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Notre Dame baseball buzzwords: Pitching and fielding

Coach Link Jarrett’s team is a surprise national power.

John Michael Bertrand
Irish left-hander John Michael Bertrand forms a top combo with Tanner Kohlhepp.
Kamil Krzaczynski/AP

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Link Jarrett received a visit from an old friend during a recent home series against Florida State, where he played his college ball 30 years ago.

Notre Dame’s second-year coach, who has steered the Irish to 30 wins in their first 40 games and the top seed in this week’s Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, sat back and listened to Rick Mathews as he had so many times before.

The 74-year-old scout, based in Centerville, Iowa, made the trip east not just to check in with a former infielder he once supervised as the Rockies’ field coordinator. The former big-league bench coach and bullpen coach was on special assignment for the Rockies to see just what sort of baseball magic is unfolding in Jarrett’s program.

“I was told to come watch because this is the most well-balanced, complete, well-coached team in college baseball,” Mathews told his former pupil, according to Jarrett.

Jarrett, 49, could hardly process what he was hearing.

“This is a guy who essentially ran the minor-league system for the Rockies,” Jarrett said. “He’s been with them for 30 years, and he came to our game. This guy has done everything you could do in professional baseball.”

Even though the Irish dropped two of three to the Seminoles for their only series loss out of 12 this season, Mathews continued to relay how impressed he was with the surprise national power in the Midwest.

“That kind of made me step back and think,” Jarrett said. “I don’t always see the big picture. That’s probably when it hit me that some of the people that are in the game, that sit up there and watch, probably see things that I obviously don’t, that I overlook.”

Among those, Jarrett said, was how hard his team plays and how engaged in every pitch they remain, day to day, inning to inning. That’s how a program that has reached the NCAA Tournament only once since 2006 and lost projected closer Tommy Vail and senior starter Jack Sheehan to preseason injuries could set the college game abuzz.

Notre Dame has climbed as high as No. 2 in the national polls despite ranking 13th out of 14 ACC teams in scoring. The Irish are only sixth in the league in on-base and slugging percentage but rank third in ERA under longtime pitching coach Chuck Ristano thanks to three of the top four individuals in the ACC.

That includes the chart-topping combo of lefty John Michael Bertrand and righty transfer Tanner Kohlhepp, who started his college career at Tennessee. A patchwork pitching staff worked its league-best fifth shutout Wednesday in the ACC Tournament opener in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Nobody’s too proud,” Jarrett said. “Everybody’s just, ‘Give me the ball.’ We can’t start everybody, and we can’t close everybody. We don’t care. We mix and match.”

What the Irish do best, however, is catch the ball. They lead the ACC in fielding percentage, committing only 21 errors all season until muffing two chances in the tournament opener against the Hokies.

“I think our defense is exceptional,” said Jarrett, hired away from UNC Greensboro in 2019 to replace Mik Aoki after nine seasons.

Doubters can point to a down year for the ACC, where N.C. State (15th), Florida State (17th) and Miami (24th) were the only league clubs to join seventh-ranked Notre Dame in Baseball America’s latest national rankings.

It will be interesting to see how the NCAA selection committee seeds Notre Dame, which has reached the College World Series only twice in its history (1957 and 2002), and just how much respect it will get when it comes to tournament hosting privileges.

Even then, the Irish, who fell 14-1 to Virginia in Friday’s pool finale, could turn any potential slights into an advantage.

“We definitely have a chip on our shoulder,” senior second baseman Jared Miller said after playing through a sprained left wrist for much of the regular season. “But each time we step on the field, it’s just another game. We play hard . . . and we’ll see how far that takes us.”