Nightmare fifth inning, Dollander’s dominance push Super Regional to third game
Andrew McGuinness | Saturday, June 11, 2022
KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE — Most teams in college baseball in Tennessee’s position coming into Saturday would be a bit rattled. The tournament’s No. 1 overall seed was stunned Friday night, beaten with their own game as the Irish launched four home runs in the first four innings, producing enough to hold off Tennessee and secure an 8-6 victory. The loss on the field loomed large, as the Volunteers could not afford another. Tennessee suffered an additional loss when star outfielder Drew Gilbert was ejected from Friday’s game and subsequently suspended for Saturday.
But if there was any panic in the Volunteers, it did not show. “[We] could’ve come in really tight, not done as well,” said Tennesee first baseman Luc Lipcius. That could not have been farther from what happened. After picking it up in the middle-to-late innings Friday, the nation’s top offense showed up in full force Saturday. The Volunteers launched four home runs in the fifth inning. Three came off Irish ace graduate student left handed pitcher John Michael Bertrand, knocking him out of the game. After playing from behind all of Friday, Tennessee cruised to a 12-4 victory on Saturday. That means a winner-take-all game on Sunday to earn a spot in the College World Series.
Tennessee’s Much-Hyped Offense Breaks Out
Tennessee was actually designated as the away team for Saturday’s game, which still took place in Knoxville. And like the Irish on Friday, the Volunteers struck right out of the gates. Seth Stephenson led off the game with a single. Then with two outs, scored all the way from first on a perfectly placed double by Trey Lipscomb. Just like the Irish in Game 1, Tennessee’s potent offense wasted no time trying to take control of the game.
Bertrand was able to handle the challenge Tennessee‘s stacked offense provides early on. After allowing the early first inning run, Bertrand settled in. Saturday marked Bertrand’s first start since his 7.2 inning Regional winning gem against Texas Tech. Link Jarrett made the decision to give Bertrand an extra day of rest after throwing 107 pitches in that game. It looked like a good decision early on. Bertrand scattered a couple of hits in the early innings, keeping the Volunteers to just one run through four innings.
But things completely unraveled in the top of the fifth, which Jarrett called “the difference of the game.” Lipcius led off the frame with a long home run to center field that hit high up on the Lindsey Nelson Stadium batter‘s eye. That would have represented a big enough blow to dishearten Notre Dame‘s struggling offense. But Courtland Lawson immediately followed that with a double. A couple of batters later, Jordan Beck launched his 18th home run of the year, a no-doubt shot to left, to put Tennesee firmly in the driver’s seat. “The Beck homer got us really jittery,” said Lipcius. Two batters later, Evan Russell added a blast of his own to nearly the same spot.
“We knew it’s a good lineup that can do a lot of damage,” said Bertrand. Excluding his start in Notre Dame’s first Regional game, which ended prematurely due to a rain delay, Bertrand’s 4.2 innings pitched marked his second-shortest start of the season. “The fifth, just kind of getting behind in at-bats and hats off to them for being able to hit my misses. They’re a good ball club.”
Even a change to sophomore right hander Jackson Dennies couldn’t slow down the Volunteers. Dennies allowed the first two hitters he faced to reach base. Then Lipcius teed off for his second home run of the inning, this one to left field. Both his second home run and Russell‘s were the 39th of their collegiate careers, surpassing Colorado Rockies legend Todd Helton for most in program history. When the dust settled, Tennesee plated eight runs and brought up twelve hitters in the fifth. Tennessee added three more runs in the seventh, taking advantage of some rare defensive miscues by the Irish. But the Volunteers had ultimately done enough damage in the fifth to carry them to victory.
Dollander As Expected For Volunteers
While Notre Dame’s ace Bertrand struggled, Tennesee’s No. 1 starter thrived on Saturday. SEC Pitcher of the Year Chase Dollander took the mound for the Volunteers and looked dialed in from the first pitch. Other than a pair of singles by senior outfielder Jack Zyska, Dollander was perfect through the first four innings
The Irish threatened a bit more in the fifth and sixth, putting runners at second and third with one out in both frames. But Dollander refused to give up a big hit to give the Irish life. Notre Dame had to settle for Myers’s aforementioned RBI groundout in the fifth and a pinch-hit sacrifice fly by freshman infielder Jack Penney in the sixth. After getting roughed up in his last start against Campbell, Dollander looked like his normal, dominant self on Saturday. He finished the game in fine form, recording a 1-2-3 seventh inning. Dollander claimed five strikeouts while allowing just five hits and no walks.
“Dollander threw a great game,” said Jarrett. “I thought his fastball usage was very good. When you have a guy that’s 96-98 [miles per hour] with a cutter that’s 86-88 [mph], and a breaking pitch and a changeup, you know your work’s cut out for you.”
The Irish got a couple back in the eighth on Zyska‘s fourth hit of the game, a two-run homer to left-center. But Tennessee reliever Mark McLaughlin was still up to the task of recording the final six outs. Granted, that task became a little bit easier as Jarrett opted to somewhat empty his bench, subbing out over half of Notre Dame’s starting nine. Most of that was due to the lopsided score. Although senior first baseman Carter Putz left the game in the sixth after appearing to hurt himself turning back to first base after hitting a single. Jarrett said he rolled his ankle on the play, but said he “thinks he’s fine.”
Freshman right handed pitcher Radek Birkholz, who relieved Dennies in the fifth, was solid. Birkholz allowed three runs, just one earned, in three innings of work. Jarrett said he was “proud” of the right hander’s performance Saturday. Graduate student left handed pitcher Matt Lazzaro did not allow a hit in a scoreless 1.1 innings pitched as well.
History will be made one way or another on Sunday. Tennessee has never made it to the College World Series in consecutive seasons. Last year’s tripped ended with two quick losses. And the Volunteers have had their eyes set on a longer stay ever since. The Irish, meanwhile, are hungry to experience the thrills and pressure of Omaha. Notre Dame has not reached the CWS since 2002. And after coming up agonizingly short in last year’s Super Regional against eventual champion Mississippi State, the Irish have spent so much of the last year preparing for the climatic conclusion Sunday will provide.
Jarrett confirmed Liam Simon will get the nod for the Irish in their biggest game of the season. “He‘s had some good outings (lately),” Jarrett said. “The stuff plays. He seem(s) a little more comfortable starting (than relieving).” Bertrand said, “I can’t speak highly enough about Liam. He keeps getting better and better. He’s gonna be ready.” The junior right handed pitcher has not allowed more than two earned runs in any of his five starts this season. In his last start on May 27 against Virginia, he pitched a career-high five innings, allowing just two hits and zero runs.
Tennesee was “clearly better than us today,” as Jarrett said. Fortunately for the Irish, it is who is better tomorrow that will ultimately determine which of these two talented teams reaches the College World Series. Nearly one year to the day the Irish had their hearts broken in Starkville, they will look for a much different result on Sunday. Jarrett said that “[we] can’t duplicate Starkville.” The Irish are hoping tomorrow’s outcome will not be a duplicate as well.