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Sports Saturday

Niko Kavadas taking a bash course at Notre Dame

Kavadas learned from his mistakes at the ACC Tournament and has the Irish flying high with a College World Series berth on the line against Mississippi State.

Notre Dame’s Niko Kavadas celebrates a home run against Central Michigan during an NCAA Tournament game June 4 in South Bend, Ind. He hit five homers in the three-game regional round.
Michael Caterina/AP

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — You might consider Niko Kavadas the thinking man’s basher.

It’s not just that he plays first base for Notre Dame, a surprise entrant in this weekend’s -Super Regional in Starkville, Mississippi. Or that his 21 home runs this season, including five in last weekend’s regional, rank first in program history, even as he tosses words such as “propensity” into casual conversation.

No, it’s more than that with Kavadas, who in many ways has become the on-field heartbeat of the 10th-seeded Irish. His work ethic, in the weight room and the video room, has set the tone for the ACC regular-season champions.

“He studies what he’s doing,” Irish coach Link Jarrett said. “He’s very intense. He studies his own game and swing, and he works hard.”

Coming off a disastrous ACC Tournament in which he finished with eight consecutive strikeouts, Kavadas, 22, returned to campus determined to fix the problem. The lefty-swinging senior huddled with Jarrett and his assistants and analyzed 120 swings on video to see what, if anything, had changed.

The consensus: Pitch recognition was the culprit, not anything mechanical.

“Sometimes when you start pressing, you start swinging at some pitches that are out of the zone,” Jarrett said. “He just figured it out and got comfortable again.”

The graduate of Penn High School in neighboring Mishawaka, Indiana, entertained a throng of buddies and former teammates last weekend at Frank Eck Stadium.

It started with a two-homer game in the 10-0 opening victory against Central Michigan, continued with a first-inning grand slam in a 26-3 destruction of Connecticut and reached a crescendo with two more homers in the 14-2 regional capper against the Chippewas.

“I haven’t seen it in all my years of broadcasting,” former major-leaguer Todd Walker said on the ESPN broadcast. “Somebody that can just seem to go out of the yard at will.”

For Kavadas, it started with a long week of preparation. He also learned from his fruitless chasing in the Virginia loss down in Charlotte, North Carolina.

When Central Michigan’s starter came at the Irish with a similar approach, Kavadas was ready.

“He was spinning that fastball at the top of the zone,” Kavadas said. “It’s got 2,300-2,400 [rpm] spin rate on it, so it’s got a little bit of vertical rise. We just set our sights a little bit lower and targeted the top half of the baseball.”

That led to some ungodly exit velocities over the weekend and justified Jarrett’s gut instinct to drop his top power hitter down to the No. 6 spot in the batting order. Kavadas accepted the decision with typical big-picture understanding, then promptly launched himself (and his teammates) right back into a hot streak.

“The reaction was two balls over the batter’s eye,” Jarrett said, “and that’s the reaction we wanted.”

Notre Dame didn’t stop until it had put up 50 runs, including 15 homers, in three resounding wins. That sparked an elaborate homer celebration in the dugout in which the Irish mimed the lighting of a torch.

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

A former third baseman who has worked hard on his defense since moving across the diamond, Kavadas projects as a third- to fifth-round pick in the July amateur draft. That’s a few ticks higher than he might ordinarily go, according to longtime draft analyst Jim Callis of MLB.com.

“He’s a one-tool DH, but it’s real power,” Callis said in a text message. “He has hit good pitching this year and comes with a discount because of his age.”

Kavadas’ makeup and leadership add to the package, as well. After cradling the final out of Sunday’s 14-2 victory, he presented the game ball to Jarrett in a gesture that visibly moved his coach.

As for this weekend’s trip to play seventh-seeded Mississippi State, the underdog Irish are determined to grab just the third College World Series berth in program history.

“We’re still frustrated,” Kavadas said. “We feel like this next weekend should be at home, too. That’s something we’re going to play with that’s going to light a fire underneath us. We’re going to go into Mississippi State and find a way to go 2-0.”