Baseball: Notre Dame takes big first step with Game 1 Super Regional win over Tennessee
Oversized brown bags of assorted food — maybe some sandwiches, chips, a little fruit — sat side by side in the Notre Dame dugout throughout Friday’s super-regional opener against top-ranked Tennessee at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
The Irish may have nibbled at the grub between innings or at-bats, but they ate where it mattered most.
At the plate. On the bases. In a game that few expected the visitors from up north to be in, much less win.
► More:Tennessee baseball in win-or-go-home mode after drama-filled loss to Notre Dame
► More:Will Drew Gilbert be available for Tennessee baseball game on Saturday after ejection?
Three-plus hours and nine innings after this one started, Notre Dame (39-14) finds itself one win away from a super-regional win and its first trip to the College World Series since 2002 following an 8-6 win. How did the Irish do it in a place where the Volunteers (56-8) had gone 37-3 this season?
Here are three ways.
They didn’t wait to throw the first punch
Notre Dame jumped all over this one from the jump. Like, from the first pitch, from the one guy that was supposed to be Public Enemy No. 1 around Knoxville and greater Tennessee.
Left fielder/leadoff hitter Ryan Cole said earlier in the week that the Volunteers should be “scared” of a “dangerous” Irish team. It’s not boasting if you can back it up, and Cole backed it up.
Cole lined the first pitch offered by Volunteer starter Blade Tidwell for a single and the Irish were off and running. Two hitters later, first baseman Carter Putz, who went 0-pfor-12 the previous weekend in the Statesboro, Georgia regional, delivered an opposite-field home run to make it 2-0 early.
The Irish just kept hitting. And scoring. After tallying only 11 total runs in 27 innings last weekend, Notre Dame went for eight in the first four in Knoxville. Tennessee seemed stunned, the home fans bewildered. Nobody goes into Lindsey Nelson Stadium and does that.
The Irish offense went quiet over the final five innings, but they did enough early to weather anything that happened – and a lot did – the rest of the way.
Notre Dame moved to 33-4 when scoring first this season.
It was Miller time early, often
If Notre Dame head coach Link Jarrett had one wish this weekend — other than winning the program’s second-ever super-regional championship — it would be to get second baseman/team captain Jared Miller back in the everyday lineup.
Jarrett wanted to do it last weekend, but could only use Miller as a pinch-runner. On Friday, Miller was back in the lineup and back at second baseman and you could almost sense the juice he offered the Irish.
Miller homered with one out in the second to give the Irish a 3-0 lead. He singled in his third at-bat. He also walked. He also stole a base. It was almost like the Irish exhaled, their captain was back and he was playing and playing well.
Miller added a hit in the ninth. He was back in the lineup and back playing winning baseball.
Everything else kind of fell into place. Notre Dame was good without Miller, who’d been out since May 14 with a separated shoulder. With Miller, the Irish are better. Special. Maybe College World Series special.
The guys who were supposed to get rattled stayed poised
Wait until Notre Dame got its first glimpse of Lindsey Nelson Stadium, we were counseled all week. It's like nothing those seemingly newbies from up north had ever seen. The fans. The energy. The intensity.
Notre Dame’s guys would be lucky to chew gum and swing bats at the same time with everything going on. Heck, the Tennessee fans even made their own T-shirts, stealing a page from Notre Dame and its “Game of the Century” college football showdown with Miami in 1988.
Those shirts read “Catholics vs. Convicts.”
You can guess what Notre Dame was considered in that one.
Friday’s shirts read “Classless vs. Catholics.”
The Irish stared down all that the supposed “hostile” crowd might offer, and did what they do. Just go play their brand of baseball.
Meanwhile, it was the other guys — the home team — that lost its cool. As the deficit grew from three runs to five to eight, there seemed a certain panic throughout the crowd. Every call, or non-call, was met with incredulity. Like, how could the umpires make THAT kind of call against OUR team?
The frustration reached its zenith in the bottom of the fifth when Volunteer center fielder Drew Gilbert was ejected for voicing his displeasure — with a few choice words — on a strike call by home plate umpire Kellen Levy. Gilbert, the team’s No. 4 hitter, was ejected. So too was pitching coach Frank Anderson.
Both will be unavailable for Saturday’s second game.
Tennessee fans reacted to the situation by throwing beer cans and other garbage on the field. That certainly would show them.
Notre Dame? It just kept playing. It got stressful late for those watching, but the guys in blue, yeah, they had this one. Played like it.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.