Notre Dame’s dramatic diamond turnaround

It starts with better at bats, which leads to more pitches by the opposition, more base runners and – so far – a much more productive offense. On the mound, several young, power arms have helped fuel the 10-1 start.

For the last seven seasons, WHME-TV/FM Sports Director Chuck Freeby has provided the live commentary on Notre Dame baseball.

While Freeby has a flair for the dramatic and can keep the one-man radio booth humming along, the performance on the field has left a bit to be desired.

The end of the Dave Schrage era and the first four years of the Mik Aoki regime were a struggle in the Big East and then the ACC last year in Notre Dame’s first year in the competitive baseball conference.

Through 11 games this year on trips to Norman, Okla., San Antonio, and Macon, Ga., the Irish (10-1) have played like a much different baseball program than the one that compiled a 229-215-2 record the previous eight seasons, finishing seventh or worse six of those seasons, and missing out on the NCAA tournament each year since Paul Mainieri’s final season with the Irish in 2006.

“This is tremendously loose and a far more upbeat team than it’s been in my seven years around the team,” said Freeby, a 1986 Notre Dame graduate.

“There’s a terrific chemistry. There aren’t cliques. It’s a very good bond among all the groups on the team.”

It’s also a much more productive baseball team. After taking two-of-three at Oklahoma, sweeping through a four-game demolition in the Irish Alamo Invitational (out-scoring its four opponents, 40-6), and then taking three more this past weekend in an impromptu trip to Georgia – (the USA Baseball-Irish Classic in Cary, N.C. was canceled due to inclement weather) – Notre Dame has shown a marked improvement in its approach at the plate.

Through 11 games, Notre Dame has a .390 on-base percentage and a team batting average of .286 while scoring at a 7.4-run clip. Each of those numbers is a dramatic improvement over the final ’14 statistics.

“There’s an experience factor, even though when you look at the lineup, you still see sophomores and freshmen,” Freeby said. “It’s very obvious that they’ve been able to create a mindset as hitters.

“Even when batters get an 0-2 count – whereas last year you knew they were completely done – you see them battling through at bats, doing a great job of working the count, and getting (opposing) starters out of there early.”

Leading the way at the dish is sophomore second baseman Cavan Biggio, who after struggling to a .246 mark as a freshman, has played like an All-American. Biggio is hitting .525 (21-for-40) with a .630 on-base percentage and a .950 slugging percentage with seven doubles, two triples, two home runs (both in Saturday’s victory over Mercer) and a team-leading 11 RBI.

“Cavan is much more comfortable at the plate than he was last year,” Freeby said. “Last year was his first experience with failure, and I think it was kind of difficult for him to work through.”

Biggio is just one of several hitters who have shown growth this season. Junior shortstop Lane Richards – a career .249 hitter and coming off elbow surgery – has settled in at his position since a shaky defensive start in Oklahoma and is hitting .342, including several clutch at bats/hits.

“He looks so smooth in the field after that really rocky weekend in Oklahoma,” said Freeby of Richards. “He’s hitting the ball with much more authority than ever before.”

Sophomore catcher Ryan Lidge – the cousin of former Irish ace/MLB all-star Brad Lidge – has wrestled the starting job away from graduate student/captain Forrest Johnson and is hitting .314 (11-for-35) with eight RBI. Senior Robert Youngdahl, who hit. 225 with 17 RBI last season, is hitting .308 with more than half of his RBI total (eight) from a year ago.

Senior designated hitter Ryan Bull – who didn’t even figure into the plans when the season began – has hit a torrid .412 with seven hits and seven RBI in 17 at bats since spelling senior Blaise Lezynski in San Antonio.

Then there’s freshman leftfielder Jake Johnson, who was inserted into the starting lineup in the leadoff spot by Aoki in the first game of the season. It took far fewer than 11 games for him to nail down the job.

“Jake Johnson knows how to play baseball,” said Freeby, noting Johnson’s .480 on-base percentage. He’s from the Atlanta area and he’s played a lot of baseball. He gets it.”

Meanwhile, on the mound, Aoki and pitching coach Chuck Ristano have relied on senior righthander Scott Kerrigan, junior righthander Nick McCarty and a bunch of young arms, several of which clock well into the 90-mile-per-hour plus range.

McCarty’s strides – after a 2-7 sophomore campaign – have been impressive. The Indianapolis-area product is 2-0 with a 1.74 earned run average in three starts. Opponents are hitting just .203 against McCarty.

“One of the great stories of the early part of the season is the way McCarty has developed,” Freeby said. “He has a different mindset on the mound than he did before.

“It goes back to what the expectations were last year and what they are this year. Last year, you always expected something to go wrong and it eventually did. This year they’re getting out of jams without giving up the big inning. They expect to come back.”

Freeby cites Notre Dame’s 5-4 victory over Akron Saturday night, which was the ninth victory in a row by the Irish. With Sean Guenther on the mound, the freshman lefthander had surrendered a double and a walk, and went 3-0 on the three-hole hitter.

“Instead of walking that guy, (Guenther) came back and induced a sacrifice fly to keep the team in the game,” Freeby said. “If he walks that guy after going down 3-0 to him, that’s a completely different ball game. That wound up being a very big out.”

Notre Dame scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth to defeat Akron, completing the sweep that also included victories over Belmont (6-4) and host Mercer (8-2), a perennial NCAA tournament team/aspirant.

Combine the performances of sophomore lefthander Scott Tully and freshman righthanders Brandon Bielak (2-0), Peter Solomon (1-0, 2 saves) and Brad Bass (1-0) and the Irish have gotten six victories, just 24 hits allowed in 38 1/3 innings, a 2.34 earned run average and a 36-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Obviously, the three rookies weren’t on last year’s team, and Tully – who has yet to allow a run in 11 innings pitched with a .132 average against – made five token appearances in ’14 when the Irish struggled to a 22-31, 9-21 mark.

Several veteran relievers – an area of struggle last season – have relinquished their roles to the younger corps of hurlers.

“Each one is a little different,” said Freeby of the young Irish pitchers. “With Tully, it’s the confidence he has in his changeup. He’s not afraid to throw it against any hitter.

“Solomon and Bielak each can throw three pitches for strikes. They get people out. Solomon throws between 94 and 96, and nobody has squared him up. Bass threw the ball around 91, 92, and he came through in a difficult situation against Akron to get the win.”

With the next series in Atlanta against Georgia Tech to open ACC play, the question remains: Is Notre Dame ready for conference play after losing 14 of its first 15 ACC games a year ago?

“I think they are now,” Freeby said. “I had that same question coming out of San Antonio. They cruised through San Antonio with no problem against inferior competition, although that’s a good sign, too, because you’ve got to be able to beat up on those teams.

“We’ll find out more this weekend when they go to Georgia Tech, and then after that, it’s a trip to Clemson.”

All signs are pointing to a much more competitive Fighting Irish squad when ACC play begins on Friday, March. 6.


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