Fueled By Its Internal Fire, Notre Dame Baseball Romps To NCAA Tournament Regional Title; Defeats Central Michigan
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Fueled By Its Internal Fire, Notre Dame Baseball Romps To Regional Title

SOUTH BEND — A humbling early ACC Tournament exit and lower-than-expected NCAA Tournament seed ignited a fire under Notre Dame baseball — one that literally made its way to the Frank Eck Stadium playing field for three days in early June.

Well, as close to literally as possible without actual combustion.

While the Irish stewed over their circumstances for a week before opening regional play Friday, they brainstormed ideas for a home run celebration. The winner was an act they call “the torch.”

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish baseball senior first baseman Niko Kavadas
First baseman Niko Kavadas was the South Bend Regional's most outstanding player. (Notre Dame Athletics)

As a home-run hitter trots toward the plate, he raises his fist, as if he’s carrying a lit torch. His teammates gather to the third-base side of home plate, arms raised in a similar manner until the hitter meets them, windmills his arm and plants the “torch” in the ground.

“It started when we had a lot of frustration with not being a top-eight national seed,” first baseman Niko Kavadas said. “That’s something that lit a fire under us, so ergo the torch.”

It burned all weekend.

All told, imaginary torches lodged into the turf fifteen itmes. Five in Sunday night’s 14-2 disposal of Central Michigan, which gave Notre Dame baseball its first regional title since 2002. The No. 10 seed Irish launched baseballs over the wall seemingly at will. They outscored their opponents 50-5 and, remarkably, allowed just two homers.

Unimaginable domination.

This Ruth-like effort is a product of that anger.

“We’re still frustrated,” Kavadas said. “We feel like this next weekend should be at home too. That’s something that we’re going to play with.”

No one did so more visibly than Kavadas, who was the regional’s most outstanding player. He went 6-for-10 with five home runs, 13 RBI and six walks. With each moonshot, a 2-for-22 slump leading into the tournament went further in the rear-view mirror. He spent the prior few days wondering how to bust out of it. He and Notre Dame’s coaching staff watched film of about 120 swings, but they saw no mechanical flaws.

“He went through a little spurt where he wasn’t recognizing the spin and the pitch,” head coach Link Jarrett said. “Just not seeing it. Hitters go through those. That’s why it’s called a batting average. You have some peaks and valleys.

“It was pitch selection and recognition more than anything else.”

When Notre Dame needed igniting, Kavadas was happy to strike the match. He popped a first-inning grand slam in Saturday’s 26-3 disassembling of UConn. His final homer of the weekend erased the Irish’s only deficit, which lasted for all of one batter. He sent the first pitch of the fourth inning over the right-center field wall to erase Central Michigan’s 1-0 lead.

Just how difficult was it to get him out? Allow the Central Michigan fan section to tell you. When Kavadas’ eighth-inning fly ball died on the warning track, leaving him a few feet shy of his seventh homer of the weekend, the Chippewas fans (and the dugout) stood, howled and applauded. As one observer exclaimed: “We did it!”

Kavadas was the primary assailant, but not the lone supplier of fireworks. Outfielder Ryan Cole and designated hitter Carter Putz hit three home runs apiece. Catcher David LaManna left the yard twice. Putz’s grand slam in the fifth inning Sunday gave Notre Dame a 6-1 lead and busted the game open. The Irish tacked on eight more runs in the final two innings.

“I’ve never seen it play like this,” Jarrett said. “The wind was blowing out a little bit and it was so hot that the ball carried. We have the capability to hit the ball out.”

All while not straying too far from what led to this point — stout defense, smart baserunning, disciplined plate approaches and reliable pitching. This outburst was nearly as surprising as it was impressive. Before popping 15 home runs in the regional, Notre Dame hit merely 45 in its 41 games before the NCAA tournament.

It was only fitting the team with the nation’s best defense clinched its regional title when third baseman Jack Brannigan snared a sharp grounder ticketed for the left field corner, rose, planted and threw to Kavadas in time for the final out. Notre Dame turned five double plays behind Sunday starter Aidan Tyrell, who needed only 88 pitches to complete eight innings.

Tyrell authored the third of three deep outings from Notre Dame’s starting pitchers. He, Will Mercer and John Michael Bertrand threw 24 combined innings and allowed four runs.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame was 6 for 8 stealing bases and drew 19 walks.

“We’ve won in all kinds of ways,” Jarrett said.

Kavadas has a theory explaining way.

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“We have this killer mentality where we may not be the most talented team between the lines,” he said, “but we’re damn sure going to find a way to go 1-0 at the end of the day.”

Often times, like on this regional weekend, that way is channeling anger.

“Our team gets mad when people get a hit,” Jarrett said. “The defense, they study tendencies and spray charts, we move guys a little bit. They get frustrated – they’ve gotten to that level. Foul balls that fall in, the right fielder and second baseman, they’re wanting it.

“I think they’re good when they’re frustrated. But they’re frustrated or intense with the game every day. I’ve seen that when a ball rolls through the infield, they’re mad.”

The Fighting Irish didn’t know their super-regional opponent at the time, but Kavadas and Jarrett spoke Sunday night as if they expect to head to Starkville, Miss., to take on No. 7 overall seed Mississippi State in a best-of-three series. That turned out to be the case when the Bulldogs defeated Campbell 6-5 in the Starkville regional final on Monday afternoon.

The Irish will stroll into one of college baseball’s wildest atmospheres. Mississippi State’s Dudy Noble Field holds just less than 15,000 fans, and at this time of year it’s pulsing at optimal mania. It’s an intimidating place to be a road team. Then again, it just might be what Notre Dame needs to lean further into its newly adopted favorite mentality.

“I hope they’re mad,” Jarrett said. “It’s a pretty good trait.”

One that lights the torch.

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