3-2-1: Notre Dame Baseball Observations, Questions & Prediction
Six weeks into conference play and No. 13 Notre Dame (13-5, 12-5 ACC) has yet to lose a series to an ACC foe.
Most recently, the Fighting Irish bested the No. 24 Pittsburgh Panthers (14-10, 9-9), winning two out of three games on the road this past weekend. Notre Dame capped off the series with an 11-5 victory in the rubber match, where four different Irish hitters belted home runs.
“It was another Super Regional-type weekend,” said Notre Dame head coach Link Jarrett. “I feel like every team we’ve played has been a top-20-type team. I’m proud of the way we played.”
The Irish return to Frank Eck Stadium this weekend to face No. 15 Georgia Tech (14-10, 11-7), with game one on Friday at 5 p.m. ET.
Notre Dame will submit a bid to host a Regional at the 2021 NCAA Tournament
Kendall Rogers, the co-managing editor at D1 Baseball, recently reported that the NCAA Tournament will predetermine its Regional and Super Regional sites prior to the completion of the regular season.
The host sites are to be announced the week of May 10, with an early deadline of April 12 for prospective teams to submit their bids.
In the 64-team tournament, hosts aren’t automatically the top 16 seeds in the four-team Regionals, so bid approval has never been a purely merit-based process. Other factors such as facilities and projected revenue also matter. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a team’s ability to prioritize health safety will figure in.
Nevertheless, on-the-field performance matters and Notre Dame has put itself in an excellent position to host as it nears the halfway mark of the regular season.
“We’re going to submit,” Jarrett said. “Given the timeline of it, I think everybody that’s in the conversation is going to submit a bid to host now.”
Between now and bid announcements, the Fighting Irish have five ACC series and a total of 19 games.
“They don’t determine those sites for a month or so,” Jarrett said. “You’ve got a lot of highway left ahead of you before you're determined to host.”
After host sites are announced, the Irish travel to Valparaiso to face the Crusaders for a third time on Tuesday, May 11, before a weekend off from ACC competition. Notre Dame then returns to action on Friday, May 20, for a three-game series against No. 23 Virginia Tech. Next is the ACC Tournament.
The last time Notre Dame hosted a Regional in the NCAA Tournament was 2004, the program’s third time doing so in a four-year span that also included a College World Series berth in 2002.
In 2005 and 2006, Notre Dame still made the tournament, but then-head coach Paul Mainieri left shortly after, and the Irish have made college baseball’s big dance just once (2015) since.
“It’s been a while since this has been an option here, and I’m excited,” Jarrett said. “Again, it’s a measuring stick for our guys to realize what they’ve been able to accomplish with a very tough schedule.”
Spencer Myers has a big weekend at the plate against Pitt
In last week’s 3-2-1 article, I predicted Notre Dame center fielder and leadoff hitter Spencer Myers would begin to break out of his slump. After leading the team in batting average in each of the last two seasons, he entered the series against Pittsburgh hitting .185 — the second-lowest average among everyday starters.
Over the course of the weekend, Myers went 4 for 11 at the plate with his first home run of the season in game three.
His performance over the weekend was significant because Pittsburgh threw 12 pitchers over the weekend, all righties.
A switch-hitter, Myers had to bat left-handed the entire weekend — the side of the plate he’s struggled from this season.
“He’s been working, and we've been trying to do some things just to flatten out that swing,” Jarrett said. He’s good when the ball is on a line or on the ground. The home run was great, but that’s a little bit of just getting a good pitch to hit and taking a level swing, and you catch it just right and that ball carries.
“But I saw he was a little bit more balanced in the box, in the swing and through the zone. His pitch selection was probably a little bit better.”
Next, Jarrett wants to see Myers use the entire field
“We’re still trying to get to the other half of the field. Left-handed, it’s basically middle or pull,” Jarrett said. “When he's really going well, that left side in the [5-6 hole] and left field are in play. It just hasn't been yet, but at least he made some strides and started to level it out a little bit. You saw more line drives and well-hit ground balls, which are fine for him.”
Irish hot start comes in spite of significant setbacks
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Notre Dame's early-season success is that it’s been achieved while overcoming significant stumbling blocks.
To start the season, the Irish missed a three-game tournament in Baton Rouge, La., due to COVID-19 safety protocols, which also prevented the team from practicing for several days. When the Irish resumed activities, South Bend’s frigid February weather kept the team indoors.
Thus, Notre Dame entered ACC play without any warm-up games or ample time to prepare.
Two weeks into the season, Notre Dame lost two experienced pitchers in Tommy Sheehan and Christian Scafidi — the team’s Friday and Sunday starters — due to arm soreness. Additionally, top relief pitcher Tommy Vail is out for the spring after offseason Tommy John surgery.
Sheehan, the team’s ace in 2019 and 2020, is done for the year. But Scafidi, the right-handed graduate transfer from Pennsylvania, is the reigning Ivy League Pitcher of the Year and could return at some point this season.
Then against Pitt, Notre Dame second baseman Jared Miller was sidelined with what Coach Jarrett described as a non-COVID-related “issue” and failed to record an at bat in game two or three. Late in game two, Miller entered the game defensively but made an uncharacteristic throwing error.
Jarrett will know more this week regarding the severity of Miller’s “issue,” but without him in the lineup, the Irish are without one of its most potent bats. He’s tied for second on the team in hitting with a .333 batting average and in home runs with three.
As the No. 3 hitter in the lineup, he’s vital when it comes to protecting cleanup-hitter Niko Kavadas. With 11 home runs against an ACC-laden schedule, Kavadas is second in the NCAA in dingers per game, and opposing teams are doing their best to pitch around the left-handed slugger.
