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Irish earn 10th overall seed, selected to host South Bend Regional

| Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Despite winning the ACC regular-season title outright by 4.5 games, spending portions of the year inside the top five, and being projected as the 7th seed in the NCAA Tournament, Notre Dame baseball slipped to the 10th seed, which, while putting them in a position to host a regional, will set them up for a Super Regional on the road, should they advance through this weekend. 

“We thought we were gonna be a little higher, but that’s out of our control,” senior second baseman Jared Miller said. “We thought our play spoke for a little bit of a higher seed, so we will go out this weekend and prove how good of a team we are.”

Head coach Link Jarrett echoed a similar sentiment, noting that the Irish could do very little about where they were seeded.

“You win the league the way we won it; I think that’s really a separator,” he said. “You’re splitting hairs when you try and decide between the 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 seeds. I thought we had a chance to be a top-8 seed … but that’s water under the bridge.”

Certainly, the Irish don’t have much time to dwell on any perceived disrespect, as their South Bend Regional was quickly dubbed one of the deepest in the tournament, with UConn, Michigan and Central Michigan, seeded in that order, coming to Frank Eck Stadium. UConn won the Big East Championship, Michigan was the national runner-up in 2019 at the last College World Series and Central Michigan is a dangerous no. 4 seed that won 40 games en route to winning the MAC automatic bid. 

“Central Michigan is really good — they have one of the best pitchers in the country. Michigan is well-versed in this; UConn is a championship-caliber team,” Jarrett said of the regional. “Every team in this field has displayed championship-level baseball at some point.”

Notre Dame did face Central Michigan this season, claiming an 8-4 victory in mid-April at home. However, in a midweek non-conference game, neither squad saw the other’s top pitchers, and the Irish know the Chippewas are going to be a tough out, particularly in the first game. The MAC qualifiers bring an ace that can go pitch-for-pitch with just about anyone in redshirt freshman Andrew Taylor, who started 13 games this season, going 10-3 with a 1.33 ERA. Opponents hit .183 against him, and in all likelihood, that’s who the Irish will be seeing on Friday in their tournament opener. The Chippewas are dominant on the mound and red-hot, having given up just 11 total runs across the course of an ongoing eight-game winning streak.

Regardless of Friday’s result, the Irish will play either the Huskies or the Wolverines, with UConn entering on a heater of their own, having won 10 of 11 and the Big East Championship. They scored more than nine runs on eight occasions in that eleven-game stretch, so their bats will be a big challenge if the Irish meet them during this regional. They have nine hitters batting above .270, four above .300 and Kyler Fedko notching a torrid .411 average and .495 on-base percentage. All but one pitcher on the staff held opposing hitters to a .230 batting average or less, so the Huskies aren’t a one-dimensional team, which makes them a tough draw and hard out in this tournament. 

Michigan was a surprise selection — with an RPI of 88, the Wolverines weren’t expected to crack the field, but they were dubbed one of the last four in the field. They’re not red-hot like the other two teams Notre Dame will host, but with rivalry storylines and postseason pedigree, the Wolverines are too dangerous to count out of contention. Michigan has two solid starters in Cameron Weston and Steve Hajjar (2.40 and 2.85 ERAs respectively), and they have eight different players with at least five home runs on the season. For an Irish squad that just gave up four home runs to Virginia in their ACC Tournament loss, that’s a less than desirable sight. 

Despite a brutal draw and lower seed than expected, the Irish have all the confidence in the world in being able to escape the weekend, as they’ve been defying expectations all season long. From being picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the ACC to winning the conference outright and claiming the conference’s only top-16 seed in the tournament, the Irish seemingly operate at their best when the highest expectations lie within their own clubhouse. 

“We haven’t had expectations — we’ve been playing with house money,” sophomore pitcher Tanner Kohlhepp said. “We went out and played good, clean, fundamental baseball, and we need to continue doing that.” 

It’s hard to blame the “experts” — as Jarrett referred to them, complete with air quotes — as the Irish’s last two complete seasons ended with identical 24-30 records. However, in Jarrett’s first year, the Irish started 11-2 before COVID-19 ended the season, sweeping UNC — a series that Jarrett said gave him the first hint at what Notre Dame could be this season.

