It was just one weekend, four games and a notch below intensity-wise what the Irish will face on a weekly basis in ACC play. But to win three-out-of-four in Norman, Okla., including two-out-of-three against the host Sooners, was a great way for Notre Dame (3-1) to open Mik Aoki’s fifth season with the Irish.
Notre Dame did not win a series at an opposing team’s home park in 2014.
“It went about as well as it could,” said Aoki of his team’s 7-6 victory over SIU-Edwardsville, a 6-1 loss to Oklahoma, and then 10-9 and 5-1 victories over the Sooners on Saturday and Sunday respectively.
“We dropped a game on Friday night, but that was more about what (Oklahoma 6-foot-7, 210-pound sophomore righthander Jake) Elliott was able to do than an indictment on ourselves. The kids did a really good job of living that one-pitch-at-a-time mantra that we’ve adopted. I was really pleased with our engagement level, effort and enthusiasm all weekend long.”
Junior righthander Nick McCarty and freshman righthanders Brandon Bielak and Peter Solomon notched the victories with Solomon and sophomore righthander Ryan Smoyer recording saves.
“He’s worked on sharpening up the mental side of things in how to deal with those points during the course of the game when things are breaking against you,” said Aoki of McCarty, who allowed just four hits and one unearned run in 7 2/3 innings in his ’15 debut after going 2-7 with a 4.47 earned run average in ’14.
“His maturity as it relates to being able to deal with those tough spots was night and day better. If he’s able to continue that, he’s going to have a really good year for us.”
At the plate, sophomore second baseman Cavan Biggio and sophomore catcher Ryan Lidge started the season on a tear. Biggio hit .500 (8-of-16) with five of the team’s nine extra-base hits creating a robust .936 slugging percentage. He also scored a team-leading six runs.
“I’m not sure anyone could swing the bat much better than Cavan did, including his dad,” said Aoki, referencing recent Hall of Fame selection Craig Biggio. “This is the kind of thing that Cavan is capable of. I don’t think this is some crazy outlier. He’s a good hitter.
“He’s gotten the maturity he needed to deal with the struggles of last year. He’s worked hard and become a really good teammate. He’s better prepared to deal with the ups and downs after not dealing with a whole lot of adversity in high school. It’s part of the learning curve. This is one of the elite hitters in that 2013 class.”
It was Lidge’s two-run home run in the seventh inning of the season-opener against SIU-Edwardsville that provided the winning margin Friday afternoon at L. Dale Mitchell Park. Lidge – a switch-hitter – batted at a .455 clip (5-of-11).
“He hit the homer left-handed and also had two or three hits right-handed,” Aoki said. “He played great.”
Senior Robert Youngdahl hit .333 (5-of-15) with a team-high five runs batted in. Aoki also commended left-handed hitting freshman leftfielder Jake Johnson, who hit just .200 (2-of-10) from the leadoff spot in four games, but drew six walks and a pair of hit by pitches for a .556 on-base percentage with four runs scored.
“He’s got a really advanced feel for what the strike zone is,” said Aoki of Johnson. “He’s not a kid that chases a lot. He’s going to get his share of hits because he’s a good hitter. He made some hard contact that found gloves. But he extends at bats, and pitchers really have to work hard to get him out.”
Johnson’s at-bats – as well as a 13-pitch at-bat by centerfielder/No. 9 hitter Mac Hudgins in game two against Elliott – epitomized the weekend at the plate for the Irish.
“Offensively, if there was one theme for the weekend, it was that we were really disciplined in our approach,” said Aoki, whose squad drew 20 walks with five hit-by-pitches for a .366 on-base percentage, balancing out a .252 team batting average. “We made those guys work extremely hard to get us out.”
The two one-run victories were a nice change of pace from last year’s 7-13 mark in one-run games. Aoki was particularly impressed with the attitude of his team coming off a 22-31, 9-21 season in Notre Dame’s first year as a member of the ACC. The approach in the 10-9 victory over Oklahoma – despite losing most of a 10-2 lead – pleased Aoki.
“I never sensed in our dugout that our guys thought we were going to lose that game, and I’m not sure I could have said that last year,” Aoki said. “That piece is more important than the fact we won two one-run games.
“I never sensed any panic from our guys. I sensed positive feelings and confident body language, which is a big difference from last year. That’s been a point of emphasis for us. I’m glad our guys got rewarded for all the hard work they put in.”
Notre Dame returns to action Thursday, Feb. 19, against Incarnate Word in the annual Irish Alamo Invitational. Also participating in the four-day, four-game, round-robin tournament are Villanova and Northwestern.