In game two this past weekend, the Panthers intentionally walked Kavadas to load the bases with one out. But then right fielder Brooks Coetzee grounded into a double play. Notre Dame went on to lose the game 3-2.
But in game three, Jarrett rejiggered the lineup. Left fielder Ryan Cole hit second, followed by Kavadas and designated-hitter Carter Putz, who hit his second home run of the season.
“We had Putz behind him the other day and that obviously looked good,” Jarrett said. “But nobody’s going to pitch to [Kavadas] like they would pitch to just your average Joe freshman left-handed hitter. They’re going to be very careful.”
With good fortune on your side, success often comes easy, but Notre Dame has thrived in spite of several setbacks. Any one of them could have prevented or derailed their 13-5 start.
“We’ve overcome a lot to this point,” Jarrett said. “And we’ll continue to have to deal with some adversity, I'm sure.”
Can Notre Dame hold up without a deep outing from ace John Michael Bertrand?
It’s possible this question never gets answered. But in six starts thus far, Notre Dame left-handed pitcher John Michael Bertrand is averaging just under seven innings per outing.
Due to the aforementioned injuries to Sheehan and Scafidi, Bertrand is the team’s unquestioned ace, with a 3.07 ERA and an excellent WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) of 0.95.
But unlike most programs, which throw their best pitchers on Friday, Notre Dame saves Bertrand for game two. This provides the Irish bullpen with a much-needed respite.
“That’s not our roadmap right now,” Jarrett said. “[How we] have to do it is stick the longer outing in the middle to try to survive on Friday and Sunday.
For instance, in each of Bertrand’s last five starts, Notre Dame has used, at most, one relief pitcher. He went the distance in a 6-2 win at home against Duke.
But in the opening game of a weekend series, Notre Dame’s starting pitcher is averaging fewer than four innings per outing. This puts a lot on the bullpen, and those same relief pitchers are typically required to come back for game three a few days later.
Against Pittsburgh, left-handed pitcher Will Mercer lasted four innings in game one, before junior right-hander Tanner Kohlhepp and fifth-year senior left-hander Joe Sherdian closed out the final five innings of the 4-1 victory. Then Kohlhepp and Sheridan were the first two out of the bullpen in game three, after junior left-handed starter Aidan Tyrell surrendered five hits and a walk in just 2.1 innings of work.
In total, Notre Dame used five pitchers in game three’s 11-5 win.
This puts an exponential amount of pressure on Bertrand.
What if he gets knocked out of the game early one weekend? Would Notre Dame have the arms to survive, or could it derail an entire series?
Will the Fighting Irish offense continue to struggle offensively at home?
Thus far, the Irish are 4-2 at home, which includes ACC series against Duke and No. 7 Louisville. But Notre Dame is averaging just 4.5 runs at Frank Eck Stadium, 2.4 fewer than on the road.
On the surface, their lack of offensive production at home appears statistically insignificant, the result of a small sample size. But Jarrett feels that the dimensions of his field, coupled with a thick all-turf infield and frequent wind, has made it harder for his team to score in South Bend.
“From what I've seen in the six games I've coached, it just plays differently,” he said. “There are places at every level of the game where it plays a little bit differently. And I see just different looks when you’re at a road stadium versus when we’re at home.”
For instance, the clay infield and short grass at Clemson Doug Kingsmore Stadium made hard ground balls more of a threat. Then he felt the ball carried more at Virginia’s Davenport Field.
The same goes for Pittsburgh’s Charles L. Cost Field. In game one on Saturday, Putz belted a solo home run, his first long ball of the season.
But would that same swing have yielded a similar result at Frank Eck Stadium?
“If you look at Putz's at bats, there [were three] against Duke and Louisville where he demolished the ball to right centerfield at our stadium, but it’s bigger and that wind kind of knocked it down,” Jarrett said. “He’s taken the exact same swing three or four times with nothing to show for it like he did on Saturday when he hit a ball that went out to right center.”
Notre Dame is about to embark on an eight-game homestand, which includes two ACC foes in No. 15 Georgia Tech and North Carolina State, D1 Baseball’s No. 13 preseason team. The Yellow Jackets (No. 1) and the Wolfpack (No. 5) are both in the top five in terms of ACC team batting average.
The Irish are more than capable of winning with strong pitching and stellar defense, but it will be much easier if the bats can come alive at home and Notre Dame produces more than 4.5 runs per game.
The Irish will take at least two games from No. 15 Georgia Tech
Notre Dame will host its second series of the season versus a top-15 ACC opponent this weekend against Georgia Tech (14-10, 11-7). Currently ranked No. 15 by D1 Baseball, the Yellow Jackets have actually spent most of the season inside the top 10.
Yet I still expect Notre Dame to win at least two games this weekend. Georgia Tech is an excellent hitting team, batting an ACC-leading .297 as a team. But as previously mentioned, it can be much harder to produce runs in Frank Eck Stadium.
Georgia Tech also lacks the pitching required to keep Notre Dame’s offensive at bay over the course of three games. Starting pitchers Andy Archer and Brant Hurter are talented and each carries a sub-3.00 ERA, but both are typically knocked out of the game in the first six innings.
After those two, every other pitcher with more than an inning of work has an ERA above 4.00. As a team, Georgia Tech has the third-worst ERA in the ACC at 5.13.
The Yellow Jackets have also made 24 errors on the season and are ranked No. 246 in terms of fielding percentage. Despite a few errors this past weekend, Notre Dame is still No. 1.
Lastly, the Yellow Jackets are well regarded by the polls but are No. 67 in the RPI.
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