One day with no game may have helped Notre Dame swing its baseball season
SOUTH BEND — Nobody wanted to be there.
Not at that time of the day, not at the time of the week, not at that time of the year, because to be where the Notre Dame baseball team was that Sunday morning late last month was an indication that not everything was going according to plan, and something had to be done about it.
That day was that something.
To walk from Eck Stadium over to Loftus Center, the team’s indoor winter home, takes fewer than 10 minutes. Maybe five if you walk quickly. Go north along the sidewalk that runs parallel to Leahy Drive, then across Courtney Lane, and in through a side door to the facility. It’s an easy trip, but sometimes one not altogether pleasant. It might be the first couple times the Irish are required to gather for offseason workouts, but this being South Bend, every step also can be cold and blustery and miserable.
Even in spring.
It was all of that that morning in late March, after the second straight game postponement in the series against Virginia Tech. Notre Dame, then ranked ninth, was required to meet at Loftus for a 10 a.m. practice, one that was going to be hard for all involved.
It just was.
There was no other choice. Had this not been another miserable spring Sunday in South Bend, Notre Dame would’ve been back over at Eck finishing a three-game Atlantic Coast Conference series. Cold and snow had postponed the previous day’s game. Cold and wind conspired to scratch Sunday.
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Instead of playing, the practice and a chance for the Irish to cleanse the collective tastes in their mouths. It was an opportunity to press the reset button, even after a solid start to the season, and take everything in a new direction.
It was that important.
Did the day help save this season? That remains to be seen in the coming weeks and months as the now No. 4 Irish (21-6 overall; 8-5 ACC) charge toward the end of the regular season, the conference tournament and what many believe can be their first trip to Omaha since 2002.
If all that unfolds the way many expect, you can point back to that practice at Loftus — on March 27 — as the flashpoint.
Heading into a three-game series at Duke, which because of Easter started Thursday, Notre Dame had won nine straight dating back to the Virginia Tech series. That Friday game — the only one actually played — saw Notre Dame take a seemingly comfortable and commanding 5-3 lead into the top of the eighth. Six more outs and it would’ve been win No. 13. Instead, the Irish rolled off the rails, allowing what was a 5-4 lead in the top of the ninth to disintegrate into a 10-5 loss.
Postponements the next day and the next led the Irish to Loftus. It was a day of some serious soul searching.
“We realized we’ve got to continue to get better each and every day, put the (the loss) behind us and realize there’s a lot of opportunities to win games and still have a really successful season,” said senior infielder Carter Putz. “That practice was kind of the turning point.”
Make that a reboot point. Since that practice, the Irish won at least eight straight for a second time this season, the first time since 2004 that they’ve won that many in a row twice in one year before Thursday’s 15-5 loss at Duke.
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That morning inside Loftus, third-year head coach Link Jarrett looked around and was struck by the sound of the place. Rather, the lack of it.
“Everybody was just silent,” Jarrett said. “Just because you knew how well we were executing and how well we were doing to give a game away.”
Give it away the Irish did, but they also realized in that workout that they couldn’t get it back. It was gone for good. It was an “L.” Own it and move forward. At the time, it was the fourth loss in a row for the Irish, who also staggered through that stretch with four other games canceled or postponed because of weather.
Getting a win to gain some momentum was hard. Getting on the field on a day the Irish actually could play was harder.
“It helps when you have older guys,” Putz said. “We’ve kind of been here before.”
They knew they didn’t want to go there again. The Irish couldn’t dwell on that disappointment. They had to find determination. To get back on the field and continue to work. Continue to win games. Continue to grind out at-bats and in the field behind whoever might be on the mound. To some extent, find themselves, but realize that they’re pretty good.
They are. They hit. The field. They throw. They play.
The Irish have been better because of that day. They’re off to their best start since opening 23-3 in 2004.
“It fueled them a little bit,” Jarrett said, “to not want to feel that ever again.”
A non-conference home victory over Northern Illinois immediately followed before an attention-getting series sweep at then-No. 5 Florida State. Another non-con home win — over Butler — then three wins over Clemson leading into Tuesday’s non-league game against Michigan.
Michigan loaded the bases in each of the first two innings. It left them loaded in each instance. Bottom of the second, Notre Dame also loaded the bases. It didn’t leave them loaded thanks to a Spencer Myers opposite-field grand slam, catalyst for a five-run second that eventually ended three-plus hours later in a 14-5 victory.
Michigan had no chance after the pitch that Myers hit landed in the bushes beyond the left-field wall.
“It,” Jarrett said, “may have decided the game.”
It did. A lot of what Jarrett saw from the Irish on that Sunday last month in Loftus he saw against Michigan. A lock in. A mentality. A focus that says throw everything you want at us; we’ll find a work-around.
Maybe that comes from all the success Notre Dame experienced last season before the super regionals miss in Mississippi. Maybe that comes from starting seniors at seven of the eight positions against Michigan. Maybe that comes from the Loftus practice.
Maybe Notre Dame is just that good, something it will continue to prove from now until maybe late June. There’s a feeling and a focus around this group that’s different. That makes them different. Watch them play and you can sense it. You can see it.
“That’s what makes those guys special,” he said. “That’s why I enjoy coaching them. You don’t worry about that competitive nature, even in a practice situation.
“They’re just unique, special guys.”
Driven to have a unique, special season.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI