Leaps of faith help deliver Notre Dame pitcher John Michael Bertrand his deferred dream

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — As a high school senior in Georgia, John Michael Bertrand was so enamored with the notion of a Notre Dame education that he was willing to give up his baseball dream if it meant he could get to South Bend as a regular student.

He ended up at Furman instead in the fall of 2016, decided to walk onto the baseball team there and was told after the fall semester of his freshman year that there wouldn’t be a roster spot for him the following spring.

“They actually told me I wasn’t good enough to play Division I baseball — period,” said Bertrand, the older brother of Notre Dame reserve linebacker JD Bertrand.

How the soon-to-be master’s degreed grad student ended up a central figure in 12th-ranked Notre Dame’s stunning ascent four years later and the Irish baseball program’s most significant three-game series in Eck Stadium’s 27-year history this weekend is a study in perseverance.

And stubbornness. And building his body through relentless weight training. And mastering the mental side of the game.

But above all, leaning into his faith.

“I don’t know where this is all going to lead,” Bertrand said. “Pro baseball? Another year at Notre Dame (via the COVID exemption)? Something else? I just can’t answer that question. But I know how I got here.

“You see God’s timing, how perfect it is and almost the irony of it. And it’s kind of crazy how everything happens. For me, I have to certainly just point towards God and say it’s all His timing. I have to put my trust in Him. And then I just focus on the next game.”

That, for the 6-foot-3, 205-pound left-handed pitcher, comes in the middle of the upcoming three-game series, Saturday against No. 6 Louisville (15-5 overall, 7-2 ACC), the bully of the ACC since it debuted in the conference in 2015.

The series opens with a game Friday at 4 p.m. EDT, followed by a 2 p.m. start Saturday and a 1 p.m. start Sunday. Tickets are not yet being made available to the general public due to COVID-19 protocols.

The Cardinals, a College World Series regular in recent years, hold a 32-8 command in their series with the Irish (10-3, 9-3) and have won 19 straight in the series and 25 of the past 26 games with ND. Notre Dame was in Louisville last March, off to an 11-2 start, when the season truncated before that series could be played because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They the (players) probably know (about Louisville’s dominance),” second-year Irish coach Link Jarrett said. “And to be honest, I didn’t know that it was that significant. You’ve just got to go play.

“Obviously, it hadn’t been a good matchup for Notre Dame. They (the Cardinals) are very athletic and run the bases. And you could look at our defense and hadn’t been as athletic and sound defensively and it looked like they found ways to kind of pick Notre Dame apart.

“I hope we can play cleaner and keep this thing more competitive. They’re very balanced. They recruit well. They recruit nationally. They’ve got a reputation. They’ve got a little confidence and swagger.”

Notre Dame is developing that too, in part because they’ve gone from the nation’s 203rd-ranked fielding-percentage defense before Jarrett arrived from UNC-Greensboro to third currently. And in part because of seven transfers, which include Bertrand.

And because of four players with on-base percentages over .425. That includes Penn High grad Niko Kavadas, whose nine homers have him third nationally in homers per game.

The senior’s 23 RBIs in 13 games are fourth in the nation per game and No. 1 among players who have played at least five games. His .957 slugging percentage is 10th nationally.

“When you have elite offensive players, they can carry you when they’re dialed in,” Jarrett said of his left-handed-hitting first baseman. “He’s been dialed in.”

And able to feed on the pressure as the expectations swell around a team that was picked in preseason to finish 13th in the 14-team ACC and dead last in the Atlantic Division.

“The measuring stick of where you are as a program,” Jarrett said, “is really reflected in how important these games become.”

And Eck Stadium has never before hosted a three-game series between top 15 teams, largely because of where the Irish have been post-coach Paul Mainieri. The Irish have been to one NCAA Tournament (2015) since the last of eight straight NCAAs under Mainieri in 2006 before he left for LSU.

Bertrand’s part in the Notre Dame surge is a 3-0 record in four starts with a 3.38 ERA, a team-leading 26.2 innings with a team-best 22 strikeouts.

He’s coming off a complete-game victory over Duke last weekend in which he allowed five hits in the 6-2 verdict and picked a runner off second base to end the game. Bertrand’s last complete game before that came two years prior while playing for Furman and playing against Jarrett and Southern Conference foe UNC-Greensboro.

Bertrand started the game on a Friday night, but rain suspended the game in the second inning. He then came back to finish the job the next morning, pitching eight more innings to get the win.

“The guys never could get good pitches to hit and he used both sides of the plate,” Jarrett recalled. “I think he’s learning to do that (at Notre Dame) even at a higher level.

“His changeup has been in play. He rolls the breaking ball in there, a little slider. Total command of what he’s doing on the mound. And you would never think the guy’s brand new to the program.

“We’re so fortunate to have him. It’s better when he’s pitching for me than against me, that’s for sure.”

How Bertrand got a second chance at Furman had its roots in a conversation with his parents back in Alpharetta, Ga., over Christmas break his freshman year.

“I told them I wanted to play professional baseball,” he said. “My mom blinked and went, ‘What?’

“She said, ‘You do realize you just told me they cut you?’

“And I was like, ‘Yeah, they cut me, but this is what I want to do. I want to put that out there. I want to play professional baseball and I want to do whatever I possibly can to do that.’’’

So my mom was like, ‘All right, what are we going to do?’”

Bertrand asked Furman coach Brett Harker if he could use a bucket of balls and a net to get some throwing in on his own time and away from the team and if he could lift when the team wasn’t using the weight room.

Then he went back out for the team his sophomore year and made the cut this time. Each year he got progressively better, with a 3-1 record and a 1.50 ERA for an 8-9 Furman squad in the abbreviated 2020 season.

Two months later Furman dropped its baseball program, a casualty of a budget crisis throughout college sports brought on by COVID-19.

Bertrand had made the decision to transfer to Notre Dame, though, long before that season even started.

Reuniting with younger brother JD, a junior-to-be, has been one of the best parts of it.

The two are neighbors in an apartment complex, train together, do yoga together, talk faith with one another, share dreams with each other.

“I don’t think you could ask for anything better than that,” John Michael said. “He’s my best friend, one of my closest confidants and someone who you share your entire life with. And you have them 100 feet away from you.

“It’s funny because I’m older than him, but I’ve always looked up to him and admired him. His work ethic is superb and I think it’s second to none. It’s really nice to have him here and to be able to push each other and challenge each other in new ways.

“Besides him, I didn’t know anyone when I got here last June. I treated it like my freshman year. I’m a nobody. I’m coming in and I have to prove myself. I didn’t want to be given anything.

“I think everything good in life is earned. So I needed to go earn for myself and prove that I can go out there and compete with everyone else.”

Faith and perseverance have grad transfer pitcher John Michael Bertrand making a big impact on 12th-ranked Notre Dame.
Notre Dame first baseman Niko Kavadas is in the top 10 nationally in homers per game, RBIs per game and slugging percentage.