Link Jarett saw the promise of Notre Dame’s roster in his first, abbreviated season.
An unexpectedly long offseason gave the 49-year-old coach time to rethink a few things.
With a revamped defense, a resilient pitching staff and a reinvented offense, Jarrett helped his team shred the preseason expectations of finishing last in the ACC’s Atlantic Division. The Fighting Irish won the division crown and are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2015.
“If you build it the right way, you should be playing in June,” Jarrett said Thursday. “It’s been fun to watch it evolve.”
Fun for Irish fans to watch, too.
Since a school-record run of eight straight postseason appearances ended in 2006, a stretch that included making the 2002 College World Series, the program had fallen on hard times.
Notre Dame missed eight consecutive tourneys before returning in 2015, then posted four straight non-winning records before Jarrett was hired.
It didn’t take long to sense things were changing.
Jarrett led the Irish to an 11-2 mark last season before COVID-19 shut everything down, but even then he sensed his team needed to work on some weaknesses.
“I told the guys we need to be hard to score on and part of that’s defense and part of that’s pitching,” he said. “Our pitchers have pitched in a way that allows softer contact and the guys aren’t selfish. Nobody comes in here and asks for more innings, they just want to pitch and when you put that out there and have some variety on the staff, that’s what we want.”
Notre Dame (30-11) took advantage of the opportunity to win in different ways and will host its first baseball regional in 17 years starting Friday, in a home stadium that sold out in about an hour.
They will face Mid-American Conference champion Central Michigan (40-16) in the first game of a doubleheader. Michigan (27-17) faces Big East champ UConn (33-18) in the double-elimination format.
How Notre Dame reached this point is every bit as surprising as the plot twists along the journey.
The Irish survived losing their top starting pitcher, Tommy Sheehan, to an elbow injury after two starts; their best closer, Tommy Vail, as he recovered from Tommy John surgery; and getting only three innings pitched out of three-time team captain Cameron Brown. All three are left-handers.
Some teams may have collapsed under the weight of those losses.
But this scrappy team refused to give in.
Instead, the Irish led the nation with a .985 fielding percentage, manufactured scoring plays like Jack Brannigan stealing home during a 12-run, eighth-inning rally to erase a 9-0 deficit in April and beat Boston College 13-9.
Notre Dame’s piecemeal pitching staff produced, too, holding opponents to a .241 batting average while seven players recorded saves, including three by Brannigan, who shared the team lead, as Notre Dame climbed as high as No. 2 in the rankings.
“It’s been a unique way of using the pitching staff,” Jarrett said. “I don’t know if we ever announced three starters in a row, but we went into this knowing we may have to utilize our guys in a different way than other teams. We have the ability to go with a left-hander and then a righty and then maybe a lefty that’s different from the other lefty. That’s just how we’ve done it all year and we’ve had guys deliver in infinite ways.”
Since leaving UNC-Greensboro in July 2019, Jarrett is 41-13 and still has not lost consecutive games — a streak that will be challenged starting Friday when John Michael Bertrand (7-2) takes the mound against the Chippewas as the Irish try to rebound from an early exit in the ACC Tournament.
“We were not happy with sitting the weekend out,” Jarrett said. “But at this point of the year, having a couple days off, I think, it was good to get a chance to rest and regroup and have a couple practices. You can tell these guys are excited and ready to go play.”