Baseball: Notre Dame can't repeat Friday's magical start, finish, Saturday vs. No. 1 Vols
History was there for the taking, just begging to be made by the Notre Dame baseball team.
It could do something that no one saw coming – no one thought possible – and Notre Dame would be headed back to the College World Series for the first time in 20 years, almost to the day. All it had to do Saturday was beat top-ranked Tennessee at Tennessee for a second consecutive game. Beat a team again that hadn’t lost consecutive games since mid-April.
Here are three thoughts about how and why Saturday’s game happened how it happened, and ended with a 12-4 Tennessee victory.
►That one big inning finally arrived
It was only a matter of time, wasn’t it? Tennessee’s offense is too potent, too relentless, too powerful, too good to be dormant for that long. The Volunteers scored six runs in Friday’s opening-game loss, but a lot of those were of the empty variety after Notre Dame jumped to an 8-1 lead. When the Vols needed a big hit in the opener, they usually didn't get it.
They got it Saturday. Especially in the top of the fifth.
Tennessee led early 1-0, but all the hitters and the bats got going in a big way in the visitor’s half of the fifth. Luc Lupcius kick-started it with a home run. Cortland Lawson followed with a double. Then, a bunt single before Jordan Beck stepped to the plate and sent a John Michael Betrand offering toward Chattanooga. Gone. Evan Russell followed with a home run and by that time, this one had spiraled out of control.
Lupcius hit twice in the inning, and capped the outburst with a three-run home run. It was Rocky Top and Rocky Top and Rocky Top and more Rocky Top in an inning that seemingly never would end.
By the time it didn’t, Tennessee sent 12 hitters to the plate, hit four home runs and scored eight runs against three Irish pitchers. This one was effectively over after this scary-efficient half inning.
Tennessee flexed its collective muscle, and all Notre Dame could do was sit there and watch. And listen to Rocky Top. Again. Heading into Saturday, Tennessee was 25-1 when hitting at least three home runs in a game.
Make that 26-1.
Knoxville, or like the locals like to say Knocksville, lived up to its name in this one.
►Notre Dame’s bats fell asleep
Concern about the Irish offense coming in was understandable. Notre Dame scored a total of 11 runs in three regional wins the previous weekend, and would need consistent/persistent production against the nation’s top pitching staff.
The Irish made it look easy Friday by scoring eight runs on four home runs over the first four innings. Notre Dame had everything going its way in bursting to an 8-1 lead.
Then it was as if someone unplugged the power cord in the Irish dugout. Notre Dame stopped hitting. It stopped scoring. After it led 8-1 in the top of the fourth on Friday, Notre Dame went scoreless over the next nine innings combined. Not until it trailed 9-0 on Saturday did it finally get on the board, scratching out a run on a Spencer Myers groundout.
Left fielder/designated hitter Jack Zyska had himself a day Saturday, going 4-for-4 with two singles, a double and a home run. The rest of the Irish combined to go 3-for-29.
The only way Notre Dame can turns the screws on Tennessee is to keep hitting. It couldn’t do it Saturday. It will have to do it Sunday to extend its season.
►There’s always Sunday
If there was a sliver of a silver lining for the Irish on Saturday it was that this one was over so early, so decisively, that head coach Link Jarrett and his staff didn’t have to put a lot of their players in stress-filled positions. Jarrett didn’t have to burn his bullpen in a close game. He also could rest a few key starters with the game so lopsided.
After that fireworks of a fifth, Notre Dame’s lineup looked more like a fall intrasquad game.
Notre Dame knew it wasn’t going to win, but at least it could even a little momentum toward Sunday’s winner-take-all game. Even if the Irish could get a few hits and score a few runs, which didn’t matter all that much Saturday, it might make a difference Sunday.
The series is tied at one. Somebody’s going to be packing for Omaha and the College World Series come Monday. All the pressure remains on Tennessee. The Volunteers are at home. They’re supposed to win. Nobody expected the Irish to be here.
Sunday could be the ultimate bounce-back game for Notre Dame. The Irish are too experienced, too driven, to go as quietly as they did Saturday.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.