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ND baseball seeking first CWS appearance since 2002, set to battle Bulldogs in Starkville

| Friday, June 11, 2021

Take the crowd, and multiply it by four. Take the weather, and make it hotter and raise the humidity. Take the competition, and raise it another level. The stakes? They’re that much higher, too. 

Notre Dame baseball head coach Link Jarrett has elevated the Irish program to new heights, and now it’s Notre Dame, in their biggest games in 19 years, who must rise to meet the challenge. This particular challenge comes in the form of No. 7 Mississippi State, who will host Notre Dame this weekend in a best-of-three Super Regional for the right to advance to the College World Series — in front of what is expected to be a capacity crowd of around 10,000 fans, a week after Notre Dame hosted their only capacity crowds of the season at the smaller Frank Eck Stadium (2,500 fans). While Dudy Noble Field has 5,580 seats, the Bulldogs regularly draw crowds much larger than that. They hold the NCAA on-campus attendance record, with more than 15,000 fans taking in a game in 2014. 

The weather is expected to be in the high 80 and low 90 degrees, with high humidity.

“Reminded, refreshed, rehearsed, raised the volume,” Jarrett said of his team’s strategy in preparing for the raucous environments and of creating non-verbal cues built to succeed in a louder setting.

“We practiced with the music a few times,” he added. “I think we’re ready to play in front of a crowd. Executing it in this setting for the first time, that’s where the rubber meets the road.” 

The Bulldogs have an offense that matches up well with the Irish lefty-laden pitching staff, an arsenal of arms that runs 14 or 15 hurlers deep, and enough June baseball experience in the last five years to match Notre Dame’s past 20 years. Although, if you ask the Irish, that last part is not something they are worried about, nor do they believe it gives the Bulldogs an extra edge.

“We’re in a Super Regional, any team that we are gonna play here is going to be athletic, they’re going to be good,” sophomore reliever Tanner Kohlhepp said. “We just have to play clean baseball.”

Here’s what to look for as the Irish visit one of the most daunting road environments in college baseball, down in Starkville, Mississippi. 

Irish bats vs. Bulldog Arms

Mississippi State has an absolute luxury in that they have 15 different pitchers who have appeared in at least 10 games for them. Of those 15, 12 have held their opponents to a .244 batting average or less, so the Irish are not likely to wear out the Bulldogs’ pitching staff. The Bulldogs will likely start a pair of experienced starters in the two guaranteed games, with sophomore Will Bednar having been the ace all year long, boasting a 7-1 record and a 3.17 ERA. Junior Christian MacLeod is the No. 2 guy on the staff, with a 3.81 ERA, and both pitchers rack up strikeouts, each notching over a hundred in a little over seventy innings. 

For the Irish, however, they’ll want to put runs up early rather than have to do their damage against the Bulldogs’ pen, which is deep and deadly. Landon Sims held opponents to a .153 average as the closer, notching eight saves and a 1.45 ERA, but before the Irish see Sims, they could also see Preston Johnson (.213 opponent batting average), Houston Harding (.224 opponent BA, 2.64 ERA) and Parker Stinnett (.086, 1.56), among others.

Notre Dame got off to slow offensive starts in two of their three games last weekend, although the final scores would hardly indicate that, with Notre Dame scoring 50 runs over their three contests and blasting 15 home runs. However, outside their 26-run explosion versus UConn, Notre Dame did have some struggles the first time through the order, as they were shut out over the first three innings on two occasions. Repeating that could be dangerous for the Irish, who received elite shutdown pitching last weekend to compensate for the slow starts — which might not be what they want to bank on against the gritty, powerful, SEC-tested offense of Mississippi State. 

However, the Irish do have a lot of white-hot bats in their order, with five different players notching multiple home runs last weekend. Senior center fielder Spencer Myers has been streaking in the leadoff slot, hitting .292 on the year, while senior left fielder Ryan Cole hit three home runs last weekend and is hitting .326 out of the 2-hole. The lineup is of course anchored by senior first baseman Niko Kavadas, who went 6-10 with five home runs and six walks last weekend, but junior designated hitter Carter Putz (three home runs last weekend) and senior second baseman Jared Miller often sandwich him in the lineup, providing a powerful 3-5 punch for Notre Dame. The hot bats don’t stop there, as the Irish are hitting .281 as a team, providing power up and down the order. And any concerns about a hangover or overconfidence from their regional outburst were dispelled by Jarrett.

“They get after it. They don’t like a bad inning, a bad pitch, a bad play, it’s just their DNA right now,” Jarrett, who is in his second year leading the Irish, noted. “When you’ve experienced consistent success, and something else happens, you get really angry.” 

Notre Dame pitching vs. Mississippi State offense

Notre Dame seems to match up well with the Bulldogs, as the Irish are poised to potentially send out three southpaw starters for this series, as they did at the South Bend regional. MSU has three lefties that sit in the top half of their usual lineup, which would seem to bode well for the Irish, but the Bulldogs have done well to hit lefty pitching all season long, so Notre Dame can’t entirely rest on the platoon advantage. Tanner Allen (.391 BA) and Rowdey Jordan (.327) are the spark plugs, combining for 58 extra-base hits out of the top two spots in the lineup. Kamren James is an exceptional dual-threat, tied for second on the team with 10 home runs and leading the squad with 16 stolen bases, having been caught just once. He hits third and kicks off a powerful 3-5 in the order for the Bulldogs, with James, Luke Hancock and Logan Tanner combining for 31 home runs. With 63 home runs as a team on the season, the Bulldogs are never out of a game, as they’re able to score in bunches, notching 30 runs while sweeping their regional last weekend. They scored multiple runs in an inning on seven occasions, including a 9-run sixth inning outburst against VCU in the second game. 

Notre Dame gave up just five runs last weekend, although that likely isn’t the expectation for this Super Regional weekend. Graduate lefty pitcher John Michael Bertrand, who tossed a complete game shutout last Friday against Central Michigan, will get the start in Game 1 for Notre Dame. The lefty mixes four pitches and averages about 6.5 innings per start, so he’ll look to provide some longevity for the Irish staff that boasts some great talent, but not as much depth as the Bulldogs.

“They hit lefties pretty well. He’s just gotta make pitches. He pitches to contact, so the ball is going to be [in] play,” Jarrett said. “His mojo is awkward contact, so we have to be able to play defense.”

ACC ERA leader Tanner Kohlhepp, a sophomore transfer, is Notre Dame’s top option out of the bullpen, as he mixes a cut-fastball, a change-up and a sweeping slider with a high of 90 degrees, providing a much different look to Notre Dame’s crafty lefties. Jarrett will probably want to save juniors Aidan Tyrell and Will Mercer for potential starts, so that leaves junior Alex Rao, who holds opponents to a .149 average, and sophomore Liam Simon (.207 opponent BA) as the Irish’s best weapons to supplement their starters.  

Series Outlook 

The Irish have only lost one series all season, so they haven’t been absurdly challenged by their unusual pitching lineup, and their depth looks stronger with Mercer and Tyrell having gone seven and eight innings respectively last weekend, leaving less work for the bullpen. Winning Game 1 is all-important for Notre Dame, as they can hopefully get their longest start of the weekend and save their bullpen arms. But don’t rule out some of those relievers making multiple appearances, a role which Kohlhepp mentioned ahead of the South Bend regional that he was ready for, and confirmed again this weekend: “It’s my role to be ready whenever [I’m asked],” the former Tennessee pitcher said. “Whatever role they want me in, I’m ready for it.” 

The first game is at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, with the second one set for 6 p.m. the following day. A third game will take place at 7 p.m. Monday, should it be necessary.

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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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