Deriving satisfaction from losing two out of three games to an ACC foe has a short shelf life. But after one weekend of conference play, Notre Dame (11-3, 1-2) is still feeding off a quality start to the 2015 season despite 11-7 and 4-1 losses following a 3-2 victory in 10 innings to open conference play at Georgia Tech.
“I thought it was a pretty evenly-played series,” said Irish head coach Mik Aoki, whose squad extended its winning streak to 10 games before dropping the last two games of the series.
“It would have been easy for them to have swept us and it would have been easy for us to have swept them. Like so many of these series, one or two plays put the whole thing in the balance. But I thought our kids played great.”
Sophomore third baseman Kyle Fiala’s single up the middle plated junior shortstop Lane Richards with what proved to be the game-winning run in the top of the 10th Friday. The Irish fell behind early Saturday and battled back to a 7-5 deficit before losing a game for the first time since Feb. 13.
On Sunday, the Irish ran into Yellow Jackets righthander Brandon Gold, who scattered five hits over eight innings and struck out seven while walking none in the series finale.
As the Irish delve further into ACC play, the pitching naturally becomes more difficult with which to contend. Even the scorching-hot Cavan Biggio finally dipped under .500 and had his 12-game hitting streak snapped in Atlanta. Yet he headlines an offensive attack that is hitting .278 in 14 games and continues to turn in quality at bats.
With his eight doubles, two triples, two home runs and 11 RBI, Biggio is slugging at a .759 clip, and his on-base percentage is at .529. He’s joined at the top of the food chain by senior rightfielder Robert Youngdahl and junior shortstop Lane Richards, both of whom are hitting .327 with Youngdahl tying Biggio for the team-lead in RBI.
“There were a few times we hit the ball on the screws and the ball ended up in somebody’s glove,” Aoki said. “Our at bats were really good. We had some scoring opportunities Saturday that we cashed in on, but not some others.”
Sophomore catcher Ryan Lidge has two home runs, 10 RBI and is hitting .298. Big weekends by Youngdahl (5-for-13) and Fiala (5-for-12, now hitting .263) have lifted them up from sporadic starts, although Youngdahl has been a consistent run-producer from the outset.
“With Kyle, it was a matter of time,” Aoki said. “He was a good player for us last year and he’ll be a good player for us this year. His first couple of weekends his timing was a little off. He had good at bats over the course of the weekend, and probably three other balls he hit on the screws.
“Youngdahl struggled last year, and unfortunately, I think a little bit of it is it’s their junior year, and in baseball, that’s a draft year and they put a little undue pressure on themselves. The game is hard enough without putting those types of expectations and pressures on yourself.”
The reclamation project of the year so far has been senior switch-hitter Ryan Bull, who began the year on the bench, but has emerged as Notre Dame’s cleanup hitter, where he is hitting .357 (10-of-28) with a home run and seven RBI.
“Last year, for whatever reason, he had an off year,” said Aoki of Bull. “But if you look statistically over his first two years, he’s playing to who and what he is as a hitter.
“Last year was a little bit of an aberration for all of us. So far he’s in a much better place and doing a really good job. He’s swinging the bat the way we all feel he’s capable of swinging it.”
Notre Dame’s pitching, by and large, has been quality. The Irish have allowed four runs or less in nine of the 14 games, including a streak of five games in which they allowed just seven runs total.
Senior righthander Scott Kerrigan (1-1, 3.09) and junior righthander Nick McCarty (2-1, 2.70) have led the way on the mound, although Kerrigan’s quality start against Georgia Tech led to a no-decision while McCarty had difficulty with his two-seam fastball, which led to three runs and seven hits in less than three innings in Sunday’s loss.
The greatest difference between last year’s staff under pitching coach Chuck Ristano and this year’s group is a bunch of quality young arms out of the bullpen. Freshmen Peter Solomon (1-0, 3 saves, 2.35), Brad Bass (2-0, 2.08) and Evy Ruibal (0-0, 0.00 in 4 appearances), as well as sophomore left-hander Scott Tully (2-0, 2-08), have been impeccable in their early work. Brandon Bielak (2-1, 5.31) has been up and down in his first four starts, although he’s been thrust to the forefront as a freshman.
One concern – despite the solid 3.48 earned run average – is the 40-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio from Notre Dame’s starters.
After committing 12 errors in the first four games, the Irish have made just six over the last 10 games, including a mere one boot in the weekend series against Georgia Tech. In addition to his hot start at the plate, Biggio has made significant strides at second base without an error in 80 chances while taking part in 16 of Notre Dame’s 20 double plays.
“I always thought we were going to be a good defensive team,” Aoki said. “We left one play on the field over the whole weekend, which came back and bit us. But our defense has been good.”
Despite losing two of three, it was good to get that first victory out of the way in the ACC opener. The Irish lost 14 of their first 15 ACC games a year ago.
With Notre Dame on spring break, the Irish remained on the road after the trip to Atlanta, heading to Savannah, Ga., for a single game Wednesday against Savannah State.
The Irish then head to Clemson, S.C. to take on the Tigers (8-6, 1-2), who took two-of-three non-conference games against No. 5-ranked South Carolina before falling twice in three games at North Carolina State to open ACC play.
“Our kids are competing at a really high level,” Aoki said. “I feel good about where our pitching is and I feel good about our team.
“You don’t want to lose two of three, but this is a good club and we’re going to be fine when all is said and done.”