Irish upbeat second time through ACC

Fifth-year head baseball coach Mik Aoki believes his roster – from one through 35 – is the best he’s had at Notre Dame since his arrival from Boston College in 2011, although the Irish will have to compensate for the loss of righthanders Sean Fitzgerald and Pat Connaughton.

There’s only one way Notre Dame’s first season as a member of the ACC’s Atlantic Division could have gotten off to a worse start.

If the Irish had lost every one of their first 15 conference games.

Notre Dame managed to squeak out a victory over Virginia Tech on March 21, but three-game sweeps by North Carolina State, Duke, Wake Forest and Florida State put the Irish in a rut from which they could not recover.

Actually, Notre Dame showed plenty of fight down the stretch, going 8-7 over the final 15 ACC games, including a pair of victories over Boston College and Clemson, and a three-game sweep of Pittsburgh to end the 22-31, 9-21 campaign on a high note while bringing up the rear in Atlantic Division.

“It was nice to end a really challenging season by winning five of the last six when we finally were able to play here on campus,” said fifth-year Irish head coach Mik Aoki.

“I’m really excited about this team. Last year was challenging on a lot of different levels, but this team has been great. We had a phenomenal fall. Our kids have created a good, positive team-first, team-oriented culture.”

Aoki’s reference to playing at Frank Eck Stadium – rather, not playing at Frank Eck Stadium -- was a major obstacle in Notre Dame’s first foray in the ACC. When the University miscalculated the onslaught of an early winter, the artificial surface that was to be installed late in the fall was put on hold, forcing the Irish to travel to fields/stadiums near and far to play their “home games.”

It wasn’t until the final two ACC series of the season that the Irish were able to play at the Eck, and lo and behold, the Irish took two from Clemson and swept Pitt. This spring, only inclement weather will stop the Irish from opening the home portion of the schedule at The Eck in late-March against Louisville.

More good news comes in the way of returning players, which includes every significant position player for a team that struggled mightily at the plate (a team .245 batting average) with marginal power (11 HRs, .328 slugging percentage) and decent speed (52 stolen bases).

The two most significant players lost were righthanders Sean Fitzgerald (3-3, 229) and Pat Connaughton (3-5, 3.92), the latter of which remains at Notre Dame for now while plying his trade on the Irish hardwood before returning to the Baltimore Orioles farm system.

Aoki remains optimistic with an influx of freshman hurlers who’ll join senior righthander Scott Kerrigan (3-1, 1.87), junior lefthander Michael Hearne (5-6, 2.51), and junior righthander Nick McCarty (2-7, 4.47) in the mix.

“You look at a kid like Mike Hearne or Scott Kerrigan, they pitched really well for us last year,” Aoki said. “You look at a bunch of the freshmen, some of whom are really talented kids like (righthanders) Brandon Bielak, Brad Bass, Peter Solomon and (lefthander) Sean Guenther.”

As the Irish head to Norman, Okla., to take on SIU-Edwardsville Friday, Feb. 13, followed by a three-game set with the Sooners, Aoki expected Kerrigan, Hearne and McCarty to be joined in the starting rotation by Bielak while the other above-mentioned freshmen provide “power arms on the back end.”

It’s that every-day lineup – at least offensively – that provides the greatest concern. Every starter is back, led by left-handed hitting senior Blaise Lezynski, who will handle the designated hitter role after batting .296 with a homer and a team-leading 32 RBI.

Third baseman Kyle Fiala hit .268 as a surprise freshman performer for the Irish. He could hit as high as No. 2 in the lineup behind senior co-captain/centerfielder Mac Hudgins, who came on strong late in the ’14 season to hit .288.

The likely three-hole hitter in front of Lezynski is sophomore second baseman Cavan Biggio, the younger of two Biggio’s on the Irish roster (senior Conor is a backup outfielder) and the offspring of recent Hall of Fame selection Craig Biggio. The younger Biggio hit .246 with two homers and 16 RBI as a freshman.

Aoki will be looking for a bounce-back season from left-handed hitting junior first baseman Zak Kutsulis, who hit .292 as a rookie before injuries contributed to a .255 campaign in ’14, although his 18 RBI were second to Lezynski’s 32.

Jockeying for positioning in the batting order will be left-handed hitting senior rightfielder Robert Youngdahl, whose rocky transition from junior college (.225, 42 strikeouts) cost him playing time despite showing some pop at the plate (3 HRs, 17 RBI).

Senior Ryan Bull – who hit a walk-off home run in that season-ending Pittsburgh series – also has some long-ball capabilities (3 HRs), but struggled to a .212 average. He’ll open the season vying for a starting spot.

Sharing catching duties will be co-captain/graduate student Forrest Johnson (.248, 15 RBI) and promising switch-hitting sophomore Ryan Lidge (.264, 6 RBI), the cousin of former Irish/MLB standout Brad Lidge.

A huge returning piece for the Irish is junior shortstop Lane Richards (.254, 12 RBI), whose sophomore campaign was limited to 36 games when he was forced to undergo right elbow surgery. His return ties together what should be an improving infield defense.

Left-handed hitting freshman Jake Johnson is expected to open the season as Notre Dame’s starting leftfielder.

“This team is as talented of a team as we’ve had here in terms of our depth,” said Aoki, whose four-year record with the Irish stands at 110-111-1. “Obviously, we’ve had some pretty good players in (Eric) Jagielo, (Trey) Mancini and (Dan) Slania. I don’t know that we have any kids that will be first-team All-Americans or first-round type guys this year.

“But I feel like every guy on the team can help us win a game. I feel that way about our pitching staff, our positional guys and the overall level of talent. We’re a lot deeper one through 35 than we’ve ever been.

“For whatever the reasons were last year, I think we had some pretty talented kids that didn’t perform, mostly on the offensive end for a variety of different reasons. We just need guys to go out and execute their roles to the very best of their ability. If they do, I think we’ll be pretty good.”

Pitching coach/co-recruiting coordinator Chuck Ristano returns for his fifth season with the Irish after his staff – always an Irish strength -- fashioned a 3.05 earned run average in ’14. Jesse Woods, who spent three seasons with Aoki at Boston College, serves as assistant coach/co-recruiting coordinator. Adam Pavkovich, a 2012 Alabama graduate, is Notre Dame’s volunteer assistant coach. Top Stories