After 2021 heartbreak, a new wave of contributors carry Irish to College World Series
Andrew McGuinness | Sunday, June 12, 2022
KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE — There were plenty of smiles to go around for the Irish on Sunday. From the dugout the team streamed out of to celebrate graduate student catcher David LaManna and junior third baseman Jack Brannigan’s game-changing seventh-inning home runs to the pitcher’s mound where they dogpiled to celebrate clinching the program’s third-ever College World Series appearance, and even to the press conference held deep inside the heart of Lindsey Nelson Stadium. But Jack Brannigan had one of the bigger ones when he revealed a special conversation he’d had earlier that day.
“My roommate [senior] Zack Prajzner, the shortstop, he said something to me this morning,” Brannigan said. “He said, ‘If we win this game, we’re going to be legends.’ That kind of stuck with me, and that last hour just was so special.”
It’s already been a legendary season for the Irish, though they hope to accomplish more than just making the College World Series. Irish head coach Link Jarrett said he felt each of Notre Dame’s last two teams were College World Series caliber. The 2020 team never got a chance to find out if they met that billing. A promising 11-2 start became overshadowed by the onset of COVID that March. Last year’s team came within a game. Like this year, they matched up against arguably the best team in the country. The Irish pushed Mississippi State to Game 3 in the Super Regional, even taking a 1-0 lead in that all-deciding matchup in Starkville. But Notre Dame’s pitching couldn’t contain Mississippi State, nor did the offense have enough in the tank to muster a heroic comeback. The Irish fell 11-7, and could only watch as the Bulldogs dogpiled around them.
Despite recording their highest win percentage since 2004 (excluding the 13-game 2020 season), last year‘s Irish team needed more. It was natural to wonder if they would be able to find that boost in just a year‘s time, especially with team home run leader Niko Kavadas and strikeout co-leader Tanner Kohlhepp, who were both selected in the MLB Draft. Sure enough, faces both old and new to the program not only bridged the losses of Kavadas and Kohlhepp but provided the Irish with the extra lift needed to make it to Omaha.
The Irish expected freshman left-handed pitcher Jack Findlay to contribute to the team‘s success in 2022. The Ledgewood, New Jersey native was a top 250 recruit in the country according to Perfect Game. In his senior season of high school, he etched an impressive 0.79 ERA, striking out nearly two batters per inning. What they did not expect, however, was for him to morph into a dominant late-inning force on the season’s biggest stage. With graduate student closer Ryan McLinskey injured, a spot in the back of the Irish bullpen opened up. And Findlay, a natural starting pitcher, seized it.
“The execution, the performance of a freshman on the mound closing it out,” said Jarrett. “When I say unselfish, that’s what I mean. That guy never asked to start. Didn’t care. Just ‘coach, let me pitch,’ and that’s the philosophy of that staff.” Since moving to the bullpen in the ACC Tournament, Findlay has a 0.79 ERA and 0.71 WHIP in 11.1 innings. He recorded a save in the first three of those appearances. His five innings pitched in his fourth appearance, Sunday‘s clinching game, marked a career-high. His performance has opened eyes both near and far.
”I was surprised that Jack (Findlay) threw five innings and only gave up one hit against probably the best offensive team in the country,” said Brannigan when looking at the box score for the first time post-game. “We‘ve seen it all year. And I’m just so impressed with the work that he did. I didn’t know it was five innings. And I remember when he first came in, I was thinking, ‘Alright, who’s next? We’ll get a couple of things out of him and then who’s going to finish it?’ He just took it and ran with it. So, I’m just so impressed with Findlay.”
Of course, Findlay would not have even been in the position to earn a save in any game, including Game 1 of the Super Regional, if not for those who pitched before him. Friday was not Austin Temple’s finest start. He battled through some command issues, lasting just three innings. But the Jacksonville transfer has provided the perfect complement to Notre Dame‘s ace, graduate student left-hander John Michael Bertrand. Temple’s first season at Notre Dame has been the best of his career. The tall right-hander has gone 4-1 with a 3.57 ERA, striking out 11.5 batters per nine innings.
And while the Irish have gotten plenty of offense from returning stars like Brannigan, graduate student outfielder Ryan Cole, and senior outfielder Brooks Coetzee, the Irish filled a good chunk of their Kavadas-sized power hole with an emerging offensive force. Senior outfielder Jack Zyska had largely been a non-factor for the Irish in his first three seasons, putting up mediocre numbers as a freshman and registering just 58 at-bats over the past two seasons combined. But Zyska has made his presence felt since the start of the season, homering in Notre Dame’s first two games and four of their first six. He leads the Irish with 13 home runs. And excluding games against Texas Tech, he‘s 10-18 (.555 AVG) with three home runs and six RBIs in postseason play.
Then there’s Carter Putz. Putz is not a new name. He was an All-ACC hitter last year as the designated hitter. But he took over for Kavadas at first base, providing steady defense for the Irish’s rock-solid infield. His bat took a little while to warm up this postseason, as he went hitless in the Statesboro Regional. After starting Sunday 0-2, Putz launched two critical doubles in the 7th and 8th innings. The first set up another breakout star for the Irish, graduate student catcher David LaManna, to rip a two-run home run over the right-field fence to tie the game. The second was a vital two-out, two-run scoring hit to give the Irish much-needed breathing room over No. 1 Tennessee.
If there’s one common theme of Notre Dame’s successes this weekend in Knoxville, it’s patience. “The at-bats in the seventh inning were phenomenal,” said Jarrett. “[Tennessee starting pitcher Chase Burns] was still in there. He was still a major league-caliber arm. It’s not easy to walk in and be on it right away as much as we plan for it.”
History would have said it was foolish to expect the Irish could find a way to come back in Game 3. The Irish had notched just two singles off Burns through six innings. It would’ve been possible to write off a freshman, even one as talented as Findlay after he was rocked for five runs in 0.2 innings in Notre Dame’s final game of the regular season. It would have even been possible to run out of patience for Zyska and LaManna. Entering this season, the two had combined for ten home runs in over 500 at-bats with the Irish. On top of all this, the Volunteers were 49-0 when leading after six innings when Sunday rolled around.
But now that history is history. Same with last year’s heartbreak in Starkville. The Irish are a new team in so many ways from last year. An Irish team that felt irrelevant a few years ago did whatever it took to clear the Super Regional hurdle. They found a key contributor from their recruiting class in Findlay. They found a home run of a transfer in Temple. A senior with a rediscovered power stroke. A first baseman not named Niko Kavadas delivering clutch hits out of the middle of the order. And Jarrett and his staff unlocked more from the players who returned from last year‘s team.
When baseball asked more of the Irish, they dug down and found more. And that should give them the confidence they‘ll be able to do the same when Omaha inevitably asks more out of them as well.