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Omaha hunting: Jarrett, Irish eyeing another big year

| Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Maggie Klaers | The Observer

As Notre Dame prepares for their opening southern swing to begin their baseball season, their vision for 2022 is fueled by the end of the 2021 season. In front of a record-setting crowd in Starkville, Mississippi, Notre Dame took eventual national champion Mississippi State to three games in the best-of-three Super Regional. However, they fell one victory short of the College World Series, college baseball’s eight-team championship event held in Omaha, Nebraska. 

“That was a crushing loss. I remember going to bed the night before, and I could almost feel what it would be like to win that game — the dogpile to go to Omaha,” senior shortstop Zack Prajzner said. “We all looked at each other when we got back to the hotel, and we knew we were going to be back, and the outcome is going to be different this time.”

Experienced roster displays winning culture

Notre Dame returns their top three starting pitchers, a mass of bullpen arms and eight of nine members of their starting lineup. Four Irish starters opted to return for a graduate year, utilizing an extra year of eligibility granted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The mass of extra returners is a tribute to the improving culture and program under third-year head coach Link Jarrett. 

“[Jarrett] completely turned it around. The winning mentality, the confidence that the players have in him,” said graduate student outfielder Ryan Cole. “With the team chemistry and success we had last year, I enjoyed every single bit of it. I had an extra bit of eligibility, and it was a pretty easy decision …I’ve always wanted to play baseball until somebody tells me that I can’t anymore.” 

There were some swirling rumors that Jarrett may not return to the Irish. After a 45-15 record in two years with Notre Dame, Jarrett was getting plenty of interest. But leaving wasn’t part of the plan, he said.

“I love it here. My intention is to stay here for a long time,” Jarrett noted. “These kids are remarkable. If you’re doing your job, there’s always going to be interest from other people. That doesn’t mean you want to be at other places. I love where I am.”

Jarrett inked an extension that will keep him in South Bend through 2026. With their manager in place long-term, the Irish can look forward to a 2022 season with high expectations. 

Lineup preview

With eight of nine starters returning, the offense should be able to largely pick up where it left off, with one major void.

Previewing the infield 

The biggest offensive concern for Notre Dame is replacing Niko Kavadas. The Boston Red Sox draft selection hammered 22 home runs, hit .302 last season and provided steady defense at first base. For a lineup that returns eight starters, that’s certainly a sizable hole. Senior first baseman Carter Putz spent last season as the designated hitter, hitting .305, and he’ll prepare to be the full-time first baseman in 2022. 

“I learned so much from Niko. He was a great leader for us,” Putz said. “I’m looking forward to trying to take a bigger role and help the team as much as I can.”

While Putz heads to first base, that leaves an open slot at designated hitter. Jarrett mentioned freshmen DM Jefferson and Joey Spence as possibilities. Spence was an 18th round pick in the MLB Draft this past summer but honored his commitment to the Irish. He slots in as the backup catcher to graduate student David LaManna. Jarrett described Jefferson as possibly their “most dynamic bat” early in the season, high praise for a freshman on an extremely experienced roster. 

Elsewhere in the infield, the Irish return Jared Miller and Zack Prajzner at the middle infield positions. They anchored Notre Dame’s No. 1-ranked fielding unit last year.

“Jared is probably the smartest player I’ve ever played with,” Prajzner praised his double-play partner. “He’s so steady, he’s an incredible second baseman and I’m so lucky to share the field with him.”

Both players are solid offensive contributors as well. Prajzner hit .280 and Miller knocked his way to a .257 average, with the duo combining for 10 home runs. 

At third base, the Irish have a curious situation. More often than not, Jack Brannigan will occupy the hot corner. A .295 hitter with some pop (six home runs), Brannigan is a valuable middle-of-the-order bat. He also stole eight bases last season. However, the junior is a two-way player, contributing on the mound as well. He made six appearances last year, and Jarrett plans on increasing that usage in 2022.

“We are grooming him to throw multiple innings,” Jarrett commented. “It’s on him — he knows the stuff is there and it’s repeating the delivery and commanding his secondary pitches a little bit better.”

When Brannigan is on the mound, that opens up a new starting role. Jarrett mentioned freshman Jack Penney, calling him an “elite defender,” as a fill-in possibility.

Previewing the outfield

The outfield figures to transition seamlessly from last season. Defensively, Cole, senior Brooks Coetzee and graduate student Spencer Myers were elite. They made just one error last year combined. Myers hit .295 with 15 stolen bases out of the leadoff spot in the lineup, while Coetzee blasted six bombs and stole 11 bases. 

However, a lot of eyes will be on Cole. He broke out last season after not having a starting role entering the season. Cole hit a walk-off home run in Notre Dame’s home opener against Duke, having entered the game as a defensive replacement. He tacked on another walk-off bomb against Louisville, and his breakout campaign was off. Cole led the team with a .336 average and was second to Kavadas with nine home runs. Cole was quick to credit teammates and coaches for his and the team’s success. 

