Three reasons why Notre Dame baseball pulled off stunning comeback for CWS trip
Notre Dame baseball coach Link Jarrett wasn’t going there. Not then.
Asked earlier in the week where a victory over top-ranked Tennessee in the super regionals would rank in terms of greatest victories in program history, Jarrett declined to make any definitive statement. Declined to rank anything. Just let his guys go play. Then, we'll see.
Jarrett didn’t want to go there, but at 3:51 on Sunday afternoon, after a 5-4-3 double play ended everything, Jarrett and a veteran group of Irish got there.
Notre Dame (40-15) is bound for Omaha, headed to the College World Series for the first time since 2002 after beating Tennessee 7-3 in a decisive third super-regional game from Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
"The poise, the toughness of this group, I've never seen anything like it," Jarrett told ESPN moments after the magical moment of the final out.
How did that happen? Here are three thoughts:
►A veteran Irish team knew it would get its chance
Notre Dame and starter Liam Simon looked on the ropes in the bottom of the first inning when Tennessee tallied its first run. The Irish bullpen already was busy. The Tennessee fans were already in full lather. They sensed a big inning was coming. It never came.
Tennessee grabbed the lead, but it was minimal. It never could throw that one knockout punch that it needed. It stayed 3-1 heading into the top of seventh when everything shifted Notre Dame’s way.
After that one inning, after a David LaManna two-run home run to the opposite field, after a Jack Brannigan solo blast, a 3-1 Irish deficit flipped to a 4-3 Irish advantage.
"Brannigan stepped on that thing," Jarrett said of his third baseman's blast.
Everything about the game also flipped the visitor’s way. Confidence has been something that this team has carried throughout postseason, and confidence was soaring. And not yet done. With a stunned/silent crowd looking on, the Irish added three more runs in the eighth to take total control.
When this one was there for the taking, Notre Dame took it. All of it.
►The bullpen did its job
When Simon was pulled after 1.2 innings, it looked like it might be a long day for the Irish and their bullpen. Jarrett and pitching coach Chuck Ristano would have to do their best juggling act. Who was going to follow Simon? Who would be the next guy? It all seemed a mystery.
Alex Rao and Jack Lindsay had all the answers.
Rao spelled Simon and went 2.1 innings. He threw 30 pitches, 20 for strikes. He allowed only one run. Lindsay, a freshman who’s worked like a fifth-year senior in postseason, came on in the fourth. Would Notre Dame get an inning out of him? Two? Three? Anything more might be a stretch.
Findlay took the ball from Jarrett in the fifth inning and never gave it up. He went the rest of the way, shutting down the high-powered Tennessee lineup and making it look easy. Again.
Findlay's line was ridiculous. He pitched five innings. He allowed one hit. To that lineup. He gave up zero runs. He struck out four. He walked two. He pitched like the Tennessee staff. But better. Clutch.
►What homefield advantage?
Tennessee (57-9) entered super-regional play having gone 37-3 at Lindsay Nelson Stadium this season. It then lost two games in three days. It had gone 31-2 against non-league opponents, then never could figure out a way to put Notre Dame away, and finished its season losing two of three.
Meanwhile, a stadium that was supposed to be so intimidating never really was. Just as it was the previous weekend in Statesboro, Notre Dame felt right at home.
When it needed the big hit, it got the big hit. When it needed a pitcher to deliver, a pitcher delivered. When it needed to stay confident and stay true to who they were, the Irish were all that and more.
You could almost sense it, even through the television, that once Notre Dame got the lead on Sunday, it wasn’t giving it back. The swagger in the stadium seemed to disappear. A home-field crowd of front-runners never really knew how to deal with deficits.
Notre Dame baseball:Irish OK with playing role of NCAA tournament road warriors
Tennessee and its fans talked the talk all season. Tennessee and its fans walked the walk all season. When it really needed to do it this weekend, it didn’t. It’s going home.
And Notre Dame is going to Nebraska.
Two weeks to the day, Notre Dame was steamed when it learned that it wouldn’t host a regional. The Irish still had a chance to a great story. Notre Dame is one of the final eight teams still playing.
Afterward, Jarrett called Sunday the "most critical game in the history of our program." Was it? Maybe. But this is a story that's still being written.
The next chapter unfolds in Omaha.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.