Notre Dame, Ind. – Junior centerfielder Kyle Richardson, a defensive specialist, is a .142 career hitter for Notre Dame with twice as many strikeouts as hits.
Sunday at Frank Eck Stadium, he became the latest in the ever-expanding line of Irish heroes leading the ACC’s most surprising team to what will be their first NCAA tournament appearance in nine seasons.
Richardson launched his first collegiate home run in his 213th career plate appearance with two outs and an 0-1 count in the bottom of the ninth to give the Irish an 8-7 victory and three-game series sweep over the 20th-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels.
“I was trying to hit a base hit up the middle,” said Richardson, who came on as a pinch-hitter in the ninth. “That’s more my style, that’s more my game, just looking for a fastball to hit hard up the middle.
“It was in the right spot and I hit it as hard as I possibly could. It’s one of those things I’ve dreamt about my whole life, but I never thought it would be something that happened to me.”
The victory – coupled with a 10-5 and 3-1 doubleheader sweep Saturday – lifted Notre Dame (33-18, 15-12) into third place of the ACC’s Atlantic Division and fourth overall in the conference with just a weekend series at Boston College awaiting before the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C.
“I couldn’t be happier for this group of guys,” said Irish head coach Mik Aoki, whose record at Notre Dame was 110-111-1 overall and 46-61 in the Big East/ACC in his first four seasons with the Irish.
“They believe in one another. They play with some confidence. They try to stay one pitch at a time, and at the end of the day, if they’ve done a good job of that, we look up at the scoreboard and see what we were able to do. We put one more swing of the bat on it today than Carolina did, and we were fortunate to win that game.”
Fifty-one games into the 2015 season with an ACC tournament bid (one of 10 teams) locked up and a trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006 imminent, Notre Dame has created its own good fortune.
After losing six straight ACC games – three each to Louisville and Virginia – the Irish fell to 3-9 in the conference. They proceeded to win the next six and have won 12 of 15 heading into the final week of the regular season with a trip to Boston College to complete the slated games.
For most of the season, it’s been a vastly improved defense, a nation-leading 64 double plays, an underclassmen-driven pitching staff, and such a significantly-improved approach at the plate that you wouldn’t recognize the team, which basically is comprised of the same players who finished 22-31 overall and 9-21 in their first foray into the ACC last year.
“We try not to derive our confidence from outcomes – wins, losses, hits, ERA – because often in this game, you can do everything right and not necessarily get rewarded for it,” Aoki said.
“We’ve believed in the process of trying to get good and trying to be really competitive. Believe in that rather than things that are subject to the whims of others that you can’t control.”
Sunday, the Irish went against the grain with a fairly substantial breeze blowing north-northeast out of Frank Eck Stadium as they launched five of their 33 home runs on the season to overcome a 6-0 second-inning deficit.
First baseman Zak Kutsulis hit two home runs – a three-run bomb in the second and a solo shot in the fourth – followed by Robert Youngdahl’s opposite homer in the sixth, Cavan Biggio’s solo act in the eighth, and finally Richardson’s uncharacteristic power surge in the ninth.
Freshman righthander Brad Bass (3-0) – one of six pitchers to take the mound Sunday – was credited with the win. Five relievers, including season-long contributors Evy Ruibal and Sean Guenther, limited the Tar Heels to three hits and no runs over 6 2/3 innings after starter Nick McCarty struggled with his control (four walks in 2 2/3).
A day earlier, steady freshman righthander Brandon Bielak couldn’t get out of the fourth inning as he walked five. And yet the Irish still managed to get the broom out for the No. 20 team in the country.
In the 3-1 second-game victory Saturday, sophomore righthander Ryan Smoyer (7-0), as he’s done all year, filled a much-needed role by throwing six innings of two-hit, shutout baseball.
“Ryan has been so good in so many roles for us,” Aoki said. “He came out of the bullpen early in the year, then became a mid-week starter, and a conference starter. He’s been a swing guy, and today, he went back to the relief role. We’ve got five guys on the weekend that we feel we can mix and match and still have confidence regardless who’s in there.”
In the 10-5 first-game victory over the Tar Heels (31-19, 13-13) Saturday, the Irish trailed 5-2, but scored a run in the fifth, another in the sixth, two in the seventh and five in the eighth to put it away.
All this against Mike Fox’s Tar Heel program that has been to the College World Series six of the last nine seasons.
“We’ve rebounded from the ebbs and flows of conference play pretty well,” Aoki said. “Lose six straight in the conference and we rebound to win six straight. Lost a tough series at Wake (Forest), and then bounced back to get this one at home.
“(Sunday), there wasn’t any sense of panic when we went down 6-0. Disappointment, obviously, but we just kind of got back to, ‘Let’s grind out at bats and let’s change the momentum of the game.’ Our relievers were able to change the momentum of the game, too, which in the past is something we’ve struggled with.”
With a trip to Western Michigan Tuesday, followed by a three-game set on Chestnut Hill, the Irish do not want to change the formula for success, even though the ACC tournament and a first trip to the NCAA tournament since Paul Mainieri’s last season at Notre Dame looms.
“One year ago today, we were completely eliminated and we were playing out the string,” Aoki said. “The way we had played the first 48 games dictated that that was the case. This year the way we played the first 48 games dictated that we have changed that.
“We’ll just keep worrying about ourselves and not worry about all the other stuff. The rest of it is ambient noise. We’ll continue to do what we do, worry about our level of play, and let all the rest of the stuff take care of itself.”
Taking care of business…all the way to the ACC and NCAA tournaments.