run to right-center field to give the Irish an early 1-0 lead, but Mississippi State quickly responded with an unearned run in the bottom of the first. Irish starter, junior lefty Will Mercer, looked shaky early, but settled down to escape the inning in a 1-1 tie.
Ugly is the only way to describe the second inning for Notre Dame, from start to finish. After going down 1-2-3 in the top half of the frame, the Irish sent Mercer back out to the mound. The southpaw got ahead 0-2 on the leadoff man, but his two-strike slider caught too much of the plate and was slapped into right field for a single by Brad Cumbest.
“We got in some position to strike some people out and didn’t put people away,” Jarrett said. “So that’s an area where we have to get better.”
Mercer then issued a pair of walks to the eighth and ninth hitters in the Bulldogs’ lineup, loading the bases and ending his day on the bump. Junior Alex Rao, who recorded the final five outs on Sunday evening, entered and looked like he might minimize damage, immediately inducing a run-scoring ground ball to shortstop, but MSU’s Rowdey Jordan beat out the routine double play ball, allowing for Tanner Allen’s ensuing fly ball to just be the second out and bring another run home. A 3-1 deficit could have been manageable with Notre Dame’s red-hot offense, but Jordan stole second and scored on a single, Rao issued a walk and then Mississippi State’s Logan Tanner blasted an absolute no-doubter, a three-run bomb for the 7-1 advantage. The Irish brought in sophomore Liam Simon after another single, but Simon walked the bases loaded, before finally graduate student Joe Sheridan ended the inning on the Bulldogs’ 12th batter of the inning.
“When you are up in the zone and over the plate, they are going to throttle it, and they did,” Jarrett said, also referencing some velocity and control problems as contributing factors. “We just couldn’t get out of our own way on the mound those first few innings.”
Notre Dame had made several huge comebacks this season, including from seven-run and 10-run deficits during ACC play, and it felt like the Irish might not be out of it when senior catcher David LaManna doubled to lead off the third, immediately scoring on a single by fellow senior Spencer Myers. But that was all the Irish had to offer in that inning, and Allen immediately answered for Mississippi State, depositing an offering from Sheridan over the center field fence to restore a six-run advantage.
That back-and-forth represented much of the rest of the contest, with the Irish never quite going away, but the Bulldogs never really letting Notre Dame all the way back into it. In the top of the fourth, the Irish lost several potential runs. First, junior designated hitter Carter Putz sent a towering fly that looked gone after the bat, but drifted inches foul. Allen then made his mark on the defensive side of the ball, robbing LaManna of a potential two-run double with two outs in the top of the fourth, making a diving catch in the right-center gap. In the bottom half, Mississippi State increased the advantage to eight runs briefly on the strength of three doubles, with Logan Tanner starting off the rally, continuing his excellent Super Regional.
Again, however, Notre Dame responded to at least keep the score respectable, fighting back for three more in the fifth. Myers sprinted around to third on a single that was booted around in the outfield, and Cole drove him in with a single. After a walk for senior Jared Miller and strikeout for Niko Kavadas, Putz pulled a two-run double down the left field line, cutting the deficit to 10-5.
“We never gave up, and we fought until the final out,” Putz said. “The season was unbelievable. This was the tightest group of guys I’ve been around, the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball.”
The Bulldogs pushed the lead back to six runs with a single tally in the sixth, but Kavadas finally unleashed his power in Starkville, hitting an absolutely towering home run out of Polk-Dement Stadium for a two-run blast off of one of the nation’s best closers in Landon Sims.
“Niko is a first-class player, a first-class person. Helped our team evolve into a championship team,” Jarrett said.
Putz, who spent the year as a designated hitter but was also the backup first baseman, added: “Over the past few years, me and Niko have gotten really close. That’s one of my best friends. He’s taught me so much.”
Kavadas is likely to go in the first few rounds of the 2021 MLB Draft, which is to be held in just under a month.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s ace, graduate student John Michael Bertrand, fired three fantastic innings of one-run ball to give the Irish as much of a chance as they could ask for, given the horrific start to the contest. Bertrand gave up a leadoff double in the sixth, with the runner scoring later on an infield single, but he retired the last ten he faced.
However, that was just about all Notre Dame could manage off of Sims, who held opponents to a .149 batting average this season and hadn’t allowed a home run prior to the bomb by Kavadas. The hard-throwing righty had his best stuff, striking out the side in the eighth inning to set the stage for the ninth. For a moment, things looked shaky, as Myers and Cole singled to begin the ninth, but Sims recorded another strikeout to deny Kavadas the chance at being the tying run. After being taken deep on a fastball two innings earlier, Sims didn’t let Kavadas see anything straight, inducing a double play on a hard slider down in the zone, ending Notre Dame’s magical season. In six innings against Sims in this series, the Irish fared only slightly better than most teams, notching two runs while going 3-17 at the plate.
“I thought we battled — that’s a really good baseball team,” Jarrett said of their opponent. ”They’ve just got arms one after the other, they’re really well coached, and they were better tonight.”
The Irish were 24-30 in consecutive seasons prior to the arrival of Link Jarrett — since his arrival, Notre Dame has gone 45-15, earning the program’s first Super Regional appearance in 19 seasons and rising as high as No. 2 in the polls. The Irish started five seniors all year, and they showed out in the season finale, collecting eight hits and five runs batted in for the Irish. Cole led the way with a 3-4 effort, walking once, scoring three times and notching a pair of RBI to finish his breakout season with a .336 record. Myers added a 3-5 performance, Miller drew a pair of walks, Kavadas hit his mammoth blast and LaManna drilled a double and scored a run. While Kavadas should go in the draft, Jarrett noted that most of the other seniors have at least expressed interest in returning in 2022, so Notre Dame hopes that this doesn’t represent a one-year resurgence.
“Leadership starts on the field and with the work. Those guys put in the work,” Jarrett said of his senior class. “If you don’t have the older players buy in, you’re set back years trying to turn something around. Those guys were the leaders of that charge, and it paid off.”
Putz also commented on the impact of the seniors on the team.
“We looked up to the seniors as underclassmen — they showed us the ropes, and we can’t thank them enough for that,” he said. “Tonight’s going to push me harder than anything has before — we promise to keep this thing going next year.”