Staying power: Notre Dame slugger Niko Kavadas takes advantage of COVID'S curveball

Eric Hansen I South Bend Tribune
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

The what-ifs don’t matter anymore.

Niko Kavadas has so contorted the COVID curveball that was thrown at him and his Notre Dame baseball teammates 13 games into a storybook start last March, that it’s hard to imagine the alternative reality of a normal season being as transcendent as what he’s experiencing now.

“He would have been drafted,” offered second-year Notre Dame coach Link Jarrett had the Irish played on in 2020 instead of the pandemic halting the season and prompting Major League Baseball to shrink its draft from 40 rounds to five.

The latter wouldn’t be a problem in 2021 had MLB stuck with the format. Instead the traditional June draft has been pushed back to July 11-13 and will be 20 rounds. And Kavadas has become such an evolved version of his junior season self that he wouldn’t have to wait long to hear his name called.

“I would think he’s a top five-round pick,” Jarrett said of the Penn High product. “He’s probably got the best power in college baseball. And we don’t play at a real forgiving park. There are places I’ve coached where the numbers would be far greater than they are here.”

As it stands, the left-handed-hitting senior first baseman leads the nation in home runs per game among Division I players who have played in more than one game (0.61). That translates to 11 home runs in 18 games, and one in every 5.5 at-bats.

His 28 RBIs in 19 games (1.56) ranks fifth nationally per game and his .933 slugging percentage is fourth. Only one of the three players ahead of him has played in more than 10 games.

Kavadas is also posting career highs in batting average (.333) and on-base percentage (.470).

“Plate discipline,” Jarrett said of the jump across the board in the 6-foot-1, 235-pounder’s hitting numbers. “A little more consistency. We jumped right into ACC competition, and Wake Forest’s pitching staff velocity-wise, it’s like a Major League type staff.

“There was no tune-up. We just jumped right into this thing and he’s been good since the first at-bat of the season. I think he’s more mature in the batter’s box. Not everybody swings the same. It’s the elite hitters who have similar mental traits within their swing.”

The sweetest part of the personal ascent for Kavadas is the context in which it’s unfolding. Until last month when the Irish split a scheduled three-game home series with perennial conference power Louisville (the third game was rained out), there had never been a three-game series between two top 15-ranked teams at Eck Stadium.

The facility opened in 1994, four years before Kavadas was born.

This weekend it will happen a second time, as high-scoring No. 15 Georgia Tech (14-10, 11-7 ACC) visits the 12th-ranked Irish (13-5, 12-5), who incidentally were picked to finish 13th among the 14 ACC teams in preseason and dead last in the Atlantic Division they now lead by a half game over Louisville.

“I think it’s just a testament to how much work that this group of guys has put in,” Kavadas said. “We’re committed to each other and believe in each other.

“Every time we step between those lines, it doesn’t matter who we play. We believe in one another and we believe we’re going to score more runs and come out on top.”

If the season ended today, Baseball America would project Notre Dame as one of 16 No. 1 seeds, No. 8 overall, and hosting its own regional in the 64-team NCAA Tournament.

In that projection, nine of the 14 ACC teams were in the tournament field, including No. 1 seed designations for Louisville and Virginia Tech in addition to the Irish. Georgia Tech projects as one of five No. 2 seeds coming from the ACC. The Irish have been to one NCAA tourney since 2006.

Kavadas set the tone for 2021 in his first two at-bats of the season, sending pitches both times out of the park at Wake Forest. What he’s done since is perhaps even more impressive, keeping up the power surge when he’s being increasingly pitched around.

“You’ve got to have protection in front of him and behind him, and more importantly probably behind him,” Jarrett said.

Complicating that task is a wrist injury suffered last weekend by second baseman Jared Miller, one of the team’s top hitters. He’s listed as day to day.

“Nobody’s going to pitch to (Kavadas) like they would pitch to just your average Joe freshman left-handed hitter,” Jarrett said. “They’re going to be very careful.

“We’ve just got to navigate it. What he has done is he’s stayed within the confines of his approach at the plate and not expanded trying to do more than he’s really allowed to do with how they’re pitching him. It’s been impressive.”

Especially if you consider how difficult it was for Kavadas to find someone to work out with late spring and into summer with COVID-19 restrictions — and actual COVID.

“I got COVID pretty bad actually right at the time we got sent home (from Notre Dame in mid-March 2020),” Kavadas said. “My little sister had been traveling for a volleyball tournament, and she brought it back into the house. I kind of quarantined into it, so I battled that for almost a month.

“When I came out, I had like a month, month and a half ‘til the draft. There wasn’t anyone around to have live at-bats with, so my little brother (CJ) would just go out with me to Harris Little League and we’d hit on the big league field out there,

“That’s about all that I could do, up until we got back to campus in the fall.”

From there he worked on simplifying his swing and honing his defense at first base, both factors in how early during the first five rounds of the draft he will be chosen in three months.

Kavadas was a center fielder during his first three seasons at Penn High, then a shortstop as a senior. Former Notre Dame coach Mik Aoki recruited Kavadas as an outfielder/catcher, then stuck him at third base for the most part.

Jarrett came in last spring and restructured the Irish defense, with Kavadas moving to first. The Irish, 203rd in fielding percentage the season before Jarrett arrived from UNC-Greensboro, lead the nation this week (.990).

“I kind of look at it as a blessing, especially as of late,” Kavadas said of the adversity and uncertainty that has turned into a special senior season. “We’ve used that (2020) season, as a team, as an opportunity to grow and to understand that this can be taken away from us at any moment.

“So take every moment and play it like it was our last and continue to keep improving and to keep the band of guys that we have together. That’s been something that’s been super pivotal in our success so far.”

Despite being pitched around lately, Notre Dame first baseman Niko Kavadas continues to be one of the top home run hitters in college baseball this season.
Former Penn High standout Niko Kavadas is climbing the draft boards during a strong senior season at Notre Dame.
Niko Kavadas has transitioned smoothly to first base for Notre Dame, the nation's top team in fielding percentage.