After dominant start, Irish prep for tougher road ahead
Aidan Thomas | Thursday, March 3, 2022
The Notre Dame baseball team entered this season with far greater goals than dominating their non-conference slate of games. But, as the Irish round back into form, a form they hope leads to a College World Series berth, Notre Dame is showcasing their talent at the plate and on the mound. The Irish sit at 5-1, but the schedule is about to get more difficult.
Irish dominating early slate
The Irish largely dominated their opening two weekends of play. A 5-3 victory against Stetson and a slip-up walk-off loss against Delaware have been the only close calls. In four other games, the Irish have blasted their opponents 17-2, 20-2. 16-2 and 9-0. Yes, the opponents weren’t traditional powerhouses, but they still brought out strong arms that Notre Dame put together quality at-bats against.
The Irish’s lethal offensive attack has been led by some familiar names and a couple of newcomers. Graduate student left fielder Ryan Cole is hitting .500 this season, blasting his first home run last weekend. Graduate student catcher David LaManna has started four of six games and leads the team with a .538 average in the batter’s box. All said, seven Irish starters are hitting .300 or better through six games. That doesn’t even include true freshman DM Jefferson; the designated hitter leads the Irish with seven RBI. While the average (.227) is still coming along, there’s a lot to be excited about with Jefferson.
“The excitement and adrenaline add another dimension to it. He might be trying to do a little too much and hasn’t made the contact we’ve seen him make” Notre Dame head coach Link Jarrett said of Jefferson’s early at-bats, before adding “DM is clearly a very dangerous hitter. I want him to settle in and get his at-bats. He’s talented, he can run, he opens up another dimension for our offense.”
Moving to the mound, the Irish have been dominant. They boast a team ERA of 1.69, buoyed by an exceptional first two outings from their starters. Senior Aidan Tyrell and graduate students John Michael Bertrand and Austin Temple have dazzled on the bump. Tyrell fired eleven shutout innings against Manhattan and Marist. Bertrand dished out 13 innings, allowing one earned run between two starts. Newcomer Temple, a transfer from Jacksonville, struck out 14 and gave up just two runs over two starts and 10 innings.
“You like first of all the people you’re running out there, you trust in that role. They’re prepared, they’ve been engaged in their work, and that carries into their outing” Jarrett said. “They throw strikes, pound the zone with multiple pitches. They control the game.”
A tougher road ahead
Looking ahead, the road certainly gets tougher. The 5-1 record is a nice mark, but a relatively untested one. The Irish face their first Power-5 competition this weekend with three Big 10 games. They take on Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota on consecutive days. Their final opponent, the Gophers, host the weekend at U.S. Bank Stadium. None of these opponents enter with a winning record, but a dose of Power-5 teams is a welcome challenge before kicking off ACC play the following weekend.
Despite some gaudy overall stats, Jarrett is keeping a sharp eye on what needs to improve with his squad. On the mound, his priority is getting his bullpen enough innings to allow each hurler to carve out their role. So far, Notre Dame has run ten arms out of the ‘pen, with only graduate transfer Ryan McLinskey making a second appearance.
“The bullpen is still part of the puzzle that we haven’t solidified,” Jarrett noted. “We know we have good options, but until we’ve seen some repeated outings from these guys, it’s hard to put them in the correct spot.”
The bullpen has had some inconsistencies but also been dominant at times, particularly in specific performances. Freshman Radek Birkholz delivered a sparkling 1-2-3 inning in his first inning of the season. However, he walked two in a less-sharp second frame. “His first inning was as good as anything we’ve seen out of the ‘pen,” Jarrett noted, expressing his confidence in the freshman.
Also notable were performances from Liam Simon and Alex Rao, two key returning arms that combined for 4 ⅓ shutout innings. Starting third baseman and two-way player Jack Brannigan also made his debut on the mound. It wasn’t the ideal situation, as Brannigan fired the final inning of a doubleheader, after having played 15 innings in the field. Despite that, the junior responded by striking out the side on 14 pitches.
“He was outstanding, and that was after playing [two games] at third base. We had to get him some action…he was as good as we’ve seen him,” Jarrett said.
Offensively, the Irish have certainly punished the baseball. They have 11 doubles, seven triples and six home runs in six games. They are averaging more than 11 runs per game. However, Jarrett noted two areas he wanted to see his team improve upon as they continue their preparation for conference play.
“The biggest discussion we have is the difference between the less-than-two-strikes hitting, and looking for lanes that you can drive the ball, and then, inevitably, when you deal with two strikes, being tougher, putting good pitches in play,” Jarrett noted. He also referenced the short game, bunting and baserunning, as a key area to watch going forward.
“There have three [bunts] that have been really good and three that have been not good at all. As our short game becomes more involved in games that are tight, we’ve got to be able to do that. Our short game is the last piece, offensively, where we need to grasp what it can do.”
Jarrett did note that the baserunning has been good, both off the bat and in stealing bases. The Irish are 11-13 on stolen base attempts, led by Cole and Brannigan, who are perfect in eight combined tries.
These aspects of the game may seem like technicalities given the hot start, but Jarrett knows the tough road that lies ahead. Things ramp up this weekend, and then it’s off to NC State to take on the Wolfpack. The Wolfpack were one of two teams picked ahead of the Irish in the ACC preseason coaches’ poll, and had it not been for a COVID outbreak last spring, they could have been entering this season as the defending national champions. It’s not going to be a stream of 15-run blowouts as the schedule toughens.
“We have to sharpen some things up to score the runs we will need to score to win some of these games,” Jarrett commented.
The Irish’s first game of the weekend is against Illinois on Friday with first pitch scheduled for 4 p.m.