Notre Dame feeling good going into NCAA baseball regional in South Bend, ready to see fans
SOUTH BEND — There’s been plenty to get fired up about for Notre Dame this college baseball season, but Irish players found themselves stoked this week over a new element.
They’re coming back to Frank Eck Stadium just in time for the NCAA Tournament’s South Bend Regional, after the regular season was closed off to all but family and friends during the pandemic.
“I heard our guys talking (Tuesday) like, ‘Man, it sold out in an hour, they sold all the tickets in an hour,’” Notre Dame coach Link Jarrett said Thursday afternoon, “so it means something to them. They recognize the significance. Part of the reward for them is to know people want to come watch.”
ND will host the four-team regional with an adjusted capacity of 1,825.
The Irish (30-11), the top seed in the double-elimination event, face fourth seed Central Michigan (40-16) at 1 p.m. Friday. That’s followed by No. 2 seed Connecticut (33-17) against No. 3 Michigan (27-17) at 7 p.m.
Play continues with two games Saturday and Sunday, and if necessary, a final contest Monday afternoon.
As the overall No. 10 seed in the 64-team NCAA Tourney, ND earned one of the 16 hosting slots. The Irish are in the postseason for the first time in six years.
NCAA Baseball Tournament
What: South Bend Regional, double-elimination
Where: Notre Dame's Frank Eck Stadium
When: Friday-Monday (if necessary)
Who: Notre Dame, Central Michigan, Connecticut and Michigan
“Any athlete will tell you that when you’re playing in a setting that’s packed with fans, there’s just more energy,” Jarrett said. “It’s a little more exciting and you feel like maybe your capabilities are greater. You’re energized from the presence of the crowd and the noise … so they’re excited, and for them to talk about that, it caught me. It tells you how much it means to the guys.”
Left-hander John Michael Bertrand (7-2, 3.33 earned run average) is slated to get the start for the Irish against the Chippewas, who are expected to counter with buzz-stirring righty Andrew Taylor.
The redshirt freshman and Mid-American Conference Player of the Year is 11-3 and second in the nation in earned run average at 1.21. Taylor has struck out 120 and walked 23 in 89.1 innings.
“It’s all hands on deck Friday,” Jarrett said of the one-game approach he’s intending to take throughout the regional, “to find a way to beat a very, very, very good team and one of the most impressive pitchers in college baseball when you break down the numbers and the metrics. (Our) hands are full just with game one.”
Notre Dame, ranked No. 4 by Baseball America and No. 6 in the coaches poll, has built its head-turning season in large part through a versatile pitching staff and the nation’s premier defense statistically.
“I think that’s been the biggest turnaround in our team, the overall level of defensive play,” Jarrett said, adding that some players were shifted before the season to optimize skills. “(Jack) Brannigan’s been really good at third base. “(Shortstop Zack) Prajzner and (second baseman Jared) Miller flopped essentially positions, and we’ve got the outfield sorted out nicely, with (Ryan) Cole emerging as just a tremendous left fielder, and Spencer (Myers) in center has been great, and Brooks (Coetzee) has been in my opinion one of the best defensive right fielders in college baseball.
“Then (David) LaManna and (Danny) Neri, they grind, man, behind the plate,” Jarrett said of his catchers. “They’re tough, they’re into it, they’re well-coached on what they’re doing with their set-ups and presentation.”
The two are receiving pitches from a deep stable of hurlers who have shown they can blend roles.
It’s “a unique way of using the pitching staff,” Jarrett acknowledged. “We haven’t gone into a weekend often knowing who we’re going to start all three games. … We went into this (season) knowing we were going to have to utilize our guys maybe in a different way than some other teams. There are ways to be successful that don’t match up with what everybody else does.”
ND’s way, per Jarrett, includes little hesitation in making a change, alternating lefties and righties frequently, and casting some individuals as both starters and relievers.
“That’s just how we’ve done it all year, and we have had guys deliver in infinite ways,” Jarrett said. “It’s been unbelievable.”
Part of that’s been due to buy-in.
“The guys are not selfish,” Jarrett said. “I don’t have guys banging down my door (saying), ‘Coach I wanna start’ or ‘Coach, I wanna close.’ These guys just wanna pitch.”
Notre Dame, the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season champion, enters the regional off a 14-1 second-game loss to Virginia in the ACC Tournament last Friday.
Jarrett says his team was decidedly down after that defeat, but that the extra rest could wind up a long-term blessing given that the Irish were able to cut short a road swing that had been “11 or 12 days” and that they’d been dealing with final exams at the same time.
South Bend Regional schedule
♦ Game 1: Notre Dame vs. Central Michigan, 1 p.m.
♦ Game 2: Michigan vs. Connecticut, 7 p.m.
♦ Game 3: Friday losers, noon
♦ Game 4: Friday winners, 6 p.m.
♦ Game 5: Winner Game 3 vs. loser Game 4, noon
♦ Game 6: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 6 p.m.
♦ Game 7: If necessary, 7 p.m.
The coach declared his team healthy, recovered and refocused Thursday.
“They’re excited and ready and chomping at the bit,” Jarrett said. “There’s that adrenaline and that feeling that probably hasn’t been in the air in this stadium in this part of the season, obviously, in a long time. They’re excited to bring postseason baseball back.”
The host Irish beat Central Michigan 8-4 in a mid-April meeting, but the Chippewas did not use any of the pitchers that day who have emerged as their top three starters.
Likewise, CMU did not get a firsthand look at Bertrand. ND jumped to leads of 3-0 through one inning and 8-2 through four. Alex Rao fired 4.1 innings of shutout relief for the win, while Carter Putz went 4-for-4 at the plate with a triple and two runs driven in.