“You never really know when you’re gonna get your opportunity.  What contributed the most was just great teammates and a great coach that believed in me,” Cole said. “At the end of the day, you still gotta go out and earn a spot and help your team. Everyone is important. Last year, I think we won as many games as we did because it wasn’t just one or two guys.”

Outside the three starters, senior Jack Zyska and sophomore TJ Williams could get some run. Williams is a speed option off the bench, and Zyska notched 11 starts last season. Jefferson remains a freshman to watch. 

Previewing the pitching staff

The Irish may find their biggest strengths on the mound, although a lot of roles may take a while to develop. Last season, Notre Dame rolled with just one traditional starter and a bevy of bullpen arms.

Graduate student John Michael Bertrand returns as the potential ace of the staff. He went 8-2 with a 3.21 ERA last season, making 14 starts. He will be a primary starting option, but southpaw senior Aidan Tyrell emerged as a viable starter as well. Tyrell dazzled last season to the tune of a 2.70 ERA, the best mark for any Irish hurler with at least five appearances. While he only made eight starts in 2021, Tyrell fired a career-high eight innings in Game 2 of the Super Regional. Tyrell said he enjoyed the versatile role he played last year.

“It was fun, a good challenge. I think I was ready for it,” he said. “Coach Jarrett told me I’d be a jack-of-all-trades guy. As long as I got in the game and gave us a chance to win, that’s all I really wanted.” 

Jarett noted he was grooming “six or seven” guys as potential starters, including senior Will Mercer. Mercer, Tyrell and Bertrand combined for 33 starts in 2021, so they hold an early experience edge. However, Alex Rao and Liam Simon both offer intriguing stuff out of the bullpen, with the former boasting a 3.16 ERA over 15 games (one start). Jack Findlay is a touted freshman, and Austin Temple has impressed as a graduate transfer. 

Whoever doesn’t start will get shifted to a deep bullpen. Jarrett noted that Seton Hall graduate transfer Ryan McKlinskey has been impressive early. Jarrett doesn’t always establish a traditional closer, preferring to use his best reliever in what he feels is the highest-leverage situation. However, he noted that McKlinskey would be in contention for that role, as well as freshmen Roman Kimball and Radek Birkholz.

“Kimball and Birkholz have shown flashes of really dynamic stuff. Good velocity, secondary pitches that appear to be swing-and-miss pitches which we really need,” Jarrett noted. “McKlinksey is a grad transfer and he’s been good. He can be a leverage guy. I like the pieces of our staff — it may be a little deeper than last year.”

Target on their back

The Irish surprised everyone and won the conference outright last year. This year, the Irish are ranked around the top 10 and won’t take too many people by surprise. Cole said that the rankings don’t affect the team’s mentality too much.

“It’s nice to get a little respect,” he said. “We’ve always known we’re just as good as the best of the country.”

Prajzner emphasized the same idea.

“We believed we were one of the best teams in the country last year, and I think we went out and proved that,” Prajzner said. “We’re excited to build on that.”

Putz added that the motivation of avenging that Super Regional loss outweighs concerns about the pressure that comes with the high rankings.

“Last year didn’t end the way we wanted,” Putz said. “We all used that as motivation this offseason … I think we love the idea of being challenged, having that target on our backs. We want to be a team that everyone circles on their calendar. That pushes us to work harder.”

The Irish are getting some respect, but there’s more to be earned. Despite a strong season last year, the Irish were picked to finish third in the ACC behind NC State and Florida State. The Irish will get an immediate chance to make a statement against NC State in their first ACC series of the year on the road. 

However, Notre Dame is used to being overlooked, and while there’s a target on their back this year, the chip on their shoulder isn’t going away. Regardless of the rankings, Jarrett noted he doesn’t change his approach.

“There’s no talk of Omaha or rankings,” he said. “I didn’t care last year whether we were picked last or first. It doesn’t have a significant impact on me or my presentation to the team.”

Omaha hunting

After coming up one game short last year, there’s one goal for this year’s Irish on the diamond: Make it to Omaha and win a national championship. Despite the lofty goals, players don’t feel any concern with overlooking anything early on the schedule as they commence the long season this weekend. 

“Everyone is antsy and ready to get out and play. There’s definitely a bad taste from the last series of last year, so there’s already that fuel to the fire,” Bertrand said. “There’s no need for extra energy. It’s baseball season, I don’t think it can be any more exciting than that.”

Jarrett spoke on the edge his players are carrying.

“The guys saw themselves play at a very high level for an extended period of time. Winning breeds wanting to win more, and these guys are phenomenal workers,” he said. “They refocused and came back wanting to perform. Going into the offseason, being so close to getting to the College World Series, there’s that sense of accomplishment but it’s bubble-wrapped in a little frustration.”

Every game is important, particularly for solidifying home games in the NCAA Tournament, which can create a big advantage, as the Irish learned in 2021. So, the Irish remain locked in on their one-game-at-a-time approach, and they’re not letting any of the outside noise influence their mentality. 

“There’s no difference between this year and last year besides what the outside people are saying,” Bertrand said. “The voices that matter are inside the clubhouse. We know we have an Omaha-caliber team, and we just have to go out there and compete like that every day.”

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About Aidan Thomas

A senior 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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