by Matt Sefcovic (@MattSefcovic)
After starting 11-2 and sweeping North Carolina before the 2020 season abruptly ended, the Fighting Irish have nearly reproduced that record this season, improving to 10-3 (9-3 ACC) with their first non-conference game of the season on Tuesday night against Valparaiso. Coach Link Jarrett has Notre Dame primed to make their first postseason appearance since 2015, a team that has played in a NCAA regional just once in the last 13 seasons. The Fighting Irish had three games cancelled to begin the season and chose not to schedule midweek games until this week, but have looked dominant in a schedule containing primarily ACC opponents.
Notre Dame was picked to finish dead last in the ACC Atlantic Division, receiving just 18 votes, as opposed to 39 by Boston College, the team directly ahead of them. On paper, this Notre Dame team doesn’t jump out at you as one of the Top 15 teams in the country, batting just .258 as a team, which is good for 145th in the country. They have a 3.85 team ERA, which is just inside the top 70 in the country. So, how are they winning? The Fighting Irish are doing all of the small things, committing just three errors all season with a .994 field percentage, the best in the country. Their pitching staff does not walk many batters and they have a very disciplined approach to the plate.
Niko Kavadas leads the offense for Notre Dame with nine home runs (2nd in the country) and 23 RBI (fourth in the country with 1.77 per game.) He is joined by Jared Miller and Carter Putz as the only qualified batters above .300, which falls off after that, including two everyday starters batting in the .100’s. Notre Dame is certainly doing enough to win at this point in the season, but if the Irish want to make a run in the postseason, they will need more consistency throughout the lineup.
In 12 ACC games, Coach Jarrett has used six different starters and has not announced who will be in the rotation this weekend, but John Bertrand (3-0) has been the only pitcher to start each weekend series. Joe Sheridan has been lights out from the bullpen, tossing 14.1 innings and has not allowed an earned run all season. Alex Rao has also been a bright spot for the pitching staff, allowing just one run in 12.1 innings of work with an opponents batting average of just .088. Notre Dame will heavily rely on these two bullpen arms to get through this weekend.
After taking one on the chin against Georgia Tech in Atlanta to begin ACC play, Louisville bounced back by sweeping a Top 25 Boston College team and then taking three games from NC State in Raleigh. The Cardinals have struggled in midweek games, losing to both Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State, but they have seemed to figure things out on the weekend. After moving from the closer role last season, Michael Kirian (4-0) is having an All-American season and was named ACC Pitcher of the Week after his 13 strikeout performance last Friday against NC State. Kirian has a 0.77 ERA through his five appearances this season. Glenn Albanese (3-0), the Cardinals Saturday starter, missed two weeks but has bounced back and is steadily improving, boasting a 1.76 ERA with 15 strikeouts and just two walks. Freshman Kaleb Corbett has also been a key piece to the Cardinals success this year, throwing 14.2 scoreless innings to begin his career, striking out 21 batters. Coach McDonnell’s staff has struggled with control this season, walking 98 batters, just under fiver per game.
At the plate, Louisville is led by Henry Davis, who enters the series with a 21 game hitting streak and .397 average. Davis is also tied with Cam Masterman and Cooper Bowman with five home runs a piece for the Cards. Pre-season All-American Alex Binelas started the season in a slump, but is seeing the ball better as the season progresses. Entering ACC play, Binelas was batting .065 but has increased his average to .215 over the last three weeks. Louisville leads the country in stolen bases with 56, which is something the Irish will need to keep in check this weekend as they face one of the most aggressive offenses they will see all year. The Cardinals will run early and often, putting a lot of pressure on Notre Dame Catcher David LaManna.
Matt’s Prediction: This is going to be an exciting series with two of the best in the ACC this year battling it out, but I think the Louisville offense will be too much for Notre Dame. The Cardinals pitching staff has struggled at times this season, but pitching coach Roger Williams seems to have his weekend guys rolling. Give me the Cards in South Bend.