3-2-1: Notre Dame Baseball Observations, Questions & Prediction
Notre Dame (11-4, 10-4 ACC) is one-third of the way through its 2021 college baseball season and is now ranked No. 13, per D1 Baseball.
The Irish have yet to lose an ACC series. This includes splitting two games with No. 7 Louisville this past weekend after inclement weather on Sunday indefinitely postponed game three.
After back-to-back weekends at home, Notre Dame will hit the road again to face No. 24 Pittsburgh (12-8, 8-7 ACC) at Charles L. Cost Field. Game one was scheduled for Thursday at 3 p.m., but inclement weather and on-campus conflicts have pushed game one of the series to Saturday.
Ryan Cole is having a magical senior season
In his first three seasons at Notre Dame, outfielder Ryan Cole accumulated 26 starts while producing a career .207 batting average.
That’s why this spring, the expectations for him were to compete with a handful of other players for the starting job in left field. Playing time was far from guaranteed.
In the opening series against ACC rival Wake Forest, Cole saw little action. He played in all three games, but only recorded one at bat and served as a late-inning defensive sub.
His sporadic play continued throughout the next two weekends of the season, earning just one start in the first nine games.
Then in a Friday evening game on March 19 against Duke — the first game at Notre Dame’s Frank Eck Stadium in 677 days — Cole subbed in for starting left fielder Alex Brait with the game tied at 4-4.
The ball game ended up lasting 13 innings. Cole went 2 for 3 at the plate, including a two-run, walk-off dinger to give Notre Dame a 6-4 win.
It was his first career home run.
This earned him his second start of the season the following day against Duke in game two. He responded with an inside-the-park home run in a 6-2 victory.
One weekend later, Cole found himself in a similar spot versus No. 7 Louisville. With the game tied at 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning, he swung on the first pitch and belted it over the left field fence for his second walk-off home run in as many weeks.
But it’s been so much more than clutch plays for Cole. He’s hitting a team-high .360 and has the second-best slugging percentage at .720.
Niko Kavadas is more than just a power hitter
Watch Notre Dame first baseman and left-handed cleanup hitter Niko Kavadas at the plate, and it’s easy to be fooled by his muscular 6-1 and 235-pound frame.
Most opponents view him as if he’s a dead pull hitter, hoping to groove inside fastballs and hanging curves. That’s why they employ such a dramatic infield shift against him, moving their shortstop to the right of second base.
Yet, Kavadas is a complete hitter, with a disciplined eye and a calculated approach. He’s just as likely to turn on a 1-2 curveball thrown over the inner half of the plate as he is to smack a 3-1 outside fastball over the left field fence.
“When he gets his pitch, he's disciplined enough and he doesn't come out of what he's trying to do,” said Notre Dame head coach Link Jarrett. “With some power guys, you see them get pull-oriented when they're hunting a pitch or a zone and they think they're going to pull it. He obviously doesn't do that. He's hit home runs to every part of the park and probably more of them to center and left field.”
This approach has aided him as he’s hit an NCAA-leading 0.67 home runs per contest (with a minimum of five games played).
As mentioned in last week’s 3-2-1 article, this level of production has him well on his way to breaking Notre Dame’s single-season home run record.
Former Irish first baseman Frank Jacobs set this mark in 1991 when he hit 20 home runs over the course of 61 games.
Graduate transfers are here to stay
During the offseason, Notre Dame added five graduate transfers to its 2021 roster:
• Left-handed pitcher John Michael Bertrand — 6-3, 205-pound graduate transfer from Furman
• Left-handed pitcher James Hulbert — 6-2, 220-pound graduate transfer from Richmond
• Right-handed pitcher Christian Scafidi — 6-4, 265-pound graduate transfer from Penn
• Left-handed pitcher Joe Sheridan — 6-0, 180-pound graduate transfer from UCF
• Catcher/outfielder Alex Brait — 6-4, 210-pound graduate transfer from Florida Gulf Coast
Not all of the graduate transfers have played a major role this season, but most are contributors.
Thus far, Brait has helped Notre Dame as an occasional outfielder and pinch hitter.
Scafidi, a former Ivy League Pitcher of the Year at Penn, was Notre Dame’s Sunday starter against Wake Forest and Clemson, posting a 1.50 ERA in six innings of work. He hasn't pitched in three weeks due to arm soreness but could return next month.
Meanwhile, Bertrand and Sheridan are first and second on the team in terms of innings pitched.
Both out of the bullpen and as a starter, Sheridan has been one of Notre Dame’s most reliable pitchers. In 19 1/3 innings of work, he has a 2.33 ERA.
Bertrand, on the other hand, is Notre Dame's most valuable pitcher this season, especially now that ace Tommy Sheehan is done for the season due to elbow soreness. His ERA is a bit higher than Sheridan's at 3.21, but he’s thrown 33 2/3 innings as the team’s Saturday starter.
A major reason Notre Dame was able to add so many grad transfers is due to reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 MLB Draft was shortened to just five rounds and every college baseball player last spring received an extra year of eligibility. This allowed players such as Bertrand to return for a fifth year.
Nevertheless, Jarrett has seen the impact graduate transfers can have on his program and will continue to pursue them.
“That's a good niche for us, and we're going to continue to try to find them,” he said. “They have to be guys that you feel like can come in and help you in that year. If they're coming for a year, and they're not really able to help you, does your roster really upgrade itself? And you hope the answer is yes. It's the first time, I think, we've ever had grad transfers here, and it's a niche we have to continue to push.”
Is Notre Dame’s defensive success sustainable?
In 15 games, Notre Dame has committed just five errors and has an NCAA-leading fielding percentage of .991.
But at times, Notre Dame has looked sloppy defensively, especially on Friday against No. 7 Louisville when the Irish committed two errors and had several other lapses in judgment (such as Jared Miller being late to cover second on a steal attempt).
This was the second time this season the Irish had two errors in a single game.
More than likely, Notre Dame was just experiencing nerves against Louisville, acutely aware of the fact that they were facing a team that the Irish had lost to 19 games in a row.
Of course, Notre Dame bounced back and played sound defense the following day in a 5-3 win. But such defensive lapses are a slight cause for concern, especially in future high-pressure situations.
Which version of Pittsburgh will Notre Dame face?
At 12-8, Pittsburgh is currently ranked No. 24 according to D1 Baseball and has ACC series wins over No. 18 Florida State, No. 6 Georgia Tech and Virginia.
Yet, the Panthers were swept this past weekend against No. 23 Virginia Tech and averaged just three runs per game.
It honestly wouldn't be surprising for Notre Dame to lose its first series of the year this weekend or pick up their second ACC sweep.
Pittsburgh is an enigma.
Irish center fielder Spencer Myers will have a breakout series at the plate against Pittsburgh
After leading Notre Dame in hitting in each of the last two seasons, Spencer Myers is batting just .185 in 15 games.
But the Irish switch-hitter and leadoff man has made solid contact over the last few weeks and went 3 for 9 against No. 7 Louisville.
It actually helped him that the Cardinals employed so many left-handed pitchers, which made him hit from the right side of the plate.
“You have to hit a lot of line drives,” Jarrett said. “He's done more of that right-handed than he has left-handed.”
This is odd for Myers, who in past seasons has performed better as a lefty.
But he should rectify this in Notre Dame’s upcoming series against Pittsburgh. Right-handed pitchers Mitch Myers and Matt Gilbertson have both thrown 37 2/3 innings for the Panthers this season, which ties them for the team lead.
“As a switch hitter, you're really two different hitters,” Jarrett said. “I was a switch hitter, and what you're feeling from one side doesn't always mesh with how it feels from the other side. So we're working on a couple of things just to try to get [Myers] a little more balanced.”
• Learn more about our print and digital publication, Blue & Gold Illustrated.
• Watch our videos and subscribe to our YouTube channel.
• Sign up for Blue & Gold's news alerts and daily newsletter.
• Subscribe to our podcast on Apple Podcasts.
• Like us on Facebook.