The surprise that keeps on giving, Notre Dame's baseball success might have staying power

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame infielder Niko Kavadas (12) is congratulated by his teammates after hitting home run during a 14-2 victory over Central Michigan Sunday, June 6, 2021, at Frank Eck Stadium in South Bend. The Irish advance to the NCAA Super Regional round

The real intrigue now with a Notre Dame baseball team swaggering into history was lost on head coach Link Jarrett.

The 49-year-old concocter of college baseball’s biggest and most sustainable surprise this season, still damp from a Gatorade bath, was already too busy pragmatically plotting how the national No. 10 seeded Irish (33-11) could perpetuate their run in Starkville, Miss., next weekend to think big picture.

Seventh-seeded Mississippi State secured its NCAA regional title Monday with a 6-5 win over Campbell to claim its spot and hosting privileges for a best-of-three Super Regional with the Irish, beginning Friday or Saturday.

“You’re going to deal with 10,000 people in Starkville that eat, sleep, breathe …,” Jarrett began. “Every spot in the outfield they’ll be hanging over with grills and screaming, and that’s what it’s about.”

The Irish earned their way into that probability with minimal grilling and adequate screaming while demolishing the NCAA South Bend Regional field, punctuated by a 14-2 title-clinching victory over Central Michigan on Sunday night at Eck Stadium.

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Junior lefty Aidan Tyrell on Sunday provided the third of three strong tourney starting pitching performances, backed by five double plays Sunday from the nation’s No. 1 fielding defense. In 2019, the year before Jarrett arrived to coach the Irish, they finished 203rd in fielding defense.

Notre Dame never faced 2019 College World Series runner-up Michigan in the four-team, double-elimination format, because the Wolverines went two-and-out. So in two games against regional four seed Central Michigan and one against two seed UConn, Notre Dame outscored them collectively 50-5, with 15 home runs and 23 extra-base hits.

That after ending an ACC regular-season championship run with a whimper, by falling 14-1 to Virginia in the pool-play portion of the league tournament.

Junior DH Carter Putz hammered two of ND’s five home runs Sunday — one of them a grand slam — while driving in a career-high five runs. 

“We had such a great week of preparation,” Irish first baseman and NCAA regional MVP Niko Kavadas said of the seismic momentum shift. “Sometimes I think it helps to humble you a little bit to get beat pretty good, and I think that Virginia game was kind of a blessing in disguise.”

The 6-foot-1, 235-pound senior from Penn High School was coming off a six-game stretch coming into the regional in which his season batting average slipped to a season-low .288, while registering 18 strikeouts in 23 at-bats.

Over the weekend his line read like a run-on typo: .600 batting average, five home runs in six hits, nine runs scored, 13 RBIs, .714 on-base percentage, 2.100 slugging percentage. His 21st home run of the season Sunday tied the game at 1-1 in the fourth and un-tied him with Frank Jacobs (1991) for most homers in a single season.

“Pitch selection,” Jarrett said when asked about Kavadas’ resurgence. “Sometimes when you start pressing, you start swinging at some pitches that are out of the zone. Early on in the year, he was like this, very disciplined and recognized the pitches well. 

“I think he went through a little spurt where he just wasn’t recognizing the spin and the pitch, because you’re not seeing it. And hitters go through those. That's why it’s called a batting average. You do have some peaks and valleys.”

Upon gathering the 27th out of Sunday’s game in his mitt on a throw from third base, Kavadas found Jarrett and gave him the ball.

In doing so he cast his vote as to whether the 2021 Irish are a team for the ages or the beginning of something ascendant and lasting.

Notre Dame infielder Carter Putz (4) hits a grand slam home run against Central Michigan Sunday, June 6, 2021, at Frank Eck Stadium in South Bend. The Irish won, 14-2,  to advance to the NCAA Super Regionals.

It’s reasonable to ask, given that this was Notre Dame’s 22nd NCAA Tournament appearance and just the third time the Irish have advanced past the regional/district phase. Both of those teams, 1957 and 2002, ended up in the College World Series.

Kavadas will likely be climbing his way up someone’s minor league system at this time next year and not in the middle of the Irish lineup, but he loves the template Jarrett set this season and in the 11-2 start in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season for good.

“I think he was the turning point in this program,” Kavadas said of why he gave Jarrett the game ball. “He's done such an unbelievable job in getting us to where we are today. He's going to win many more regionals on this field. I hope that that first ball means something to him.”

Jarrett has a lot he finds meaningful these days. For instance, not long Sunday night after the Irish became the first team into the Sweet 16, Jarrett’s son J.T. — an infielder for NC State — joined him in the Super Regional round after the Wolfpack upended No. 16 national seed and host Louisiana Tech to win that regional.

But above all, the elder Jarrett relishes the buy-in from an Irish team that got pushed harder than they’ve ever been pushed in practices, that had all four infielders playing new positions than where they played in the previous coaching regime.

And that the Irish developed chemistry with the seven players plucked from the transfer portal, including ace pitcher John Michael Bertrand.

Unlike a lot of surprise teams, when the competition dissected and adjusted to the Irish, they adjusted back. When the national spotlight shined on them, they didn’t curdle. And when they got picked to finish last in preseason in ACC’s Atlantic Division, they never once looked the part.

“I think it’s the toughness,” Kavadas said. “We never count ourselves out. We have kind of this killer mentality where we may not be the most talented team between the lines, but we’re going to find a way to go 1-0 at the end of the day.”

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI