STARKVILLE — Seemingly unfazed by the largest Super Regional crowd in NCAA history and the intense Mississippi heat, Notre Dame came off the bus swinging hot bats. The Fighting Irish Saturday pounded out 12 hits, six for extra bases, and led 7-3 early and for much of the back-and-forth game.
And then came Landon Sims.
The fire-balling Mississippi Sate closer slammed the door on the Irish, retiring all six batters he face — three on strikeouts — to put the Bulldogs one victory away from the College World Series. The final: State 9, Notre Dame 8 before 14,385 surely sweat-drenched fans who endured a heat index of 101 degrees.
They will play again Sunday at 5 p.m. If State wins, it’s on to Omaha. If the Irish win, they’ll play the rubber match Monday at 6 p.m.
Many of us wondered throughout the game when State coach Chris Lemonis would call on Sims, the All American. You knew he was coming, you just didn’t know when.
State catcher Logan Turner made the decision for Lemonis. With two out in the bottom of the seventh, Tanner blasted a home run over the right center field fence to give State the 9-8 lead.
“I was debating, but as soon as that ball went out of the park, Landon was coming in,” Lemonis said. “We were going to play the last six outs with the best closer in the country.”
Sims did not disappoint. Mixing a 96-97 mph fast ball, which seemed to rise, with a biting slider that broke sharply down, he dominated — just as he usually does.
And you should have heard that record crowd when Sims took the field from the bullpen down the left field line. It got louder and louder and louder. Even Sims, who has heard those cheers many times in the past, was taken aback by the volume.
“When I passed Kamren (third baseman, Kamren James) I looked at him and said, ‘This is just unreal,’” Sims said. “These are the best fans in college baseball.”
Sims retired the first two batters in the eighth, which brought up Niko Kavadas, the Irish clean-up hitter, he of Popeye arms, broad shoulders, barrel chest and 21 home runs — five in last week’s Sound Bend Regional. It was a classic matchup: one team’s best slugger against the other team’s best pitcher. It lasted 10 pitches, every one dripping with drama, before Sims finally caught Kavadas looking at a 96 mph fastball when he appeared to be looking for the slider.
Said Sims, “Those first two outs were really big so the bases were empty when Kavadas came up. That battle was fun — really, really fun. I knew if I teed one up for him, he’d hit it 450 feet.”
Sims, who earned his 10th save, was perfect in the ninth, as well. But there were many Bulldog heroes this sweaty day. Rowdey Jordan had three hits including a double and a two-run home run. Tanner Allen also home run. And Preston Johnson provided State’s pitching bridge to Sims with 2.2 innings of high-quality relief pitching against Notre Dame’s powerful bats,
Not to be underestimated was the assist from the huge crowd, which jammed into every nook, cranny and standing room area of Dudy Noble Field. Here, they call it the “Dude effect.” It is real.
“When we need it most, the crowd gets loud,” Jordan said. “Then we get a hit and they get louder, then we get another hit and they get louder and then we get on a roll. You’ve got 14,000 people having a good time, so you have a good time as a player.”
Difficult to say how much the crowd affects the opposition, but Jordan definitely thought it did.
“This atmosphere makes it difficult (for visitors), especially because the crowd is right on top of you,” he said. “I think it made a difference in some of the errors they made.”
Notre Dame, one of the nation’s top fielding teams, committed four errors, which led to two unearned runs in a one-run game. That’s not hard math. Said Lemonis, “Our crowd makes it tougher to pitch, tougher to make plays, tougher to stay off pitches. Sometimes it’s hard to talk.”
Notre Dame coach Link Jarrett called the one-run game: “national championship caliber,” saying, “I love the atmosphere.”
Jarrett also said he liked his team’s chances of fighting back and taking the series. “Our guys are resilient, they will respond,” he said. “We have not lost back-to-back games over the last two seasons.”
They will likely face Sims again at crunch time. He used only 29 pitches to complete the two inning save. Said Jarrett, “Sims’ fastball seems to climb on you. We studied him, but until you’ve seen some pitches in the batter’s box, it’s hard to prepare for that climbing fastball.”
And, even then, it’s hard to hit it.