Mississippi State baseball ends Notre Dame's season but doesn't dent its dream
In the moment, Notre Dame’s second-inning meltdown Monday night at raucous Dudy Noble Field felt like a reality check of what Mississippi State baseball is … and what Irish baseball isn’t and never can be.
But gradually over the next seven innings and into Irish coach Link Jarrett’s postgame postmortem, it started to feel every bit that much out of context.
The roll in which the seventh-seeded Bulldogs sent 12 batters to the plate, scored six times and chased Irish lefty starter Will Mercer and two relievers was certainly enough to propel Mississippi State (45-16) to its 12th College World Series appearance and deny the Irish (34-13) their third.
The 7-1 lead held up in a 11-7, winner-take-all game 3 of the Starkville Super Regional before 11,784 chanting, barbecuing, cowbell-rattling fans whose passion for college baseball may only be matched by their knowledge of it.
The three-day attendance total of 40,140 set an NCAA record for a three-game series.
“It's tricky to win one of these on the road,” Jarrett said of ND’s first Super Regional appearance in 19 years. “It’s designed for you to have an easier path when you’re at home.
“The field, the fans, just the dimensions you’re accustomed to — that’s the advantage. When you have the largest crowd in the history of a college series here, you know that factors in.
“I don’t think it overwhelmed our team by any stretch, but it does give the home team that little bit of an edge in energy. And that timing of the energy helps.”
Next up for third-year coach Chris Lemonis’ Bulldogs is a date Sunday in Omaha, Neb., with the highest-remaining seed in the tourney, No. 2 Texas (47-15) — the team Mississippi State opened its season against on Feb. 20 and defeated, 8-3.
Blueblood vs. Blueblood.
Notre Dame isn’t in that club. But that doesn’t mean the road to Omaha is perpetually blocked.
Two reasons to buy in?
• Jarrett’s vision when coming from North Carolina-Greensboro before the 2020 season was that the Notre Dame job was less of a rebuild and more of an awakening waiting to happen. His 45-15 combined record in a truncated 2020 season and this year backs that up.
• The other: Instead of Jarrett justifiably waxing Monday night in the postgame about how the Irish crushed the outside world’s expectations for them this season, he raised the expectations, both for those outside the program and within it, for 2022 and beyond.
On a 2021 roster loaded with players seemingly out of college eligibility, there’s a mass movement to seek out an extra year through a fifth-year option or NCAA COVID exemption. Jarrett confirmed, for instance, ace pitcher and former Furman transfer John Michael Bertrand will return for a sixth year of college ball.
“We'll probably lose (pitcher Tanner) Kohlhepp in the draft and we’ll lose (first baseman Niko) Kavadas,” Jarrett said. “Some of the seniors, they have to, No. 1, get into grad school to have a chance, but we don’t lose much.
“Kavadas is a huge part of your team. Kohlhepp was very, very effective. You would hope some of the recruiting that we’ve been able to do (will help). We picked up a transfer last week on the mound — that will help us.
“We have to get better on the mound. In this setting, the stuff and the ability to strike people out — we went 22 batters before we struck one out tonight. And that’s very difficult. So we have to learn and get a little bit better in some of those facets on the mound and, hopefully, we just continue to mature offensively and learn our positions defensively.
“It obviously looks very bright if you want to look at next year right now.”
By the top of the ninth, it almost looked bright this year.
Down four runs, Notre Dame put its first two batters on base, with Jared Miller and Kavadas coming up. Kavadas came into the Super Regional round as the nation’s leader in home runs per game, but was quiet in Starkville (2-of-10 with five strikeouts) with one notable exception.
Lemonis elected to bring in closer Landon Sims in to start the sixth inning and try to get the final 12 outs. With one out in the top of the seventh, Kavadas came up with one out and one on and the Irish trailing by six.
He took a Sims fastball on a 3-1 count to right field and completely out of the stadium. It may still be rolling toward Chadwick Lake … or Tuscaloosa.
It was the first home run surrendered this season by Sims, who vowed he wasn’t going to throw Kavadas a fastball when he faced him in the ninth.
After fanning Miller, he got Kavadas to ground into a double play — with a slider — to end the game and the season.
But not the dream.
“Niko Kavadas is an intense, very productive, first-class player, first-class person, team captain, who delivered for us,” Jarrett said, “helped our team evolve into a championship team.
“I can’t say enough about him and him helping guide us through our transition. The guys bought in, and he was a big part of that.”
Jarrett will chase the what-ifs this offseason, including his decision not to bring game 1 starter Bertrand in earlier, specifically during the second inning.
Bertrand was the most effective pitcher for either team Monday night, covering innings five through eight and allowing two hits, a run and a walk while striking out three.
“I don’t ever want to put anyone in the position of not feeling comfortable with that type of assignment or even request to see if you were available,” Jarrett said. “I thought he could give us an inning, maybe two. And once he got into it, he felt really good.”
Notre Dame’s 74 runs and 21 homers in six postseason games provided a feel-good vibe for all the Irish amid the temporary heartbreak. But more than that, it was the feeling that Notre Dame has found a leader and a vision for a longer postseason run, sooner than later.
“I think the biggest thing was he brought in a big-time culture that everyone bought into,” junior DH Carter Putz said of Jarrett. “We believe that we can be in Omaha every single year. It's a culture where we trust each other and believe in one another.
“When you have a group of guys who believe in the culture and believe in each other, you can go really far. That's the biggest thing.
“Obviously, this is a tough one to swallow, but we’re going to use it as motivation and continue to work and, hopefully, get back to Omaha next year.”
Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI