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Sports

Irish two wins from Omaha, face monstrous, Knoxville-sized task

| Thursday, June 9, 2022

361 days.

When the first pitch of the Knoxville Super Regional is thrown, that’s how long it’ll have been since Notre Dame was in its last Super Regional. Last year, at 9:15 p.m. on June 14, Irish slugger Niko Kavadas grounded into a double play, ending Notre Dame’s comeback attempt. They dropped Game 3 of the series to the eventual national champions, Mississippi State. 

Now, Notre Dame prepares to face No. 1 Tennessee. They must take two of three on the road from the Volunteers. Tennessee has lost just three games at home all season, much less a series. The Tennessee faithful will be undoubtedly rocking in one of college baseball’s premier environments. 

A road series against a national championship-caliber team. A loud and raucous environment inside an SEC stadium. It all sounds familiar. Maybe even more high stakes, more remarkable than last year’s classic of a Super Regional? Irish head coach Link Jarrett thought so.

“The combination of us being Notre Dame and how our team’s played recently, and [Tennessee]’s stadium, program and how they’ve played,” Jarrett commented to media on Wednesday afternoon. “I don’t think college baseball has ever seen the likes of what’s about to take shape in Knoxville. And I mean that.” 

Big words for a big series. And it’s very possible that the two or three games this weekend live up to the billing. Notre Dame is the decided underdog, but they’re a formidable matchup for Tennessee. The Irish were considered a potential top-eight seed and an almost guaranteed regional host. They certainly didn’t expect to need to go through Tennessee to get to the College World Series. 

Irish in great form, paced by pitching

On the flip side, the Volunteers likely weren’t planning on needing to encounter the Irish earlier than Omaha. Jarrett’s squad enters playing some exceptional baseball. They are 12-4 in their past 16 games. In the Statesboro Regional, Notre Dame collected three straight ranked wins, allowing just seven runs. Since the start of the ACC Tournament, Notre Dame is pitching to the tune of a 2.17 ERA. Their starting pitching has been magnificent, surrendering more than just one run on a single occasion. Graduate student Austin Temple will get the nod on Friday night for the Irish.

The Irish will reserve their All-American ace, John Michael Bertrand, for Game 2. If there’s a Game 3? All bets are off for the Irish, who haven’t had a consistent third starter all season. True freshman Jack Findlay saved two games in the regional but also started eight games this season. His role will be one to watch this weekend. Senior Aidan Tyrell started as Notre Dame’s Friday night starter this year and pitched into the eighth inning in Starkville last season. He’s a candidate to start, but, like Findlay, he’s a valuably lefty arm in the bullpen.

Senior Alex Rao and junior Liam Simon have shown strong form lately, and they’ll be key arms in this series. Both are capable of pitching three innings or more if needed. 

Offensively, it’s been a little inconsistent for the Irish, but they continue to be a deep and lethal lineup. They’ve bashed eight home runs in six postseason games. Senior shortstop Zack Prajzner, a staple in the bottom of the lineup, is hitting .400 with a pair of long balls. Graduate student left fielder Ryan Cole hit leadoff throughout the regional and went 8-14.

Cole expressed confidence in his squad when asked about what Tennessee should be nervous about: “If I were them, I’d be a little scared. I think we’re a very dangerous team.” 

Max Petrosky | The Observer
Notre Dame outfielder Ryan Cole (1) celebrates with his teammates after hitting a home run during the game between Notre Dame and Purdue Fort Wayne at Frank Eck Stadium on Wednesday, April 20, 2022. The Fighting Irish defeated the Mastodons, 12-2.

For Notre Dame to provide a more balanced attack in Knoxville, they’ll hope to get seniors Brooks Coetzee and Carter Putz firing on all cylinders. Putz is hitting .330 with six home runs and 11 doubles. Coetzee leads the team in home runs with 11 long balls while hitting .274. The duo is tied with junior third baseman Jack Brannigan for the team lead in RBI with 42. However, in Statesboro, they went a combined 1 for 23. Hitting second and third in the order, respectively, Coetzee and Putz need to heat up. If they do, the Irish will be a scary sight. 

Tennessee a dominant force

Tennessee meanwhile, has just simply been on another level this season. Some have called the Volunteers the best team in college baseball history. A Super Regional between two ranked teams isn’t often considered a David vs. Goliath matchup. This clash, however, may deserve the moniker. At the plate, Tennessee scored 10+ runs against SEC opponents on ten occasions. Whereas the Irish’s home run leader has 11 bombs, the Volunteers boast eight players that match or exceed the total. Nine Tennessee players with at least 20 starts are hitting above .300. And that doesn’t include Jordan Beck, who might be the best major league prospect on the lineup. Beck is hitting .291 with 16 home runs and 14 doubles. Drew Gilbert leads the way among regular starters with a .373 batting average. Trey Lipscomb is second in average, hitting .363, and he leads the Volunteers with 21 home runs. 

What makes this offense even more daunting than the assembly line of talent up and down their lineup is their proclivity for big innings. May 14, Tennessee’s last loss, was also the last time the Volunteers didn’t have a multi-run inning. Additionally, they’ve boasted at least one four-run inning in their past five games. Tennessee never feels like they’re out of it.

In advancing to the Super Regional, they put up six ninth-inning runs to rally against Georgia Tech. To claim the SEC championship, the Volunteers scored ten runs in the final two innings in their semifinal. Then, they scored seven runs in a two-inning timeframe in the championship. The team is averaging over nine runs a game in the postseason and has won eleven straight. It’s tough to beat the Volunteers in a slugfest. They have the firepower to outhit any lineup. 

And Tennesee isn’t just a team of hitters. Their pitching has also been fantastic all season. Notre Dame is likely to see three starters this weekend, should the series go three games. Chase Dollander (2.38 ERA), Chase Burns (2.69) and Drew Beam (2.72). Zander Sechrist (11 starts, 1.67 ERA) is another viable option.

Even if the Irish can crack the code on one of the starters, the Volunteers have a deadly arsenal of bullpen arms. Kirby Connell and Mark McLaughlin pace the ‘pen with ERAs of 1.45 and 1.53. All said, every single Tennesee pitcher with more than six appearances features ERAs of 2.72 or lower. Tennessee doesn’t have a weak arm in their bullpen, and the Irish will have their hands full with any Volunteer pitcher. 

It’s been 361 days since the Irish were on this stage, and their whole season has been about getting back here and reversing the result. In their way are the behemoths of 2022 college baseball. It’s must-see baseball in Knoxville. And must-see television for those not in Knoxville. The stage is set, and the series’ first pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday evening.

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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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