The Notre Dame Fighting Irish baseball is set to return to action following a phenomenal start to the cancelled 2020 season. Under new head coach Link Jarrett, the Irish got off to an 11-2 start before the season was cancelled because of the pandemic. Notre Dame returns nearly their entire roster with some key additions ready to strengthen the squad. This team is one that will be looking to continue last year’s success and they look poised for a breakout, and possibly a return to postseason play, if they can.
The key to Notre Dame’s breakout early last year was their offense. Notre Dame’s winning streak over the last 7 game last season saw them score 13, 10, 9, 8, 11, 14, and 9 runs. As a team they held a SLG% of .485 to go along with 35 steals and a success rate of 83%. On top of that they only struck out 87 times last season, fewest in the ACC by almost 20. The team succeeded by being disciplined, stringing together hits (many of them extra base hits), and adding speed to spark some big offensive outputs. Those are all things that should be easy to carry over into this season.
Niko Kavadas is the biggest offensive weapon for the Irish, and the senior has been earning the preseason accolades to prove it. He’s been named a preseason Second Team All-American by Perfect Game and Third Team by Baseball America. In 13 games last season Kavadas hit .255 with 7 home runs (tied 1st in the ACC and 8th in the NCAA) and 17 RBIs. He also started all 54 games as a sophomore for Notre Dame in 2019, so he has experience to go with the talent. Kavadas had MLB Draft upside last season, and if the draft hadn’t been significantly shortened, he might not be playing for Notre Dame this season. He now has the ability to surge up draft boards though and I would expect to hear his name called early this time around.
Another name to look out for this year is sophomore Jack Brannigan. As a true freshman he started all 13 games for Notre Dame last year, leading the team with 14 runs. He provided perhaps the most thrilling play of the short season, stealing home to help sweep the North Carolina Tar Heels. He also contributed 4.2 IP out of the bullpen and maintained just a 1.93 ERA. The top of the Irish lineup also benefits from the return of Spencer Myers, who led the team last year in stolen bases (15), average (.431), and hits (25). His 15 steals were also good for first in the NCAA. He combined that offensive production with spectacular defense in the outfield and some highlight reel catches.
Some other key contributors returning from last year should be familiar to Irish fans including senior David LaManna, a two year starter behind the plate, junior Carter Putz who came into the 2019 season as one of the top freshmen in the ACC, junior Zack Prajzner, tied for second on the team last year in both hits and home runs, and graduate student Daniel Jung, who missed the 2020 season due to injury, but in 2019 was second on the team in hits and RBIs and third in runs and home runs.
Notre Dame’s pitching staff certainly didn’t have the success of the offense, but they were more than serviceable as a group. The team had a 3.77 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. The struggled with strikeouts last season though, with a rate of just 3.4 batters per 9 IP. This is where the team’s only loss from last season hurts, as closer Joe Boyle had the highest rate on the team and is now a member of the Cincinnati Reds organization. Control was a huge strength though, as the staff only walked 1.5 batters per 9IP and threw just 21 wild pitches in 117 innings, a category conveniently also led by Boyle.
Tommy Sheehan is the big name returning to Notre Dame’s rotation for his senior year. He led the team last season with 23.1 IP, over which he struck out 22 batters and walked just 5, pitching to a 2.70 ERA. In the bullpen, the Irish are boosted by the return of Tommy Vail for his senior season. Vail threw 17.1 innings last season while striking out 24 hitters and walking only 3. He pitched to a .086 opponent’s average and a 2.08 ERA. He was also second in the NCAA with a 0.46 WHIP and second in the ACC in hits allowed (5) and WHIP.
Returning from injury this season to rejoin the rotation is graduate student Cameron Brown. Brown last pitched in 2019 when he made 14 starts for the Irish. He led the team that year with 89 strikeouts and was second with 78.0 IP. The Irish will also benefit from incoming grad transfer John Michael Bertrand, who spent the last four years at Furman. Bertrand was the Friday night starter for Furman last season, totaling 23 strikeouts over 24.0 IP during his four starts. He allowed only four runs and five hits during the shortened season, good for a 1.50 ERA.
Notre Dame WAS set to begin play this week with a tournament in Louisiana, but that has been changed due to positive COVID tests and contact tracing within the team. Hopefully the team can get cleared for next week, but here is a look at their schedule as it stands.
The Irish open the season and conference play next weekend with a series against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. They have three series on the road before their home opener against the Duke Blue Devils on March 19. Notre Dame finishes their home slate of games with a series against the Florida State Seminoles May 7-9 and closes the season on the road against the Virginia Tech Hokies May 20-22. The ACC Tournament is set to take place from May 25-30 although the site is still to be determined. It is a mostly conference schedule for the Irish this season, especially now that they’ve lost three non-conference opponents to start the season, but they do have several midweek non-conference games sprinkled throughout the season.
Currently, Notre Dame is scheduled to play 6 teams ranked in the preseason top 25, that is half of the 12 series they’ll play during the season. Four of those series will be at home against the Louisville Cardinals, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, NC State Wolfpack, and Florida State Seminoles, with two ranked series on the road against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons and the Virginia Cavaliers. All told the Irish are now scheduled for 43 games over the next four months, plus postseason play.
Notre Dame came out of the gate scorching hot last season and jumped out to a much better record than anybody could have thought. Head coach Link Jarrett, now in his second season, put his mark on the program right away between winning on the field and getting commitments from some big time recruits. While it is a shame that a season that looked special from the very beginning was cut short, there’s no reason to believe it isn’t possible again.
Notre Dame is a talented team but at the same time they are in probably the toughest conference in the country. I don’t expect a conference championship or a trip to the College World Series in Omaha, but the Irish have the potential to stick around in the ACC Tournament. That should be the goal along with a trip to the 64-team Regionals of the NCAA Tournament. A favorable matchup there could even get them to the Super Regionals, but even if that doesn’t happen this year it should soon. The program is trending up and there’s reason to be excited.