Baseball: It took a really long time, but Irish advance to regional winner's bracket
It didn't matter that the Notre Dame baseball traveling party finally returned to its hotel early Saturday morning after originally departing late Friday morning.
It didn't matter that its ace pitcher lasted only one inning before Mother Nature had her say.
It didn't matter that six different Irish relievers, some facing only one batter, were required to pull everything along and get to the end of an NCAA tournament opening game regional.
All that mattered was that Notre Dame found its way into the winner's bracket of the weather-delayed Statesboro (Georgia) Regional, which it did with a 3-2 victory over No. 3 seed Texas Tech.
"We knew this was going to be a tough one," said Irish head coach Link Jarrett. "I can't say enough of what our guys did. I am so proud."
Nine hours after the game started under sunny skies – nine hours and two minutes to be exact –a day that included a six-hour weather delay that featured rain and lightning and thunder finally ended.
Next up for Notre Dame was a Saturday game against an opponent to be determined. It would either be No. 4 seed North Carolina Greensboro (Jarrett's former school) or No. 1 seed and host Georgia Southern. Those teams were supposed to play Friday's nightcap, then got pushed back to an early Saturday morning (10 a.m. start). Three games were scheduled Saturday, but so too was more unpredictable weather.
Speaking of unpredictable, the way Notre Dame won it sure was all of that. Leading 2-0 for much of the day, then night, the Irish watched Texas Tech tally two runs with two outs in the top of the eighth. Back came Notre Dame, with the unlikeliest of contributors.
Infielder Jared Miller, a senior, a team captain and a Georgia native, had spent the better part of the previous eight and a half hours doing nothing baseball related. While his teammates worked, he watched. That was on top of doing little baseball related since he last appeared in an actual game. That was way back on May 14. Miller had been out with a dislocated shoulder, but there was nothing wrong with his legs late Friday.
That was good.
Miller entered the game as a pinch-runner at second base in the bottom of the eighth, then promptly was given the green light to weigh the situation and steal third on the first pitch with one out. That was huge. Two pitches later, Miller was racing home on a wild pitch with the game's winning run.
"Poor guy's banged up," Jarrett said. "I told him (Friday), I'm going to find a way to get you in that game. He's got savvy."
So does left-handed reliever Aidan Tyrell, who closed it out with – naturally – a strikeout. Texas Tech whiffed 19 times in this one. It was swing and a miss or a called-third strike much of the day/night.
A David LaManna ground-rule double with the bases loaded gave the No. 2 seed Irish a 2-0 lead 24 minutes after the first pitch.
"Our first inning," Jarrett said, "was difference-making."
There was one out in the bottom of the first when the clock hit 2:31 p.m., after LaManna cruised into second. Then, a weather delay arrived after lightning was detected within eight miles of the ballpark. The wait commenced. And continued. And continued.
After sitting around for six hours, it was finally back to baseball. The game resumed at exactly 8:31 even with more rain/lightning/weather in the forecast. The Irish had arrived at the park at 11 a.m. Friday morning.
The rest of the regional schedule called for three games Saturday, two on Sunday and two on Monday, the seventh an if-necessary possibility. Saturday's forecast was as dicey as Friday's. Maybe worse.
The delay did little to deter Irish reliever Liam Simon. He struck out the side in the top of the second and then again in the third throwing almost nothing but fastballs. Gas. Cheese. He hit 98 mph on the radar gun at one point. He pitched angry. Pitched like he had spent the past six hours waiting to, well, pitch.
Simon gave the Irish three innings. He threw 66 pitches – 40 strikes – and tied his career best with eight strikeouts. He put the first two hitters on in the top of the fifth before departing. Texas Tech eventually loaded the bases and left them loaded after Alex Rao struck out the side.
The Irish relievers often made it look easy. Work out of jams? No sweat. Give them the ball and let them get outs.
"It's just characteristic of our staff," Rao said. "It doesn't really matter if we've been there before or not. We're just expected to come in and have our best stuff. No one is scared coming into a big spot.
"Everyone wants that."
The Irish already had lived a little on the edge early. Texas Tech loaded the bases twice in the first four innings, but had only almosts to show for it. The Red Raiders couldn't score either time.
Three Irish pitchers tallied 13 strikeouts the first five innings.
How did Notre Dame pass the time during the extensive delay? Soon after the game was halted, the Irish remained in their third-base dugout before both teams decided to board their charter buses for the short ride back to their respective hotels. For the Irish, it was about a five-minute drive.
Notre Dame spent about 40 minutes back at its headquarters before both teams were quickly summoned back to the stadium by an NCAA representative, who insisted there was a weather window of opportunity to resume play. Relief pitchers from both teams – no use bringing back either starter after that much time – were getting loose and a start time of 5:35 was announced.
Somebody should've put that in pencil. Or crayon.
That start time came and went and still, no baseball. Additional lightning had been detected near the ballpark. Off the field the players and pitchers went. Again.
Notre Dame twice retreated to a nearby campus classroom – word is it was the journalism building – where it remained until nearly 8.
"It was great; they had card tricks going," Jarrett said in a television interview during the fifth inning. "It was really nice."
The delay wiped out the work of Irish starting pitcher John Michael Bertrand, named an All-American this week, after just one inning. Bertrand loaded the bases but worked out of the jam to keep the Red Raiders scoreless in the first.
"You have to figure out how to manage the rest of the game," Jarrett said.
Bertrand threw a total of 26 pitches before the weather moved in and it was decided that he would not return. Simon took over in the second for the Irish. His bullpen mates would follow and pick up where he left off – striking guys out, working out jams, getting out of innings. Dealing.
And eventually, winning and moving on. Finally.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.