Same coaching staff, basically the same players, much different results.
For the first time in nine seasons, the Notre Dame baseball team (35-19, 17-13) will participate in the NCAA tournament after clinching at least a No. 4 seed in next week’s ACC baseball tournament in Durham, N.C.
“We’re excited for the opportunity,” said Irish head coach Mik Aoki, who saw his Notre Dame squad of 2014 finish 22-31 overall and 9-21 in its first season in the ACC, which led to its exclusion from the conference tournament.
“This is something we haven’t talked about a ton because we wanted to make sure we were involved in the process of it all. But now we have a couple of days to take account of everything we have accomplished.”
The turnaround from the 2014 season is nothing short of astonishing. Sure, the Irish were in their first time through the ACC experience last year, leading to some normal growing pains. Sure, the Irish were without an actual home field until the final two series of the conference season.
But the improvement with basically the same cast of characters has been stunning, starting with the defense that committed 76 errors in 53 games compared to this year’s team that has just 48 miscues in 54 games. The Irish snuff rallies with great regularity as evidenced by its 71 double plays.
The other area of significant improvement is in the power categories. Notre Dame managed just 11 home runs in 2014. That figure more than tripled to 38. The slugging percentage improved from .328 to .383 with 18 more doubles and 27 additional home runs.
In 2014, it wasn’t until the sixth of 10 ACC series that the Irish won at least two of three games, and that came against lowly Boston College. Finally, when the new surface at Eck Stadium was put in place, the Irish took two-of-three from Clemson and swept Pittsburgh to finish with nine conference victories out of 30 games.
This year, the Irish won six of 10 series including sweeps of No. 7 Florida State and No. 20 North Carolina. After an injury-riddled Irish team lost three in a row to Louisville and Virginia, they closed the regular season with a 14-4 mark versus ACC teams. Notre Dame took two-of-three from Clemson and two-of-three from North Carolina State, a team that swept the Irish last year.
By splitting a doubleheader with Boston College Friday and taking two-of-three from the Eagles, the Irish reached the 35-victory plateau for the first time since 2009 when Dave Schrage’s squad won 36 games. Aoki surpassed his coaching-career high for victories with the 35th conquest of the season – one more than the Irish won in 2013 and the Eagles won in 2009.
By winning two-of-three from the Eagles (10-4 and 5-2 wins; a 6-5 loss in 10 innings), it meant the Irish won five of their last six ACC series.
“We would have liked to have sealed that thing by winning six straight, but it is what it is,” Aoki said. “Now we look forward to the post-season and getting down there to Durham and seeing what we can do.”
The Irish achieved balance from top to bottom of their lineup. No one finished the regular season above .300, but sophomore third baseman Kyle Fiala is hitting .297 with four home runs and 26 RBI, senior rightfielder Robert Youngdahl is at .295 with six home runs and a team-leading 40 RBI, followed by sophomore catcher Ryan Lidge at .292 with two homers and 35 RBI.
Notre Dame also got production from junior first baseman Zak Kutsulis (.274, 5 HRs, 32 RBI), junior shortstop Lane Richards (.264, 5 HRs, 31 RBI) and sophomore second baseman Cavan Biggio, who tailed off to .255 after a red-hot start, but still led the team in home runs with eight while knocking in 21 runs. Senior leftfielder Ryan Bull (.259, 4 HRs, 22 RBI) resurfaced after a tough junior campaign.
Per usual, Chuck Ristano’s pitching staff was sharp virtually the entire season, turning in a 3.03 earned run average following a 3.05 mark in ’14. Sophomore righthander Ryan Smoyer (8-0, 2.06) has been spectacular as a starter and middle-to-late innings guy. Freshman righthander Brandon Bielak (5-2, 3.43) has been steady throughout most of his rookie campaign.
Senior righthander Scott Kerrigan (3-4, 3.57) and junior righthander Nick McCarty (6-3, 3.93) have battled through shoulder setbacks. A series of young relievers have been tough from the start of the season, led by sophomore lefthander Scott Tully (4-4, 3.10) and freshman lefthander Sean Guenther (2.70, 5 saves).
With the Clemson-Florida State series still to determine final seeding for the ACC tournament, the Irish will begin their post-season play Wednesday, May 20 at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, N.C.
“This is a big deal,” Aoki said. “We’re excited to get down there and see who our opponents are and be able to go out there and try to stay together as a group and continue to compete.”