Baseball: After breakout season, Irish have lofty expectations heading into 2022
SOUTH BEND — In July of 2019, the Notre Dame baseball program had recently slumped to a third consecutive losing season.
It had managed just one winning campaign in the previous six with a lone NCAA Tournament appearance in 2015.
Then Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick hired Link Jarrett as head coach and the Irish fortunes changed.
The 2020 season got off to a promising start, but was cut short by the pandemic. But in 2021, Jarrett led the Irish on a magical campaign that nearly earned them a trip to Omaha for the first time since 2002.
Picked to finish last in the ACC’s Atlantic Division by a large margin in the preseason poll, Notre Dame won the division by five games, clinching the program’s first ever ACC regular-season title.
“We got rolling last year, and the guys were playing with confidence and swagger,” Jarrett said last week. “And it’s hard to do that every year.”
The Irish barely fell short of the College World Series after losing a hard-fought Super Regional to eventual national champion Mississippi State in three games.
Named 2021 ACC Coach of the Year and D1 Baseball Coach of the Year, Jarrett has gone 45-15 in his two seasons with the Irish. He also signed a contract extension through 2026.
Now in this third year, Jarrett has Notre Dame considered a legitimate national championship contender entering the season.
The Irish return most of their lineup and pitching staff from 2021 and are ranked as high as No. 4 in the major preseason polls.
Fast turnaround under Jarrett
Before COVID-19 derailed Jarrett’s first season in South Bend, Notre Dame raced to an 11-2 start, which included a three-game sweep at North Carolina and a .302 team batting average.
In 2021 the Irish picked up where they left off, tying a program record of 25 conference wins dating back to 1990 when they were members of the Horizon League.
Notre Dame won an ACC-leading 10 conference series last season, including sweeps of North Carolina, Virginia Tech and eventual CWS participant Virginia. The Irish never lost back-to-back games.
Notre Dame did not let off the gas in the postseason, hosting a Regional for the first time since 2004. The Irish sandwiched a 26-3 victory over Connecticut with two double-digit wins over Central Michigan, outscoring their opponents 50-5 en route to a Super Regional date with Mississippi State in Starkville.
A controversially low 10th seed, the Irish traveled to one of college baseball’s most raucous environments to take on the Bulldogs, where the three-day attendance total of 40,140 set an NCAA record.
After splitting games 1 and 2 at Dudy Noble Field, the Irish fell behind in the rubber match after a six-run second inning and could not climb all the way back in a season-ending 11-7 loss, finishing the year 34-13.
“We lost to the national championship team on their field,” Jarrett said. “It’s in the cards for our program to compete on a national level.”
Led by senior slugger Niko Kavadas, a Penn High School graduate, Notre Dame hit 21 home runs and scored 74 runs during its postseason run.
Replacing key performers
The Irish suffer a few significant departures in workhorse relief pitcher Joe Sheridan, Kavadas at first base and right-handed pitcher Tanner Kohlhepp.
Kavadas, who belted 22 home runs as a senior (third most in the nation), was drafted in the 11th round by the Boston Red Sox while Kohlhepp was picked up in the fifth round by the Detroit Tigers.
Still, eight of last year’s typical starters in the field return from a lineup that hit .281 and led the ACC with a .377 on-base percentage.
Because of Kavadas' offensive prowess in 2021, Jarrett said the Irish often deferred from stealing or using other “small ball” tactics.
“You wanted him to have chances to bat with runners on base,” Jarrett said. “And if there was an open base, they weren’t going to pitch to him.”
Jarrett admitted that even with a more balanced and creative lineup, replacing Kavadas’ run production will be a challenge.
“But I think because we’re a little more experienced with the playbook," he said, "the guys are probably more apt to handle it this year than if we had to do it maybe last year."
Who will step up?
Jarrett said Carter Putz, a second team All-ACC selection at designated hitter last season, will take over at first base.
The rest of the infield will look familiar.
Senior second baseman Jared Miller, senior shortstop Zack Prajzner and junior third baseman Jack Brannigan, all return. Prajzner and Brannigan both batted .280 or over and posted OBPs of .380 or over last season.
However, Jarrett said he plans to mix Brannigan into the pitching game and that he will likely play some first base to keep his bat in games after he comes off the mound. That leaves the door open for freshman Jack Penney at third, who Jarrett said has been “phenomenal defensively” since coming to campus.
Another candidate for time at first base, Jarrett said, is sophomore outfielder Brady Gumpf, a South Bend Saint Joseph graduate who did not play as a freshman.
The biggest question mark for the Irish will be if the pitching staff can continue to improve. The Irish were third-best in the ACC last year with a team ERA of 3.92. They also gave up the fewest runs in the conference and led the ACC in shutouts.
Notre Dame returns the three left-handers who joined Kohlhepp as Notre Dame’s four biggest workhorses last season. They include seniors John Michael Bertrand, who led the Irish with 92.2 innings pitched, Aidan Tyrell and Will Mercer.
Senior Alex Rao and junior Liam Simon are expected to be strong out of the bullpen.
Last year’s pitching staff preferred to pitch to contact, recording the fewest strikeouts in the ACC. That largely worked, especially with a defense behind them that was tied for first in the ACC in fielding percentage.
However, Jarrett said the ability of a team to accumulate strikeouts is a “critical measure” of its capacity to play at an elite level and thinks some young freshman right-handers will give the Irish an “added punch.”
“I like the makeup of the staff,” he said. “It might be deeper and maybe a little more dynamic than we had last year, so that’s very exciting.”
Those freshman included 2021 Perfect Game Preseason All-Americans Roman Kimball, Caden Aoki and Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year Radek Birkholz.
“Our freshmen cannot be freshmen anymore,” Jarrett said. “We gave them the fall and put them through the grinder to get the ‘freshmen feel’ away from them.”
A look at the schedule
Notre Dame will begin the 2022 season with a trip to Deland, Fla. Feb. 18-20, to take on Manhattan, Stetson and Delaware.
In the ACC, the Irish avoid one 2021 College World Series participant in No. 5 Virginia (Baseball America), but not No. 16 N.C. State. One win away from the CWS finals, the Wolfpack were controversially forced to forfeit due to positive COVID-tests.
When the Irish travel to Raleigh to face N.C. State starting March 13, Jarrett will be in the dugout opposite his son. A senior infielder, J.T. Jarrett started 55 games for the Wolfpack last season at second base.
Notre Dame’s first home game is a midweek matchup vs. Valparaiso on March 15. The first home series will be against ACC foe Virginia Tech March 25-27.
Key Notre Dame players
► John Michael Bertrand
2021: 92.2 IP, 8-2 W-L, 3.21 ERA, 65-22 K-BB
Named 2021 First-Team All-ACC. Was first in the ACC in complete games, as well as tied for second in wins and third in innings pitched.
“Betrand is the best worker you’ve ever seen in every phase of pitching and everything he does in his life.” — Link Jarrett
► Aidan Tyrell
2021: 60.0 IP, 5-1 W-L, 2.70 ERA, 43-19 K-BB
Led the ACC in ERA among qualified pitchers. Allowed just one run in 7.1 innings of work in Game 2 of the Super Regional to allow the Irish to cruise to a 9-1 victory
► Carter Putz
2021: .305 BA, .369 OBP, .492 SLG
Named 2021 Second Team All-ACC. Was tied for the team lead with 57 hits, second on the squad with 45 RBI and tied for third on the team with six home runs. One of six Irish named to the South Bend Regional All-Tournament Team.
► Ryan Cole
2021: .336 BA, .455 OBP, .586 SLG
Led Irish in BA (10th in the ACC). Also led the team with 44 runs, ranked second with nine home runs and was third in RBI (34) and hits (51). Named to South Bend Regional All-Tournament Team