Notre Dame 'can win when they get to Omaha.' Mainieri, pollsters think highly of Notre Dame

Greg McKenna
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — As Paul Mainieri’s storied 39-year collegiate baseball coaching career came to an end last June in Knoxville, Tenn., the now retired LSU skipper kept close tabs on what was happening in Starkville, Miss.

There, a Notre Dame team picked to finish last in the ACC’s Atlantic Division during the preseason battled eventual national champions Mississippi State in a three-game NCAA Super Regional. The Irish came four runs short of the College World Series at a raucous Dudy Noble Field. 

Mainieri won 533 games in 12 seasons as the Irish head coach before departing for Baton Rouge in 2006. 

“I was captivated by their team,” Mainieri said last week. “It reminded me so much of our team back in 2000, when we went to Starkville.”

That team lost to the Bulldogs in a Regional final that year before dropping another one in South Bend a year later. It was 2002, however, when Notre Dame broke through to reach the College World Series for just the second time in program history. 

LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri, who coached at Notre Dame from 1995-2006 poses for a photo during practice, Monday, May 9, 2016 in South Bend. Now retired, Mainieri believes the 2022 Notre Dame baseball team has what it takes to make a run at the College World Series. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)

The Irish haven’t been back to Omaha since, but for the first time since 2001, Notre Dame was ranked No. 1 in multiple major polls last week after a two-game sweep of then-No. 17 North Carolina State gave the Irish a 12-1 start to the season. 

Notre Dame assistant coach Rich Wallace said this veteran Irish squad is using last season's Super Regional heartbreak as fuel. 

“When you talk about it now, it makes my stomach hurt,” he said. “So I think they kind of took that in from the fall to the early part of the spring, and it’s showing out.” 

Mainieri lends insight to Link Jarrett

It’s what Mainieri, one of only five coaches in NCAA Division I history to win more than 1,500 games and a College World Series, told the Irish to do during a September practice after an invite from current Notre Dame head coach Link Jarrett, who had heard Mainieri was in town. 

It was not the first time Jarrett had reached out to Mainieri, who led the Irish to eight consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances from 1999-2006. 

Notre Dame head coach Link Jarrett during the Notre Dame vs. Valparaiso vs. baseball game Tuesday, March 15, 2022 at Frank Eck Stadium in South Bend.

When Mainieri congratulated Jarrett on getting the Notre Dame job in 2019, the incoming Irish coach immediately called back and talked with Mainieri for “at least an hour.”

“You can’t make excuses,” Mainieri said of his advice to compete on a national level. “There’s plenty of excuses for why Notre Dame can’t win and the sport is dominated by warm-weather schools — the weather, the academic rigor, the cost — but I would not allow excuses to creep into our program.” 

► 2022 Notre Dame baseball preview:After breakout season, Irish have lofty expectations heading into 2022

This past weekend the Irish suffered their first significant setback of the season after being swept in three games. It was the first time Notre Dame (12-4, 2-3 ACC), which never lost back-to-back games last season, has been swept under Jarrett. 

Joe Healy is one of two staff writers in charge of Baseball America’s weekly Top 25, one of the two major polls that had the Irish at No. 1 before the sweep. He said it doesn’t look like Notre Dame will let last year’s success be a “lightning-in-a-bottle situation.”

Notre Dame fell to No. 11 in Baseball America but is still in the top 20 of every major poll, including a No. 9 ranking by Perfect Game. 

The Irish entered last weekend leading the nation in fielding percentage after committing just four errors in 13 games. While Healy said those numbers are unsustainable, he did make a comparison to last year’s N.C. State team that came within a game of the College World Series finals and finished tied with Notre Dame atop the ACC with a .982 fielding percentage. 

Notre Dame's Brooks Coetzee III (42) celebrates a home run during the Notre Dame vs. Valparaiso vs. baseball game Tuesday, March 15, 2022 at Frank Eck Stadium in South Bend.

“This team I think could be that because they are athletic,” he said. “And they are veteran like we’ve talked about, so that can be a little bit of a secret sauce.” 

The Irish committed two errors over the weekend and are now fielding .990, still tied with Oregon State and Virginia Tech for best in the NCAA. 

Pitchers getting it done for Notre Dame

Irish assistant coach Chuck Ristano said Notre Dame’s experience and athleticism in the field was “liberating” for his pitching staff. 

“And that allows us to, I hope, throw a suffocating amount of quality pitches,” he said. “You feel like you try and strangle the opposition.” 

Notre Dame entered Friday tied with North Carolina with an NCAA-best 1.66 team ERA but gave up 31 runs during the series to the Cardinals (16-4, 3-0 ACC), who rank sixth in the country in both batting average and runs scored. The Irish now sit 25th in the nation with a 3.27 ERA. 

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Returners John Michael Bertrand — a 2021 First Team All-ACC selection who led the league in complete games — and Aidan Tyrell, who led the conference in ERA, have largely picked up where they left off. Last year’s staff relied on pitching to contact, but Jarrett and Ristano have been adamant about needing to record more strikeouts against elite competition. 

The Irish added another starter in grad transfer Austin Temple from Jacksonville, who has held opponents to a .157 batting average this season. Healy also noted another grad transfer in Ryan McLinskey, who’s settled into a bullpen role after serving as Seton Hall’s Friday starter last season.

McLinskey did not allow an earned run, striking out 20 batters in 10 innings of work, before giving up two in 2/3 and taking the loss in Louisville’s 8-1 victory on Saturday. 

“So you’ve got a different dimension to the pitching staff now where there’s a little less pressure on a John Michael Bertrand to be quite so perfect, Healy said. “Because there are some guys around him to give a more dynamic element to the pitching staff that they frankly just didn’t have last year.” 

After losing slugger Niko Kavadas to the MLB Draft, the Irish bats rank outside the top 100 in home runs nationally, but are hitting .299 this season.

Notre Dame's Danny Neri (8) during the Notre Dame vs. Valparaiso vs. baseball game Tuesday, March 15, 2022 at Frank Eck Stadium in South Bend.

“I like the way that the order is kind of split up right now," Wallace said. "There’s really no breaks and you’re putting runners with runners kind of bunched together and who can do some different things offensively.” 

Mainieri said he plans on traveling back to Notre Dame next month for the 20-year reunion of the 2002 College World Series team. He hopes the event, which coincides with a series against Boston College, will inspire the current team that has made Notre Dame baseball nationally relevant again. 

“I personally think they have one of the best teams in the country,” Mainieri said. “I think they are the team that can get to Omaha. And I think they're the team that can win when they get to Omaha.”