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Bash brothers: Irish bats charge into Omaha

| Friday, June 17, 2022

Maggie Klaers | The Observer

The conversation with Notre Dame baseball often centers around its pitching. The Irish have the best team ERA remaining in the tournament. 

By the numbers, the Irish bats are not the strength of this team. Notre Dame brings four players with 10 or more home runs this season to Omaha. Texas, the Irish’s opening opponent, doubles that number. The Irish are averaging five runs per game in the NCAA Tournament. However, what Notre Dame can and has accomplished at the plate can’t quite be quantified in the box score. 

“The number of games we’ve played, individually and collectively together, it gives us confidence,” graduate second baseman Jared Miller said.

On the shoulders of a cohesive veteran base, the Irish seemed to maintain that confidence even in high-pressure situations, like trailing 3-1 in the seventh inning at No. 1 Tennessee in an elimination game. 

“We’ve always been confident. To the outside world, it looked like an upset,” graduate student David LaManna said. “We always knew we had it in us to win.”

LaManna was the prime example of playing beyond the statistics on Sunday. With two outs and the Irish down by two runs, LaManna blasted an opposite-field, two-run home run. The long ball? Just LaManna’s second of the season. He drove in three runs in the game, bumping his season total to 20. The most clutch hit of the season from Notre Dame came from the only lineup regular with less than 20 RBI.

Then there was the Statesboro Regional. Miller entered the NCAA Tournament opener after a month-long absence with a shoulder injury. He pinch-ran, stole third and scored on a wild pitch. In the second game, senior shortstop Zack Prajzner lifted his sixth home run of the year to tie the game in the sixth inning. 

The story has been similar all year for the Irish. Unexpected contributions from unexpected places.

That trend started last year. Now, graduate student left fielder Ryan Cole entered the year as a reserve outfielder and ended the season as the team’s leading hitter. This year, there’s a similar story in arguably the most dangerous bat in the order, senior Jack Zyska. Zyska entered the year with 58 career at-bats over the last two seasons. He hit .189 last season and .211 as a freshman, his only season as a regular. 

This year, however, Zyska is rapping a cool .317 with 13 home runs. He launched a bomb of his own in Game 1 of the Super Regional. In Game 3, he provided some unexpected fireworks. With just five stolen bases to his name, he stole second and third on consecutive pitches, leading to Notre Dame’s first run. He also delivered the final blow, an RBI single to extend the Irish lead to 7-3. Head coach Link Jarrett described Zyska as “one of the most dangerous hitters in the middle of a lineup in Omaha.” 

LaManna himself had a huge turnaround this year. He hit .234 in 2021, upping that mark to a team-leading .348 this season.

“I’ve had a lot of at-bats in my career,” he said. “You just try and take what you’ve learned. Putting that together has allowed me to do better this year.” 

The Irish aren’t immune to slumps, but what makes this lineup dangerous is the ability of someone to always step up. Senior first baseman Carter Putz went 0-12 in the Statesboro Regional. But the Irish survived, and Putz delivered a two-run shot in the first inning of the Super Regional. In Game 3, he added two pivotal doubles to help engineer the comeback. Junior third baseman Jack Brannigan slumped to start the year, his batting average sitting in the lower .200s. Now, he’s hitting .296 with 12 home runs. The 12th shot won the Super Regional. 

The Irish ride on momentum, confidence and a whole lot of talent. Whether it’s LaManna’s two home runs or Zyska’s 13, it’s almost random who will deliver the big hit in a big moment. And for the boys in the blue and gold, nobody cares who delivers that blow. 

“It’s the same as always. It’s getting up there and stacking quality at-bats,” Miller commented. “But it’s just about grinding out at-bats and passing it on to the next guy.”

So who’s the next guy in Omaha? The Irish have gotten a lot of contributions to get to this point. But they’re not planning on being done just yet. The Irish set bigger goals than just getting to Omaha after falling a game short last year. 

“After last year, getting a taste of it. Last year, our goal was to get to Omaha,” LaManna said. When we walked out of Mississippi State last year, we looked at each other and we just said our goal this year was to win the whole thing.”

To win the whole thing, contributions are needed up and down the roster. The Irish have gotten that so far in this tournament run, winning five games against top-25 competition — the only team to do that in the NCAA Tournament. And on the biggest stage in college baseball, they need the momentum to continue. 

Jarrett emphasized the stakes: “You have eight teams. You have families, fans, the community all right there in that bucket. When you say ‘Omaha’, everyone knows what that means. When you walk in there, everyone knows what you’re playing for … The combination of their makeup and character … no team has endured more than this group. They deserve this.” 

The Irish bats are headed to Omaha, looking to bash their way to a few more historic victories. And maybe, the program’s first national title.

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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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