You’re in a new league – moving from the Big East to the ACC – and before you have a chance to steady yourself, you’re 1-14 in conference play without a home field to practice or play games on, and without much hope of recovery.
Notre Dame’s 2014 baseball season – 22-31 overall and 9-21 for a last-place finish in the ACC’s seven-team Atlantic Division – was nothing short of a disaster.
Now, it serves as a valuable recollection that led to introspection, which has in turn catapulted the 2015 version of Fighting Irish baseball into one of the early-season feel-good stories in college baseball.
“Familiarity breeds comfort, and comfort often times can be the difference between being confident and not being confident,” said fifth-year Irish head coach Mik Aoki in the aftermath of a four-game sweep in the Irish Alamo Invitational in San Antonio, which raised Notre Dame’s record to 7-1 on the heels of a 2-1 series victory at Oklahoma the previous weekend.
“The players and our coaching staff took a long, hard look at virtually everything we were doing, from the way we communicate with our players to the way in which the players have to come to the park every day…everything.
“We’ve been able to institute a culture change that was needed. We’d been trending in a pretty good way the first two or three years, and then took a pretty big step backwards last year. We all looked at it and said, ‘You know what, we are responsible for that happening, and we’re going to get better.’”
From a significantly more disciplined approach at the plate to a power-driven pitching staff infused with some young, live arms to a more positive approach to the pitch-by-pitch existence of the game, the Irish have played a brand of baseball more representative of the tough-as-nails approach that has earmarked Aoki’s teams during his coaching career.
“We knew last year wasn’t acceptable, even though we were transitioning in a lot of ways,” Aoki said. “We had to divorce ourselves from the win-loss record. Some things had to change and they have. It’s been great for all of us.”
A 49-for-142 (.345) four-game weekend at the plate in San Antonio raised the team batting average from .254 to .300 with ACC player of the week Cavan Biggio – Notre Dame’s sophomore second baseman – leading the way. Biggio hit .533 on the trip, knocking in six runs, scoring five and drawing five bases on balls. Through eight games, he’s hitting a robust .516 with a .625 on-base percentage.
Biggio leads a contingent of much-improved hitters, including sophomore catcher Ryan Lidge (.400), junior shortstop Lane Richards (.385), and senior rightfielder Robert Youngdahl (.313).
Notre Dame’s every-day line basically returned intact from last season when the Irish hit .245 with a .323 on-base percentage. The offense’s plate approach has been night and day with the on-base percentage rising to an impressive .411. In eight games, the Irish have had 57 walks and/or hit by pitches, which has played a key role in Notre Dame averaging nearly eight runs per game.
In San Antonio, the Irish out-scored their four opponents – Incarnate Word (two games), Villanova and Northwestern – by a 40-to-6 count.
“It’s become somewhat contagious,” said Aoki of the make-you-work plate approach. “We’ve got guys like Cavan Biggio and Ryan Lidge and Jake Johnson, who sort of come by that selectivity and discipline at the plate naturally. It’s just a natural part of their games, and it’s rubbed off on guys like Lane Richards, (sophomore third baseman) Kyle Fiala, and (senior centerfielder) Mac Hudgins.
“We’re able to continually put pressure on the pitcher up and down our lineup. It doesn’t always result in a hit, but the number of easy at bats for a pitcher are really minimized by our lineup.”
Freshman left-handed hitting leftfielder Jake Johnson -- who was hitting below .200 until a three-hit performance Sunday against Incarnate Word raised his average to .273 – has been another great example of the team’s plate discipline. Even while Johnson wasn’t getting anything to fall off his bat, his on-base percentage --- thanks to seven walks and seven hit by pitches – remained rock solid.
Through the first eight games of his collegiate career, Johnson has a .541 on-base percentage.
“Eight games does not a season makes. It’s a small sample size,” Aoki cautioned. “But our pitchers throughout the fall and the whole pre-season had to work incredibly hard to get our hitters out, and that has carried over to games. Hopefully, it’s a trend that keeps up.
“Our on-base percentages have been really good in comparison to what our batting averages have been, which is reflective of the discipline these guys have had, and Jake is the poster child for that. He can hit, but he’s incredibly disciplined.”
Balancing the scales for the Irish has been a pitching staff – coached by Chuck Ristano – that is sporting a 2.92 ERA after allowing just six earned runs in the last five games, including a single run in four of those games.
Senior righthander Scott Kerrigan (1-1, 2.92 ERA), junior righthander Nick McCarty (2-0, 0.61) and junior lefthander Michael Hearne (1-0, 2.38) have sparked the upperclassmen-influenced staff, but so, too, have a bunch of youngsters such as freshman righthander Brandon Bielak (1-0, 4.25), sophomore lefthander Scott Tully (1-0, 0.00), freshman righthander Peter Solomon (1-0, 1 save, 0.00), freshman righthander Evy Ruibal, freshman righthander Brad Bass, sophomore righthander Ryan Smoyer and freshman lefthander Sean Guenther.
“We’ve got three or four guys in our bullpen who we feel are absolute weapons,” said Aoki, referencing Solomon in particular, who has allowed just three hits and no runs in 5 1/3 innings/three outings.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that can really help this team that aren’t necessarily getting a lot of innings and at bats,” Aoki said. “That’s good for our program where we can take that Brian Kelly mantra of next-man-up.”
Of course, Aoki is realistic about the overall competition the Irish have faced the first two weekends of the season and what awaits the Irish come March 6 when they open ACC play at Georgia Tech’s Russ Chandler Stadium. The stakes are higher and the .300 team batting average, .411 on-base percentage and 2.92 ERA are bound to take a hit.
But it’s one step at a time with a trip to Cary, N.C. for the USA Baseball-Irish Classic against East Carolina, Seattle University and Penn State this weekend.
“I can’t look into a crystal ball and say, ‘This is where we’re going to end up in the ACC,’” Aoki said. “But we feel really good about the way we’re going about what we’re doing, and that’s something that is going to keep up regardless of what the results are. It’s going to be a good and exciting program to be a part of moving ahead.
“Our program is a much more positive place. Kids are excited about playing every day much more than last year, and the coaching staff is excited to be working with these guys.
“The goal is one step at a time and be a better team this weekend than we were last weekend. Just keep moving that ball forward, inch-by-inch, until we look up at the end of the year and all the things that we wanted to happen to our program have happened.”