Seventh inning home runs stun Volunteers, send Irish to first College World Series since 2002
Andrew McGuinness | Sunday, June 12, 2022
KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE — On a muggy Sunday afternoon that approached 90 degrees in Knoxville, Tennessee, Notre Dame’s offense entered the seventh inning as cold as ever. The Irish had managed just a pair of singles against Tennessee starter Chase Burns — an outstanding freshman, but a freshman nonetheless. It would be understandable, if not expected, that fans started to feel the same sense of dread that set in at last year’s Super Regional in Starkville, Mississippi. Then, Notre Dame fell in Game 3 to ultimate World Series champions, Mississppi State, coming agonizingly close to Omaha. “I’m sure that drove them crazy,” said Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello.
But baseball has a funny way of rewarding the patient. For the second straight day, it took a while for Notre Dame’s bats to get going. In Game 2 of their Super Regional series, Notre Dame’s pitching could not contain a Tennessee offense that led the nation in home runs and runs scored, among other categories. It wasn’t always pretty, but they managed to do that on Sunday. The Irish may have been down two runs heading into the seventh — with just one base runner to their credit in the previous four innings — but they never felt like they were out of it.
“These are exceptional guys, and when you have exceptional character and makeup and focus on what you’re doing … The baseball talent you can see first hand,” said Notre Dame head coach Link Jarrett. “When you combine that, there’s no team more built for this moment than these guys. The way they engage in anything they feel like might need to be done to win a game, [I’ve] never seen anything like it.”
Snapping a drought
Sunday’s battle between the Irish and Tennessee — the latter of which was seeking consecutive College World Series appearances for the first time in program history — was a battle of motivation versus experience. But that did not mean each trait applied only to one side. Sure, Tennessee knew what it takes to advance past this stage. But the Irish gained plenty of experience in their Super Regional appearance last year, the program’s first since 2002. That was also the last year Notre Dame made the College World Series…
Six runs in the final three innings of Game 3 later, and the wait is over: Notre Dame is heading back to college baseball’s ultimate stage. “We just had to win a three-game series,” Jarrett said. “You take a few jabs, but you can’t allow the knockout blow. We hung in there. We knew we had to eventually jab, and we did, and then we delivered some blows.”
Of course, this was not any ordinary three-game series; it came against Tennessee, the nation’s No. 1 team. It was a team with more wins than Notre Dame had games played. And the Irish beat them twice in their ballpark.
“57,” Vitello said after the game, referencing his team’s number of wins — a number the Volunteers wish was just a little bit larger. “That’s a lot.” The best hitting and pitching team in the country in terms of runs scored and ERA, plus a top-15 fielding percentage to boot.
And yet, at the moment of maximum doubt, the Irish had none. “That calmness of feeling this for [the Irish], that they did it, I’ll never forget that,” Jarrett said. That allowed them to rise to the occasion and punch a ticket to Omaha two decades in the making.
Tennessee jumps to early lead
For the third straight game, the scoring started in the first inning. And for the third time in the series, Luc Lipcius went deep, crushing a 1-0 pitch from junior right-handed pitcher Liam Simon into right-center field. Notre Dame was quickly in the last place it wanted to be: down early to a Tennessee team that was 44-6 when scoring first, and 30-3 when scoring in the first inning at all. Given that the team that scored first in Games 1 and 2 never trailed, things looked bleak for Notre Dame.
The Irish were able to answer quickly, though. Senior designated hitter Jack Zyska began the second with an infield single, his fifth hit in as many at-bats. Zyska then swiped second and third on the next two pitches, taking advantage of a slow windup by Burns and showcasing the aggressiveness the Irish are known for. Graduate student catcher David LaManna immediately evened the game at one with an RBI groundout to shortstop.
But the Volunteers had an immediate answer themselves. Simon issued a pair of walks in the second inning, both on just four pitches. And sensing his starter didn’t have his best command, Link Jarrett made an early call to the bullpen. Unfortunately for the Irish, it didn’t pay off. Senior right-handed pitcher Alex Rao allowed a single to the first batter he faced, Seth Stephenson, which put Tennessee back on top.
Pitchers settle in
From there, Rao settled in for a bit. He avoided further trouble in the second by getting Lipcius to fly out to foul ground in right field. And after hitting Jordan Beck to leadoff in the third, Rao retired the next five batters he faced, with LaManna also throwing out a stealing Beck to end the third.
But Burns seemed just as locked in as any of Notre Dame’s pitchers, if not more so. The 2022 Collegiate All-American third team right-hander looked anything but a freshman pitching on the biggest stage of his career to date. And it was Rao who blinked first in the bottom of the fifth. Tennessee’s ninth hitter Cortland Lawson began the frame with a single; he then scored on the very next pitch, an RBI double to left by Stephenson.
Notre Dame countered with a freshman of their own, sending left-hander Jack Findlay to the bump. Findlay was able to avoid further damage in the fifth. He also erased a one-out sixth inning single by inducing a 4-6-3 double play. But he still needed help from the Irish offense for any of his (or the rest of the Irish staff’s) efforts to matter.
Irish bats save season with late rally
Burns kept cruising until the top of the seventh. With one out, senior first baseman Carter Putz smashed a ground rule double to left-center. That marked Notre Dame’s first extra-base hit of the day. Its second came two batters later, and from one of the most unlikely sources in the Irish lineup. LaManna, who had just one home run all season, doubled his total at the best possible moment for the Irish. His two-out opposite-field home run tied the game and silenced the raucous crowd at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
But that moment paled in comparison to how stunned Volunteer fans would be just a few moments later. Only a couple of pitches after just missing a home run with a deep foul ball to left field, graduate student third baseman Jack Brannigan kept Burns’ 1-2 pitch plenty fair, smashing his second game-winning home run of the series. “He’s pretty damn annoying if you’re on the other side,” Vitello said. “But he’s that for a reason.”
“We knew the last three innings were gonna be ours,” Brannigan said. “When Zyska was up, Dave [LaManna] came up to me and said, ‘Just take a deep breath, we’re winning this game right here.’”
A one-run lead against Tennessee’s potent offense wouldn’t have had a great chance of standing up. Even over just three innings. But the Irish offense made sure they would not have to worry about that. After Findlay recorded a 1-2-3 seventh, the Irish offense did what they do best. The first four batters of the inning did not record a hit, yet the Irish had runners on second and third with two down thanks to a hit by pitch, an error, and two well-placed bunts. That set the stage for Putz, who delivered his second double of the game, a hit that was somehow even bigger than that before. He then scored on an RBI single by Zyska, stretching the lead to 7-3.
“We talk a lot about the last hour on Sunday, whether it’s practice, or usually it’s just the last three innings of a game. I just can’t express how tough they are in the last hour of these games,” Jarrett said.
Findlay finishes the job, sends Irish to Omaha
That made it time for Findlay to look like anything but a freshman in front of the proverbial bright lights. And other than bobbling a bunt by Drew Gilbert — who LaManna threw out at second trying to advance on a pitch in the dirt — Findlay was in control. A one-out walk to pinch hitter Christian Moore in the ninth did not change that. “He was on today,” Lipcius said.
Instead, Findlay bore down even harder. Facing one of Tennessee’s biggest power threats, Findlay got Evan Russell to roll one over. The Irish defense, which Jarrett called “the difference” in Friday’s game, fittingly finished the series with a textbook 5-4-3 double play. The true freshman got 15 outs to finish his fourth game of Notre Dame’s postseason.
Just a few years ago, the Irish were lost in the college baseball wasteland. “When I first committed to Notre Dame, there were people who actually said to me, ‘You better hope you win a ring in high school, because you’re never gonna win in college.’ That’s the kind of program that it was. And I’m just so proud to be part of the team that rebuilds it,” Brannigan said.
Before last season, the Irish hadn’t finished a full season with a record over .500 since 2015. That year marked their lone Regional appearance between 2021 and 2006. And here they stand, just two full seasons into Link Jarrett’s tenure, as one of the top eight teams in the nation. “I thought we had an Omaha team in 2020. I thought we had one last year,” Jarrett said. “We have one this year.”
“You saw our team play,” Jarrett said. “And I’m happy the nation got to watch that.” Even better, the nation will continue to.