Irish baseball overcomes inconsistencies, load up for postseason run
Aidan Thomas | Friday, May 13, 2022
Notre Dame Baseball entered the 2022 season with high expectations. In 2021, the Irish fell just one game shy of the College World Series. They pushed eventual national champion Mississippi State to the brink in Starkville, falling in a three-game super regional. Additionally, Notre Dame lost just two players. However, those two players proved to be difficult guys to replace.
Reliever Tanner Kohlhepp and first baseman Niko Kavadas were both drafted. Kohlhepp anchored the Irish bullpen last year.
“Such an instrumental leverage receiver that was so dynamic that he impacted, in some cases, two games a weekend,” head coach Link Jarrett said. “We were replacing one of the best relievers in the country. Replacing someone like that is a challenge for anyone.”
“We’re replacing 22 home runs and 67 RBI in the middle of the lineup,” Jarrett said of Kavadas. “Opponents game-planned a lot around Kavadas. Knowing that you don’t have that piece, it changes the look of the lineup. But Kohlhepp and Niko, those are All-Americans, that’s hard to replace.”
The adjustments led to some inconsistencies for the Irish, but the pieces are coming together, as they maintain their spot near the top of the loaded ACC. The Irish are second in the Atlantic Division — 1.5 games behind Louisville.
The Irish’s form of late has been spectacular. The Irish have won five of six ACC clashes. The bats, in particular, heated up. They were struggling after last-place Duke swept the Irish. Notre Dame scored 10 runs in 29 innings. After seemingly hitting a stride with a pair of midweek wins, Notre Dame pushed across 54 runs in a three-game sweep of Wake Forest. In that series victory, they came back from deficits of 8-2 and 12-8.
“They like to compete. There’s not antics and all kind of stuff going on,” Jarrett said. “They compete and they fight.”
At the plate
The experience makes itself present in the Irish lineup. Graduate students David Lamanna and Ryan Cole are two of the four Irish hitting at least .315. The other two are seniors — first baseman Carter Putz and left fielder Jack Zyska. Putz leads the team in RBIs (37). Zyska and fellow senior outfielder Brooks Coetzee are tied for the team lead with eight home runs. Cole also has stolen 17 bases, good for the team lead. Jarrett spoke on the contributions of his upperclassmen.
“Putz has done a great job at first [base]. He was an all-conference hitter last year at DH. Cole, Coetzee … impressive, complete players … David gives you tough, competitive at-bats, sprays the ball around.”
Zyska in particular has added another dimension to the Irish lineup. He entered the year seemingly the odd man out in a loaded Irish lineup. His playing time decreased after starting 30 games as a freshman. However, Zyska has improved his consistency and added a much-needed power stroke to the lineup.
“He’s dangerous. He’s strong. He can hit the ball to all fields, he can run,” Jarrett said. “Sometimes he tried to do too much up there and start overswinging. Just containing the effort and movements was what we focused on a lot.”
Ultimately the Irish boast 10 players with at least 14 starts and a .262 or better batting average.
On the bump
On the mound, the Irish have leaned on a pair of graduate transfers to start. John Michael Bertrand continues to be the ace of the staff. He’s 6-1 with a 2.35 ERA. Jarrett called Bertrand “as good as anyone in the country” when the southpaw is on his game. Austin Temple is 3-1 with a 3.68 ERA. Aidan Tyrell, a captain, began the year as a starter, but Jarrett now uses him as a jack of all trades. He’s 5-0 with a 2.72 ERA.
“He’s a very even-keeled athlete. He exudes comfort whether he’s starting or coming in the middle or at the end. It took him a while to get his command of everything in check,” Jarrett said. “We’re starting to see him find that rhythm again. We use [Tyrell] in whatever swiss-army knife role we can find.”
Out of the bullpen, senior Alex Rao leads a young group. With graduate transfer Ryan McLinskey out with injury, Rao serves as the veteran presence. He boasts a 3.62 ERA.
“Rao’s velocity has crept up. He’s been up to 98. His changeup has been effective,” Jarrett noted. “He’s worked very hard … he’s found his form.”
Freshmen Jack Findlay, Roman Kimball and Radek Birkholz are key cogs down the stretch if they continue to mature. Findlay leads all Irish hurlers with a 0.72 ERA in 25 innings. He’s started five games and come out of the bullpen five times. Birkholz has been solid with a 3.60 ERA. Kimball, the top prospect of this freshman class, features strong stuff, but he has struggled with inconsistency. His 5.66 ERA reflects that, despite a 4-0 record.
“Their outings have trended for the most part in the right direction. Learning that [bullpen] role is different for freshmen,” Jarrett said.
Now, as the regular season winds down, the focus moves to the postseason. The Irish are in position to host a regional and maybe a super regional. After falling a game shy of Omaha last year, Notre Dame looks to challenge for the national title. Jarrett believes that the cutthroat ACC schedule prepares his team for the postseason.
“The teams are so talented that the margin of error and the difference between the win and the loss is slim,” the Irish head coach said. “When we’ve played well, we’ve seen the rewards. And when we haven’t, we’ve seen exactly what can happen. That’s the nature of this. Every weekend is tough.”
The Irish finish with three home games versus Pitt and a trip to the ACC-leading Miami Hurricanes. Jarrett kept it simple when asked what the Irish needed to improve.
“Bullpen pieces [must] continue to mature. Rao has got to continue to solidify what he does. We need the young bucks to mature and be consistent.”