Chris Lemonis knows no NCAA Super Regional will ever be easy.
Unfortunately for the Mississippi State coach, the Bulldogs seem to have drawn one of the toughest assignments of the eight host teams around the nation.
Red-hot Notre Dame, which sliced with ease through the South Bend Regional with 50 runs in three games, will come to Starkville from Saturday through Monday. One team will head on to Omaha for a shot at College World Series glory; one team will end its season prematurely.
So who has the advantage when the Fighting Irish come to Dudy Noble Field? Let’s break down Mississippi State and Notre Dame ahead of first pitch at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Mississippi State (43-15, 20-10 Southeastern Conference) won all three games it played in the Starkville Regional, beating Samford, VCU and Campbell to punch its ticket to supers. It wasn’t always easy for the Bulldogs, as evidenced by their 8-4 win in the opening game and a narrow 6-5 victory over the Camels on Monday in which the tying run reached third base in the bottom of the ninth.
Notre Dame (33-11, 25-10 ACC) opened regional play with a 10-0 shutout of Central Michigan, then whipped UConn 26-3 in the winners’ bracket game. The Irish beat the Chippewas again, 14-2, on Sunday to advance.
The Bulldogs enter the Super Regional round with an RPI that ranks fifth in the country, according to WarrenNolan.com. Notre Dame is only one spot behind at No. 6.
The two teams are the only pair of super regional opponents who come in back to back in that metric, which makes sense given their No. 7 and No. 10 national seeds. No. 8 seed Texas Tech checks in at ninth in the RPI, while its Super Regional opponent, No. 9 Stanford, is 11th.
Notre Dame’s nonconference RPI is the best in the country, but the Irish played only four games outside of the ACC prior to regionals. They beat Valparaiso three times and Central Michigan once. Mississippi State, meanwhile, went 20-3 against a nonconference schedule that had an RPI of 102 despite games against Texas, Texas Tech and TCU early on.
But thanks to a challenging SEC slate, the Bulldogs’ overall strength of schedule was 10th in the country. Notre Dame checked in at No. 30.
Before regional play began, Notre Dame was averaging just under 6.3 runs per game.
Now, that mark is up to an even seven runs per contest after a torrid offensive weekend. (The Bulldogs, by contrast, are just ahead at 7.14 runs per game.)
In the winners’ bracket game Saturday against the Huskies, Notre Dame left fielder Ryan Cole went 3 for 6 and drove in six runs. But it wasn’t even the best hitting performance of the game for the Irish.
That belonged to power-hitting first baseman Niko Kavadas, who went 3 for 4 at the plate, scored five times, homered twice and had an astounding eight RBIs in the blowout win.
Kavadas has hit .309 this season, second only to Cole’s .326 mark. But his .476 on-base percentage is tops on the team, and his .785 slugging percentage is far and away Notre Dame’s best. He’s hit 21 homers on the season — the only double-digit mark on the team — and has driven in 62 runs, which would both lead Mississippi State.
Tanner Allen (.395) and Rowdey Jordan (.329) boast the highest averages of any player on either team. Logan Tanner leads the Bulldogs with 12 home runs, while Kamren James has 11 and Luke Hancock has 10.
In the South Bend Regional, the Irish were able to accomplish on the mound what the Bulldogs have been searching for all season.
Three games. Three deep outings. Three dominant starting pitching performances.
John Michael Bertrand pitched a complete-game five-hitter in Friday’s opener against CMU, Will Mercer allowed two runs over seven innings against UConn, and Aidan Tyrell sent the Irish to Super Regionals with a two-run, eight-inning start Sunday.
Mississippi State has rarely been able to string three good starts together with its third-day starter very much an open question. Freshman Jackson Fristoe, given a chance to take that slot Monday against Campbell, faltered early; left-hander Houston Harding saved the day with five strong relief innings. But Lemonis has yet to say who’ll take the ball in a possible winner-take-all Game 3.
The Bulldogs can be comforted by the steady presences of Will Bednar and Christian MacLeod in the rotation. Bednar has a 3.17 ERA, while MacLeod has a 3.81 mark.
Bertrand, who has started all 13 of his appearances on the season, owns a 2.98 ERA. Tyrell has just seven starts and a 2.91 mark, while Mercer has made 10 starts in 17 appearances and has a 4.53 ERA.
The Irish run out a closer by committee, as no player has more than three saves. Joe Sheridan has a 5.27 ERA in 41.2 innings with just three starts, while Alex Rao has a 2.60 mark in 34.2 innings with one start.
Landon Sims leads the Bulldogs with nine saves and has a 1.34 ERA.
Recipe for victory
With both offenses relatively evenly matched, the entire series — and a third straight Omaha trip for Mississippi State — will likely be predicated on the success of Bednar and MacLeod on Saturday and Sunday nights.
Maybe that seems too obvious, but if the Bulldogs can get at least one good outing from the pair, they’ll be in a good position to sweep or at least force a third game. With two strong starts, Dudy Noble may not even need to open Monday evening for Game 3.
But if either makes too many mistakes against Kavadas or his teammates, Notre Dame could put up run totals similar to those in its regional. Even one win to make a third game necessary would be bad news for the Bulldogs, as the Irish would likely have the edge on the mound.
Mississippi State has the advantage with Sims and a strong bullpen, but if the Bulldogs don’t have an opportunity to deploy those elite arms with a lead, it might not matter.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.