KNOXVILLE — Tennessee bats have woken up. Our Lady continues to sleep.
Now? Well, a win-win Game 3 unfolds between the Fighting Irish and the Vols on Sunday after Tennessee wiped out Notre Dame’s pitch with a four-home run fifth inning that served as the catalyst in a 12-4 win.
The first pitch inside Lindsey Nelson Stadium is at 1 p.m. Sunday (ESPN) for the Knoxville Super Regional Championship affair.
“We couldn’t avoid the fifth set, that was clearly the difference in the match,” said Ireland coach Link Jarrett. “We trust JM (Bertrand). We couldn’t get out of it.
“I feel for (Bertrand). This guy threw so many big games for us. You don’t like to see a guy who’s worked so hard go through this. They were clearly better than us today.
Maybe it’s the same song, second verse for the Irish (39-15), who went 1-1 to Mississippi State in last year’s Starkville Super Regional before the Bulldogs pulled out to win game 3 and finally the national championship.
If there was a silver lining on Saturday for Notre Dame, it was Jarrett acknowledging he pivoted early to the deciding Game 3 as the Irish bats did little to threaten the ace of Chase Dollander Flights.
“Too soon,” Jarrett said of when he had to focus on the next game. “As this game evolved in their favor, we were very aware that you manage the rest of the game on the mound. You never want to show it’s out of reach, but the way he was throwing… it wasn’t like it was 14-8.
“That’s when the decision had to be made on how to navigate the back-end of this game. So yes, Liam (Simon) will start tomorrow. I’m happy for him. He’s made some good outings, one was a real start and the other was a pseudo start after the seven hour delay (at Statesboro).
“But yeah, I was thinking about that game when we were in the fifth inning. You have to start thinking about pitching and we have some stoned guys and we have to get them out of there.
The Vols (57-8), after putting John Michael Bertrand to work in the first four innings but only managing a single run, alternated clubbing solo strikes with three-run homers in the deciding fifth.
Jordan Beck’s three-point bomb made Vols 5-0, and Luc Lipcius’ shot took it 9-0 – Lipcius’ second outburst of the set. The team ace and ERA leader in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season, Bertrand lasted just 4.2 innings as he was charged with six earned runs on eight hits allowed. He fanned four and walked one.
Tennessee has now taxed Irish pitches for seven home runs in the first two games, and its eight-run fifth was the most runs in a frame this season against the Irish, who had allowed seven-inning outbursts on the route to Duke, Louisville and Miami. The Vols did all that badly on Saturday despite missing suspended hitter Drew Gilbert, who couldn’t watch the game from the stadium but is expected to return in the Finals.
The explosion of host and top seed Vols coincided with Notre Dame’s ongoing plate struggles. The Irish were held scoreless from the fifth inning of Friday’s opener until Spencer Myers’ second out in the fifth inning on Saturday delivered Danny Neri, a drought that covered 9.2 innings.
After Notre Dame hit four home runs in the first four innings Friday night, it had only six total hits. SEC pitcher of the year Dollander took the win with seven innings of five hits and two runs. He stoked five from 112 pitches as Tennessee’s Tony Vitello also looked to preserve his bullpen arms for Sunday’s deciding final.
Jack Zyska was responsible for three of the Irishman’s five hits against Dollander and capped off his excellent work at the plate with a two-run homer with belt against Mark McLaughlin in the eighth.
“He had a good mix of things,” Zyska said of Dollander. “We had our game plan this morning, his stuff was live, obviously you guys saw it. He had his fastball that worked both sides, his change whenever he wanted. It was hard.