“I didn’t really know what we were fully capable of until we got into the season last year,” he said. “By the time we got to North Carolina, I saw signs of elite capability from our team.”

Jarrett, who previously led UNC Greensboro to their first NCAA tournament in 20 years, noted the draw in helping turn the Irish around, but he was quick to shift the attention to the players who have executed on the diamond.

“It’s why you coach. It’s why I took the job at Notre Dame,” Jarrett said. “You recognize the global brand, the reach and the quality of the institution. You know that you have players here that buy into the University. And the coaching is great, but at the end of the day it’s those guys between the lines. They have to answer. They have to deliver. They have to perform. And they did.”

Jarrett’s unconventional coaching strategies and methods will be put to the test this weekend, but he’s confident that Notre Dame is built for postseason success. The Irish have just one player who has been a regular starter — graduate student John Michael Bertrand — but the Irish fought to a 25-10 ACC record by seeing a bevy of relievers thrive, something they’ll need to continue this weekend. Kohlhepp (2.88 ERA) will be one of those key cogs in the bullpen this weekend.

“I’m ready for whatever he asks,” Kohlhepp said. “I don’t care whatever role he decides to put me in. I’ve done a good job in staying healthy and preparing my body for whatever is asked of me.”

Kohlhepp has logged the second-most innings on the staff next to Bertrand, with 56.1 innings of work, but he won’t be the only one coming out of the pen. Alex Rao, Liam Simon and Aidan Tyrell all have ERAs under 3.20 and have held opposing hitters to averages of .220 or less. 

“It’s been fun. Coach is always saying we never know who will be the hero that week,” Kohlhepp said of the pitching staff’s success. “We trust everyone back there, and if we’re giving the ball to someone else, we believe they’ll get the job done.” 

Jarrett followed that up, mentioning that he’s given little thought as to how he’s going to set up the pitching staff this weekend. With Notre Dame looking to win a four-team, double-elimination tournament, the weekend could look like a somewhat normal series for Jarrett and the Irish, but an early loss could necessitate the Irish playing 4-5 games, making Jarrett’s jigsaw puzzle more difficult to piece together.

“Our versatility is remarkable. When you look at our pitching statistics — our stuff is off the charts — it’s unconventional but effective,” Jarrett said of his pitching strategy for the weekend. “There have been games where Bertrand has been phenomenal, and when Mercer has been great, and Kohlhepp and Tyrell — how we use them is not the crux of this — the crux is when we put them out there, are we getting them at their best. If that’s the case, we line up with anyone.”

The Irish aren’t flying into this tournament off a conference title like UConn or Central Michigan, but they believe their abrasive 14-1 setback to Virginia in ACC pool play has its own benefits in preparing for the regional and anything beyond. 

“Virginia got the best of us the other day. We were rolling through some teams — not good to lose that game, but it’s a good wake-up call for us moving forward,” Miller said.

Unlike the ACC Tournament, Notre Dame does get to play this regional at home. Despite their near-identical home-and-away records, it is an exciting prospect for coaches and players alike, especially after not getting to play last season. Despite students not being on campus, Jarrett and the Irish hope that the rumors of increased capacity are true, and that Frank Eck Stadium will be rocking this weekend. 

“The student section stood out to me all year,” Jarrett said. “We had some games where the weather wasn’t great, and the [student grandstand seating] was packed. They would stay until the last out — one day, we sang the alma mater in front of them. I recognized that they were processing what our players were pulling off, and that meant a lot, to our players and to me.”

And whether it’s students, alumni, faculty, family or members of the South Bend community filling up the stadium this weekend, Jarrett, noting that his team has practiced playing with non-verbal cues, has one hope.

“I hope it’s loud. I hope it’s loud for us,” he said. “And then if we go to Mississippi State — I’ve been there a few times, and you have to be able to play without verbal communication. So we’ve trained for this — we’ve been preparing for what it’s like in June.”

The Irish hope that they’ll be playing for more than one weekend in June, with the end goal being the College World Series finals in Omaha, Nebraska, to be played June 28-30. But it all starts at the stadium that the Irish didn’t get a chance to play in last season, as Notre Dame will host postseason baseball for the first time in seventeen years.

“We’re excited, we’re ready to get after it and we’re looking forward to Friday,” Kohlhepp said.

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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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