Baseball: Historic victory sends business-like Irish on to super regionals
This one had hand-wringer/worry written all over it.
It just had to go down this really rough road, didn’t it?
Close game, one final inning against the highest-scoring/most potent offense in the Big 12, which seemed ready to erupt right there and then. Return trip to the NCAA super regionals there for Notre Dame. Its ace, lefthander John Michael Bertrand, rolling along early but on fumes late as a freshman – a freshman! – is given the ball.
No problem, right?
Not for Notre Dame.
These Irish don’t do easy. If they did, they’d still be wrapped up with not having been selected to host a regional, still steamed over being sent on the road and 888 miles from home to fight their way toward the College World Series and Omaha for the first time since 2002.
Fight the Irish have.
Notre Dame advanced to the super regionals for a second year in a row – a first in program history – following a nail-biting/heart-stopping/ulcer-inducing 2-1 victory over Texas Tech late Sunday in the Statesboro (Georgia) Regional.
Hey, look, selection committee, these Northern teams can play good baseball. Winning baseball. Championship-level baseball.
"Our games were three tough, grinding and competing for every pitch of all of the games we played," said third-year head coach Link Jarett said. "This was a tough regional. I wish there were a little more (scoring), but there was enough."
Eleven runs over three games enough, Coach.
Forget the Irish not being awarded a regional. That was old news by Friday to Notre Dame, which moved to 33-1 when leading after eight innings. The Irish get to play in a super regional. One step down, one more to go to reach Omaha.
The win moved the Irish to a staggering 50-20 under Jarrett away from home. It’s almost a blessing this regional wasn’t at Eck Stadium. Winning on the road, winning away from home, means a lot more. This one sure did.
Bertrand picked up his ninth win. Freshman reliever Jack Findlay picked up his second save in as many nights. Notre Dame will pack up and head for super-regional play next weekend in Knoxville, Tennessee where the No. 1 overall seed Volunteers (56-7) await.
"We'll be prepared for that," Jarrett said.
Notre Dame (38-14) beat Texas Tech (39-22) twice in three days, and threw in a win over host Georgia Southern in front of a record crowd for good measure. The Irish answered all comers.
Eight days earlier, this was a program that was about as down as down could get for a team that knew it was going back to the NCAA tournament a second straight season, something that hadn’t happened since 2005-06. The Irish were not picked as one of 16 regional hosts, and that hurt.
It hurt Jarrett. It hurt the veteran Bertrand. It hurt the seven seniors in the starting lineup who realized they’d played their last game at Eck Stadium last month without really realizing it. The Irish were frustrated for a few days, but made sure it didn’t diminish their focus. They headed to southeast Georgia with a job to do, and the job got done.
The Irish made it look easy winning three games in three days, and also enduring weather delays that totaled nine hours the first two. They sat around a lot. They waited seemingly forever. It was a grind to get into game mode, and then, it was over.
In the end, nothing was easy about this one. Still, you couldn’t have scripted this clincher any better from start to finish. Forget a runaway win. Notre Dame needed/wanted to earn this one, to grind it out, to push itself. It did.
Bertrand, who worked all of one inning before weather moved in in the opener against Texas Tech, was back on barely two days rest. He was brilliant, and worked into the eighth inning. He threw 107 pitches. He gave the Red Raiders, the potent Red Raiders, next to nothing offensively.
"You guys saw today why he is what he is," Jarrett said. "He has evaded some trouble early in his outings time and again."
The ball eventually ended up in the capable left hand of Findlay, who also came on to close out Saturday’s game. A night later, he had to do it again, and do it in the toughest of circumstances.
Again, these Irish don’t do anything that’s not tough. The tighter the situation, the faster the hearts are beating in the stadium stands, the more the tension rises, the more they seem at ease. With the moment. With the job at hand. With the biggest of pictures. With everything.
Findlay certainly was. He knew the tying run was 90 feet away in the bottom of the ninth and two out. He knew the winning run was 180 feet away at second. He understood that second baseman Jace Jung, a likely high draft choice in next month’s Major League Baseball draft, was headed to the plate with the cruelest of intentions.
It was time for him to break the Irish hearts. Crush them. Send this series to Monday and a decisive, winner-take-all game. This one had all that written all over it. The previous at-bat, Jung finally put Texas Tech on the board with a crusher line drive that banged off the Blue Monster – the 25-foot wall in right field of J.I. Clements Stadium. Many other places, that’s a game-tying rocket of a home run. A career high point.
Sunday, it was a loud and long single. Jung seemingly had found his hitting sweet spot.
Findlay never really lost his. He got Jung to roll out to first baseman Carter Putz and the celebration –albeit a bit subdued – was on.
"Jack hadn't been in these situations this year for us," Jarrett said. "The way it worked out, starting with how the first game went, it lined up. He was great again."
With fans in the stands chanting “Let’s Go Irish!” and banging about the aluminum bleachers, there were a few handshakes and high-fives and fist-bumps and plenty of smiles down on the field after it went final, but that was about it.
They even did a little Irish Jig. Jarrett, too. Can't unsee that after seeing it.
The first job is complete, but the overall job’s far from done. Come Monday, it was back to work.
Notre Dame went scoreless the final five innings, and scoreless without left fielder Ryan Cole, who was spectacular. He offered four hits, including a double, and drove in both runs. He drove this bus.
Texas Tech advanced to the rematch after eliminating Georgia Southern earlier Sunday. That game ended at 4:56 p.m., eastern time, with the Notre Dame game set for 7. It was – technically – the earliest an Irish game had started without a delay all weekend.
Notre Dame started (OK, restarted) at 8:31 on Friday night, 8:06 on Saturday, both because of weather.
Imagine if interested observers of Notre Dame men’s basketball (there’s a few) or Notre Dame football (there’s a few more) were asked to wait until less than two hours to learn what channel the game would air on. That was the case for Irish baseball Sunday. This one wasn’t given a television designation – it aired on ESPN Plus (that will be $6.99 a month, please) – until 5:20.
Notre Dame was bumped off ACC Network in favor of Atlantic Coast Conference tournament champion North Carolina. That’s no surprise. Gotta throw the support behind the full league member, right?
Still, college baseball sure can be weird. Yet like for much of their stay in Statesboro, it didn’t really seem to bother the Irish. They just wanted to go play. They played. They just wanted to win. They won.
What a game. What a weekend.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.