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Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024
The Observer

Lighting the torch: Irish hit five more home runs, complete demolition of South Bend Regional

Baseball managers often stress the importance of having a solid hitter to protect the biggest bat in the lineup, and on Sunday evening, that concept proved beneficial to Notre Dame. With scorching hot first baseman Niko Kavadas drawing four walks in the Irish’s regional final against Central Michigan, it was up to junior designated hitter Carter Putz to supply the power. He delivered with two home runs, one of the grand slam variety, as Notre Dame punched their ticket to their first Super Regional since 2002 with a 14-2 victory over the Chippewas.

In three games at this South Bend Regional, the Irish outscored their opponents by a 50-to-5 margin, blasted fifteen home runs, won every game by at least ten runs, and got 24 total innings out of three starting pitchers, needing just three total innings from their bullpen. The ACC regular-season champions also utilized their new ‘light the torch’ home run celebration all weekend long.

“The ’light the torch‘ started when we didn't get a top-8 seed,” Kavadas said. “We felt we deserved that, and it lit a fire under us.”

Much like the first clash with the Chippewas, the Irish needed a little bit of time to get their bats warmed up, even falling behind for the first time in this regional as Central Michigan’s Griffin Lockwood-Powell sent an offering from Irish junior lefty Aidan Tyrell into orbit in the top of the fourth inning. It was a deficit not taken lightly by the Irish.

“They’re so locked in, they’re engaged in the game,” head coach Link Jarrett said. “Those first three or four innings, they were furious.”

However, Kavadas didn’t let the deficit last long, as he led off the bottom half of the inning by depositing a hanging curveball over the right-field fence for a game-tying solo blast.

“I was being selective, wasn’t seeing many strikes,” Kavadas said. “I wasn’t necessarily sitting on the curveball, but as soon as I saw a pitch start around my letters, I knew it would finish down in the zone.”

“We may not have the most pure talent between the lines, but we’re damn well going to find a way to go 1-0 at the end of the day,” Kavadas added.

The Irish added another run via a Central Michigan error to reclaim the lead heading into the fifth inning, where they would break things open. After senior left fielder Ryan Cole singled to begin the inning, the Irish drew back-to-back walks to load the bases. Putz then reminded the capacity crowd at Frank Eck Stadium that the Irish have pop up and down the lineup, as the junior drilled an offering over the left-field fence for the 6-1 lead.

“He’s a very adept hitter, mature for his age,” Jarrett said. “I wondered if it was smarter to protect Niko in the lineup, and there’s a consistent threat with Putz. He knows the pressure of hitting behind Niko, and he can handle it.”

Although the Irish left the bases loaded later in the inning, Tyrell had more than enough run support. The southpaw twirled yet another gem, lasting eight innings while allowing just two earned runs and walking one batter. Although he only struck out three, Tyrell took advantage of having the nation’s best defense behind him, inducing five double-play ground balls to escape most of the mini-jams.

“Those guys up the middle (junior shortstop Zack Prajzner and Jared Miller) have the highest baseball IQ on the field,” Kavadas said. “They’ve worked hard all year, know where they’re supposed to be, and they put themselves in a position to turn five double plays today.”

Although the Irish didn’t need any more run support for their dominant pitching, they provided plenty, bringing across eight more runs in their final two turns at-bat. Cole delivered his third home run of the weekend, a three-run bomb to extend the lead to 9-2. He finished the regional with a .438 batting average, one of six Irish regulars to bat above .400 on the weekend. In the eighth, Putz and junior right fielder Brooks Coetzee contributed the 14th and 15th long balls of the weekend for the Irish before freshman outfielder TJ Williams drove in a run with an infield single. Senior second baseman Jared Miller collected an RBI of his own with a fielder’s choice.

Notre Dame finally dipped into the bullpen in the ninth inning, going to the ACC’s ERA leader sophomore Tanner Kohlhepp, to cement the victory. The righty flashed a fastball up to 94 miles per hour, in a 1-2-3 frame. The game ended fittingly, with a fantastic defensive play from sophomore third baseman Jack Brannigan who made a fantastic diving stop on the third baseline, got up, and threw a one-hop strike to Kavadas. A celebration and Gatorade shower for Jarrett ensued, and the head coach praised Brannigan and Kavadas’s adjustment to new positions (the entire Irish infield defense sans catcher David LaManna played new positions this season).

“Brannigan ... you won’t find a more athletic third baseman playing at any level of the sport,” Jarrett said. “We moved Niko to first, figuring any guy that can play third can learn to play first, and he’s improved all year at first.”

The Irish don’t know who they’re playing yet as they await the winner of the Starkville Regional, but signs point to them traveling to face No. 7 Mississippi State, who sit at 2-0 in their NCAA Tournament effort so far. The Super Regional is a best-of-three series with the winner advancing to the eight-team College World Series in Omaha, NE.

Despite their dominance this weekend, Kavadas said the chip on Notre Dame’s shoulder remains.

“We’re still frustrated...” he said. “We feel this next weekend should be at home too ... so we’re going to go down to Mississippi State and find a way to go 2-0.”

“You’re going to go down to Starkville, ten thousand people who eat, sleep, and breathe baseball, screaming every pitch ... I’m glad they’re frustrated. It’s good to be mad,” Jarrett added.

With no schedule or opponent officially decided for the Irish, Jarrett said the team would take the day off on Monday before beginning Super Regional preparation on Tuesday. Game 1 of the Super Regional will be Friday.