Notre Dame pushing for more defense, less cowbell after dropping game 1 of Super Regional
Notre Dame labored but persisted through the culture shock of its first baseball Super Regional appearance in 19 years and a teeming, screaming SEC venue.
The undoing for the 10th-seeded Irish Saturday was too many errors, too much Landon Sims and eventually too much cowbell as 7 seed Mississippi State rallied for a 9-8 victory in the opening game of the Starkville Super Regional at Dudy Noble Field.
The two teams meet in game two Sunday at 6 p.m. (EDT) in the best-of-three series that sends its survivor to the eight-team College World Series, June 19-30 in Omaha. Neb. The Irish haven’t dropped consecutive games since the final two games of former coach Mik Aoki’s regime, in the 2019 ACC Tournament.
“National championship-caliber game. Point blank,” offered Notre Dame’s current coach, Link Jarrett, trying to coax the Irish into the CWS for only the third time in program history by subduing a team that’s been there 11 times.
“The atmosphere, personnel, strategy, talent — that is what it’s like at the highest amateur levels, and everybody saw it. Now we didn’t play the highest level of defense our team has played, and that was a turning point in the ball game.
“But make no mistake, it doesn’t get any more intense or exciting than that. It’s tough to be on the wrong side of it.”
A Super Regional record crowd of 14,385, that included former Notre Dame quarterback Joe Theismann, looked on as the Irish (33-12) took a 7-3 lead in the top of the fifth inning, then squandered it in part because of four errors that led to two unearned runs.
Notre Dame came into the Super Regional as the nation’s No. 1 fielding team.
“Those are going to hurt for a while, especially my two.” said Notre Dame shortstop Zack Prajzner, the Irish offensive star in the game with two doubles, a home run and a career-high four RBIs, while hitting in the 9 hole.
“(The errors) were in big spots. And that’s on me. I rushed those plays. I’m better than that. And I know that we’re going to come back much stronger tomorrow and play the type of defense and baseball we’ve played all year.”
Catcher Logan Tanner’s two-out solo homer in the bottom of the seventh broke an 8-8 tie for the Diamond Dawgs (44-15), and Sims executed a six-out save, mowing down all six hitters he faced.
His three strikeouts included a punchout of Irish slugger Niko Kavadas to end the eighth on a full count in a 10-pitch at-bat. Kavadas came into the Super Regional round leading the nation in home runs per game, No. 3 in RBIs per game and No. 4 in slugging,
He reached base three times in five plate appearances Saturday — walking twice and getting hit by a pitch. He also grounded out into a shift.
A strikeout of Ryan Cole and a groundout by Jared Miller preceded the Kavadas at-bat in the eighth.
“I knew I had to get those guys out,” Sims said. “Those were really, really big outs right there, to have the bases empty when Kavadas came up.
“We did plenty of scouting on him. We know how good of a player he is. And we don’t want to throw him any mistakes this weekend, because he will capitalize on them. And that battle right there, that's what it’s all about. That was really fun.”
Sims had more fun in the ninth, setting down Carter Putz, Jack Brannigan and Brooks Coetzee to give Mississippi State its ninth successive postseason victory, the longest such streak in school history.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound sophomore right-hander recorded his 10th save, bumped his strikeout total to 81 in 42⅓ innings and threw multiple innings for the 15th time in his 20 appearances this season. He has not allowed a home run this season.
“He's a tough kid out there and he makes critical pitches for his team,” Jarrett said. “Our guys do a great job of communicating about what this stuff looks like. Now you can communicate all you want. You can watch all the video you want.
“Until you’ve seen some pitches in that box live, it’s a little tough to simulate or prepare for that type of climbing fastball, that was 93 to 97 (mph) today. They’ll communicate, and we’ll just do our best to adapt a little bit.
“They have to learn from some of the things that happened in this game, in this atmosphere and apply it next time, because some of the things are very difficult to simulate in practice. We have to freelance a little better and adapt a little bit better.”
Early on the Irish quieted a crowd that had started building outside the stadium five hours before the first pitch. Notre Dame’s leadoff hitter reached base in each of the first five innings and scored in each of those frames.
That included a solo blast by Coetzee, his sixth homer of the season, that gave the Irish a 2-1 lead in the top of the second.
ND left two runners on in the first, the bases loaded in the third and two more in the fourth before Prajzner hit a three-run homer to give ND a 7-3 edge in the fifth. That was his sixth blast of the season.
Mississippi State chased Irish ace John Michael Bertrand in the bottom of the inning. Tanner Kohlhepp came on to relieve after a Prajzner error put runners on first and second with nobody out. The Diamond Dawgs would cut the lead to 7-6 heading to the sixth.
Rowdey Jordan’s two-out, two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth gave Mississippi State its first lead, 8-7.
“The mindset was, ‘Let’s put some runs on the board. Let’s keep fighting and have some good at-bats,” Jordan said. “And that’s what we did.”
The Irish kept fighting too, with Prajzner plating Brannigan with a game-tying double in the top of the seventh. After Kohlhepp struck out the first two Diamond Dawgs in the bottom of the eighth, both on 3-2 counts, Tanner connected for his team-leading 13th home run on a 3-2 count.
And the record crowd was at a frenzied pitch the rest of the way.
““I think it makes it tougher to pitch, tougher to make plays, tougher to sometimes swing or stay off pitches,” Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis said. “I just think at certain moments in the game, it’s hard to hear, hard to talk.
“I thought our crowd was huge and I thought it made a difference today. I’m glad they were on our side.”
The Irish are 15-5 on the road, with many of those games played in front of small crowds because COVID-19 protocols hadn’t eased until recently.
“These guys are resilient,” Jarrett said. “We've been through a lot of tough baseball with the number of games we played in the ACC. It is a grinder. The guys will respond. At the end of the day they just have to execute better.”
Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI