Baseball: Jarrett, returning players eager to open Notre Dame season this weekend

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent
Notre Dame infielder Jack Brannigan (9) makes contact against Florida State May 07, 2021 at Frank Eck Stadium in South Bend. The Irish will host Central Michigan Friday, June 4 in the NCAA baseball regional.

SOUTH BEND — The Cinderella shoe fit Notre Dame’s baseball team so well last season that coach Link Jarrett’s Fighting Irish don’t intend to give it back when the 2022 season begins this weekend in DeLand, Florida.

Led by graduated slugger Niko Kavadas, grad-transfer lefthander John Michael Bertrand and sophomore third baseman Jack Brannigan, Notre Dame stunned their Atlantic Coast Conference brethren by winning the regular-season championship by four games after being picked to finish a preseason seventh in the Atlantic Division.

Notre Dame then parlayed that into a postseason NCAA run to the Super Regional in Starkville, Mississippi, where they lost a close best-of-three series to Mississippi State, which won the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, at the end of June.

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Their eventual 34-13 finish left the Irish with a bitter taste in their mouths over the summer and autumn, and they hope to use it for motivation when they open the 2022 season Friday night at 7 against Manhattan College in a four-team tournament at Stetson University. The host Hatters (Saturday) and Delaware (Sunday) also are on the Irish schedule in DeLand.

“It’s just (about) staying hungry,” said Brannigan, one of eight returning regulars from last season’s starting lineup that Jarrett posted at Starkville. Brannigan batted .295 with six home runs and 29 runs batted in with .385 on-base and .491 slugging percentages. “Everyone was happy how last season went, but we know we were one win short.”

The Irish lost the opener 9-8 June 12 at electric Dudy Noble Field before 14,385. They then battled back to dominate the Bulldogs 9-1 before 13,971 but falling 11-7 in game three with 11,754 in attendance. Mississippi State went to Omaha and won its first national championship, blanking Vanderbilt 9-0 at TD Ameritrade Park June 30. 

“At the end of the day, losing that game three was tough, and I think that left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth,” Brannigan said. “I think about that game almost every day.”

Bertrand, a Perfect Game preseason third-team All-American who went 8-2 with three complete games, a 3.21 earned-run average and 68 strikeouts in 92.2 innings, returns for a second grad season. Bertrand, who pitched three seasons at Furman, is working on a one-year MBA degree when he isn’t working out with younger brother JD Bertrand, the leading tackler for Notre Dame’s football team last fall.

Notre Dame pitcher John Michael Bertrand (28) throws against Mississippi State during the first inning of an NCAA college baseball super regional game, Saturday, June 12, 2021, in Starkville, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

“When you come to your dream school, it’s hard to turn down an extra year,” the elder Bertrand said. “We have a lot of guys coming back, and I want to win a national championship and I think we can do it here.”

Notre Dame baseball in NCAA rankings

The Irish opened a lot of eyes last season, and it has showed in preseason rankings. They are predicted to finish third in the ACC Atlantic Division behind Florida State (the predicted ACC overall champion) and N.C. State. Baseball America’s preseason rankings has the Irish fourth nationally behind Texas, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. In the Perfect Game preseason rankings, Notre Dame is fifth behind Vanderbilt, Texas, Stanford and Louisiana State.

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“A lot of people get caught up in production and rankings,” Bertrand said. “One of the great things about this team is that we’re focused on one game at a time. Yeah, we lost to the national champs, but we want to be the national champs. Yeah, it’s a sour taste, but I think everyone can use it as motivation.”

Also returning on the mound are senior lefthander Aidan Tyrell (5-1, 2.70 ERA), senior lefthander Will Mercer (4-3, 4.92 ERA), junior righthander Liam Simon (5-1, 3.20 ERA) and senior righthander Alex Rao (2-1, 3.16 ERA). The Irish also have some talented arms in transfers Austin Temple (Jacksonville), Ryan McLinskey (Seton Hall) and Matt Lazzaro (Houston) and youngsters like sophomore lefthander Ryan Lynch, the former Penn High standout, and freshmen righthanders Roman Kimball and Radek Birkholz. 

Steady David LaManna (5 homers, 29 RBI, .234) returns for his graduate season behind the plate to handle the pitching staff.

Jarrett, of course, must find a replacement for the left-handed Kavadas, who bombed a school-record 22 homers, drove in 64 runs, batted .302 and slugged .767 during an All-America season before being drafted by the Boston Red Sox. 

‘I think we’ll have to be more balanced top to bottom,” said Jarrett, whose team has been working to get better bunting and moving baserunners. He’s not concerned about his team’s mindset. “The execution and the consistency – that’s the challenge in this. It doesn’t matter how good you were last year and what you have back. You have to go out and execute, perform and play.” 

Last year’s designated hitter, senior Carter Putz (.305, 6 homers, 45 RBI), is Kavadas’ likely replacement at first base while the middle of the infield returns grad second baseman Jared Miller (.257, 4 homers) and senior shortstop Zach Prajzner (.280, 6 homers).

Though the Irish belted 44 other round-trippers, they likely will play more small ball to pressure opposing pitching staffs. Left to right, the outfield returns grad Ryan Cole (.336, 9 homers, 34 RBI), grad Spencer Myers (.295, 11 doubles, 15 stolen bases) and senior Brooks Coetzee (.274, 6 homers, 11 stolen bases). 

Freshman DM Jefferson has flashed his power and speed in fall and winter workouts. “He’s been an explosive player for us since day one in the fall,” Jarrett said. “He could play any outfield position and he’s a candidate for DH.”

Jarrett can’t wait to get started. "I feel like these guys play with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder,” he said. "I think they feel they're going to pick up where they left off. That's easier said than done, but that's their mindset and that chip on the shoulder is a good thing for an athlete."