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Irish tee off on Tennessee in series opener, one win away from College World Series

| Saturday, June 11, 2022

KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE — The Tennessee Volunteers entered the NCAA Super Regionals as not just the No. 1 seed in the entire nation, but arguably the country’s most complete team. After all, they entered the weekend leading the NCAA in runs scored and earned run average. Every Volunteers hitter in Friday’s starting lineup carries a .300 batting average, double digit home runs, or both. Tennessee starting pitcher Blade Tidwell is one of five Volunteers in MLB’s top 200 prospects list. Notre Dame has just one player — junior third baseman Jack Brannigan — on that same list. Sure, the Irish entered the weekend with 38 wins, their most in a season since 2006. Sure, they are appearing in consecutive Super Regionals for the first time in program history. Notre Dame entered Lindsey Nelson Stadium against the stacked Tennessee Volunteers as the clear underdog.

But that didn’t matter, either. On a night that Tennessee fans expected to be a party, frustration and confusion were the main takeaways for most of the 4,500 or so fans that packed the house Friday night. The Irish turned Knoxville into their personal launching pad, striking early and often en route to a dominant victory over the Volunteers. Notre Dame flexed its pitching depth while Tennessee’s star hurler struggled. The Irish, the NCAA’s top fielding team, played a clean game. In fact, head coach Link Jarrett said defense was “the difference” in Friday’s game.

Tennessee made two errors on that showed up on the scoreboard and several other mistakes. None were more obvious than the argument that led to Tennessee’s clean-up hitter Drew Gilbert and pitching coach Frank Anderson being tossed in the fifth inning.

Home field advantage for the Volunteers? Try a 1-0 series advantage for Notre Dame. And most importantly, the Irish are one win away from their third College World Series appearance in program history.

Homer happy Irish give Tennessee a taste of its own medicine

Needing to get out to a fast, aggressive start, the Irish did just that. Just three pitches into the game, the Irish had a runner on third with no out. Graduate student outfielder Ryan Cole singled on the first pitch, then stole 2nd and advanced to 3rd when the throw down sailed high — but not nearly as high as the two-run home-run senior first baseman Carter Putz launched over the right-center field fence just two batters later.

That gave Notre Dame a 2-0 lead and quieting the Lindsey Nelson Stadium crowd. It looked like that wouldn’t last long after Tennessee began the night with an infield single and walk. But graduate student pitcher Austin Temple bore down, inducing a 6-4-3 double-play from Jordan Beck and an inning-ending groundout from Drew Gilbert. Instead of Tennessee shrinking Notre Dame’s 2-0 lead, the Irish extended it. Making his first start since May 14 due to a separated shoulder, Jared Miller launched a towering home run to right center field. That gave the Irish an early 3-0 edge, which Jarrett said “settled things” at the usually raucous Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

“I didn’t wanna force it,” Jarrett said when asked why Miller did not return until tonight’s game, even though he said that Miller had been telling him he was ready to play during the regional. His patience certainly paid off.

Ryan Vigilante | The Observer
Notre Dame junior third baseman Jack Brannigan celebrates his fourth inning home run Friday against the Volunteers. The Irish won 8-6.

Notre Dame’s power surge continued in the third inning. Just when it looked like the inning was over after Jack Brannigan was picked off first, Putz extended the frame with a two-out single. Jack Zyska touched up Tennessee starter Blade Tidwell once again. This time the damage came courtesy of an opposite field shot into the Volunteers bullpen. Tidwell’s five runs allowed, all earned, are the most in any appearance of what’s otherwise been a sparkling season for the Tennessee native. Tennesee got on the board with a Jordan Beck sac fly in the third (which just missed being a home run itself). But Jack Brannigan immediately countered with a three-run blast to left in the next inning.

It wasn’t surprising to see home runs play such a big factor in the series opener. What was a surprise, however, was for that to play in Notre Dame’s favor. Tennessee more than doubled Notre Dame’s home run total (150-68) entering the series. In fact, their 150 long balls entering Friday lead the nation. Zyska’s home run was his team-leading 12th of the season, a total matched or better by seven Volunteers. Yet it was the Irish teeing off early on Friday, something Irish head coach Link Jarrett at least somewhat foresaw. The Irish have launched 12 home runs in their last seven games, dating back to the start of the ACC Tournament.

“I’ve heard the ball carries here, so maybe a little different setting than what we deal with at home, where there’s days you have a hard time hitting the ball out of our place,” Jarrett said on Thursday. The Irish had no problems hitting the ball out of the ballpark Friday though. Notre Dame’s four home runs tied a season high. They last reached that mark on April 23 against Wake Forest.

Irish bullpen bends but doesn’t break

Of course, the baseball’s extra carry in Knoxville did not apply exclusively to the Irish. Tennessee knocked Temple out of the game in the fourth on a Trey Lipscomb home run and a walk. But Notre Dame’s bullpen has proved capable of carrying the team through difficult moments this season. And they were up to the task against Tennessee’s potent lineup. Alex Rao took over after the Lipscomb home run and steadied things for the Irish. Rao, one of Link Jarrett’s most dependable bullpen arms, navigated through 3.2 key innings of work. Other than a solo shot by Joel Ortega in the sixth, Rao was able to avoid Tennessee’s barrels and keep the Volunteers at a reasonably safe distance.

“He’s just a unique arm,” Jarrett said “His command can kind of come and go, but his stuff’s good enough that he can evade some of the mistakes that are frankly self-inflicted, praising how Rao navigated a “pivotal middle relief role,” Jarrett later added. “Nothing (Rao threw) was really on point. But when you throw effective secondary pitches and you can navigate and they don’t all have to be strikes — he hung in there.”

Of course, the Volunteers wouldn’t go down without a fight. Tennessee made a habit out of big comeback victories in the Regional. And they had their sights set on one Friday as well. Rao ran into trouble in the seventh, allowing a pair of two out base runners. A wild pitch by sophomore right handed pitcher Matt Bedford moved the runners to second and third. And they both came around when a hard hit grounder by Lipscomb caromed off diving senior shortstop Zack Prazjner and into left field for a two-run double.

But the Irish had other ideas. Bedford bounced back to strikeout Ortega to end the threat. And just as he did five days ago against Texas Tech, the Irish called on freshman left handed pitcher Jack Findlay to try and lock down a close game in the late innings. Sure enough, Findlay picked up right where he left off from Sunday. He stranded a leadoff walk in the eighth and did not let a ninth inning home run by Luc Lipcius phase him. Findlay struck out three of the eight batters he faced to record the last six outs. The Irish held the Volunteers to just a .063 batting average (1-16) with runners in scoring position. The freshman appears to have found new life, emerging as Notre Dame’s closer in the biggest time of the year.

“In the fall, we train everyone to be a relief pitcher,” Jarrett said “We try to prepare them for this. You could see the poise from him from day one. For that guy, as a freshman, (to) close three games in a row… it’s impressive.”

The win puts the Irish in a bit of uncharted territory. Notre Dame has not won Game 1 of a Super Regional since its last College World Series appearance in 2002. And while Tennessee will almost certainly be sharper on Saturday facing elimination, the Irish have something almost no one expected them to have: margin for error.

After handing Tennessee just its fourth home loss of the season and snapping the Volunteers’ eleven game winning streak, Notre Dame has itself in the drivers seat. It will take just as strong if not an even greater effort to return the Irish to the CWS for the first time in 20 years. But Notre Dame clearly showed the Volunteers and anyone else watching that they certainly have that in them.

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About Andrew McGuinness

Andrew McGuinness is a rising junior in Siegfried Hall from Haddonfield, New Jersey, a short drive away from Philadelphia. Naturally, he loves all of his Philadelphia sports teams, even if they don't always love him back. Feel free to reach out to talk sports or TV shows, especially if they're Stranger Things, Survivor, or/and Ted Lasso.

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