Notre Dame A Win Away From Omaha After Upsetting No. 1 Tennessee
Notre Dame on Friday walked into the cauldron that is Lindsey Nelson Stadium and stared down top-ranked Tennessee. By the end of the night, the Fighting Irish had an 8-6 victory and were one win away from a trip to the College World Series.
Notre Dame wasted no time jumping on Tennessee, as Carter Putz, the game’s third batter, hit a two-run home run in the first inning. The long balls just kept coming for the Irish, who hit four in the first four innings. Jared Miller hit a solo shot in the second, Jack Zyska hit a two-run homer in the third and Jack Brannigan added a three-run blast in the fourth. By the end of the barrage, Notre Dame had eight runs, had chased two Tennessee pitchers from the game and held a seven-run lead on the best team in the country.
As entrances go, it was about as loud as Notre Dame could have asked for.
“It was a well-played game in all phases,” coach Link Jarrett said. “I could not be more proud of the way these guys came in here and played. This is a tough place, that is an outstanding team we just played, and these guys delivered. This doesn’t end it but to watch them perform like that under these conditions and play with that composure says a lot about them.”
In some ways, Notre Dame beat Tennessee at its own game. The Irish, a team that came into Friday ranked 59th nationally with 1.31 home runs per game, outslugged the Volunteers, who lead the nation with 2.38 homers per game. Notre Dame punched early and often and played clean defense, limiting any comeback attempt.
In other ways, the Irish played their own game Friday. They put some pressure on the Volunteers defense with their running game and a well-placed bunt. Their pitchers worked around trouble, bending but not breaking, and they dipped into their deep bullpen, using a trio of relievers behind starter Austin Temple to hold off Tennessee.
Temple held the Volunteers to two runs in three innings. Righthander Alex Rao relieved him and went 3.2 innings, giving up three runs. Righthander Matt Bedford got one out before freshman lefthander Jack Findlay came on for the final two innings to earn his third straight save.
Tennessee coach Tony Vitello was impressed with how the Irish played Friday.
“They played well, and we didn’t,” he said. “That’s part of the deal, you’ve got to take the good with the bad. I think we’re fortunate the score’s the way that it was, because I think that they played a really good baseball game.”
The game was not without controversy and the lingering effects of it will be felt throughout the rest of the weekend. With two outs in the fifth inning, Tennessee center fielder Drew Gilbert was ejected after arguing a 1-0 pitch that was called a strike. After the ejection, both coach Tony Vitello and pitching coach Frank Anderson rushed out of the dugout and Anderson was also ejected. Because Anderson was ejected earlier this season, he will now serve a three-game suspension. Gilbert is suspended one game.
Tennessee, which has been the top-ranked team in the country most of the season, the SEC champion and the owner of the nation’s best record (56-8), must rebound in a hurry. Saturday’s game 2 starts at 2 p.m. ET, just 16.5 hours after the end of Friday’s loss. The Volunteers’ season, which holds such promise, is on the line for the first time.
Tennessee is looking to avoid the fate that befell the last two No. 1 overall seeds: a super regionals exit. Both 2019 UCLA and 2021 Arkansas fell at this stage of the NCAA Tournament. No top seed has won the College World Series since 1999.
Vitello said he doesn’t think the pressure of the situation got to the Volunteers on Friday night. The pressure is sure to be ratcheted up on Saturday, however. Tennessee swept through its regional, meaning this is the first time it is staring down the end of its season with a loss.
In such a tight spot, Tennessee will be buoyed by the fact that it will turn to righthander Chase Dollander, the SEC pitcher of the year and a candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 draft. Its deep bullpen still has plenty of bullets to fire, including closer Redmond Walsh, trusted veteran lefthander Kirby Connell and, likely, Opening Day starter Chase Burns.
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For its part, Notre Dame is now a win away from the College World Series for the second year in a row. A crucial difference this year for the Irish is that it will have two opportunities to get that win. Last year, in the Starkville Super Regional, Notre Dame lost the first game of the series before beating Mississippi State, 9-1, in Game 2. Mississippi State won the rubber game, 11-7.
By winning the first game in Knoxville, however, Notre Dame has set itself up as well as possible for the rest of the weekend. The team that wins the opening game of super regionals wins the best-of-three series 80% of the time.
Even beyond that basic math, however, the Irish are strongly positioned with ace John Michael Bertrand slated to start Saturday. He last Friday started Notre Dame’s opener against Texas Tech but lasted just an inning before a lengthy weather delay forced him out of the game. He then came back to start Sunday’s regional final, pushing his start this weekend back a day.
Bertrand often started Saturday last season, a move that gave Notre Dame more flexibility to use its bullpen aggressively on Fridays and Sundays, knowing he would likely pitch deep into games on Saturday. Jarrett and pitching coach Chuck Ristano did make some aggressive moves Friday, but still have pitchers like Ryan McLinskey (0-1, 2.42, 3 SV), Aidan Tyrell (5-1, 3.60, 2 SV) and Liam Simon (2-0, 4.67) fresh in support of Bertrand.
No matter how well Notre Dame is positioned, finishing off the super regional won’t be easy. Tennessee is too talented, too experienced, too well-rounded to go quietly. The Irish know their job is only half done and that it will take another special game to knock off the No. 1 team in the country.
“They’re what I thought,” Jarrett said. “When we played the way we played tonight, we can beat that team. If we don’t play that way, they can clearly beat us. They’re what I thought: talented, good, just well coached, balanced, deep.”