Nine year ago, two future major league pitchers – Jeff Samardzija and Jeff Manship – combined for 17 wins and 172 strikeouts as members of the Notre Dame starting rotation.
A.J. Pollock, now one of the more versatile and complete outfielders in the National League, was a freshman third baseman hitting .372 for the 45-17 Fighting Irish, who were making their eighth straight NCAA tournament appearance and 13th in 18 years.
In the June, 2006 draft, five Irish players were selected. A year later, another seven were chosen in the MLB’s distribution of amateur talent.
Never knew about the tradition of Notre Dame baseball? Not surprising since it’s been nine years since the Irish were included in the 64-team field, a tournament that perennially is dominated by southern/southwestern/western schools where warm weather attracts quality baseball players and produces a vast majority of the top talent in the country.
The 2015 Notre Dame squad (36-21) just raised the program’s profile after its selection as the No. 2 seed in the Champaign, Ill. Regional of this year’s NCAA tournament.
The Irish open play Friday, May 29 at Illinois Field. First pitch is slated for 1:00 p.m. ET against Horizon League champion and No. 3 seed Wright State (41-15). No. 1 seed/host Illinois (47-8-1) takes on Mid-American Conference champ and No. 4 seed Ohio University (36-19) Friday at 8:00 p.m. ET.
Each year, a few “snowbirds” are mixed in, and for a stretch of 18 seasons, Notre Dame was a frequent participant until a dry spell from 2007-14. A third-place finish this year in just their second season in the Atlantic Coast Conference just may revive a nearly two decade-long (1989-2006) tradition.
Pat Murphy (1988-94) began the process. Paul Mainieri (1995-2006) picked up where Murphy left off, leading the 2002 Notre Dame squad to its first College World Series appearance since 1957.
Yes, there’s is a little bit of tradition with Notre Dame baseball.
“It means a lot,” said fifth-year Irish head coach Mik Aoki, who led another snowbird program – Boston College – to the 2009 NCAA tournament.
“Playing in the post-season and playing in the NCAA tournament are things we feel like Notre Dame should be able to accomplish. It’s taken a little bit of time. We knocked on the door in 2013 and went a little backwards last year, but in a lot of ways, going backwards last year helped us get to where we are this year.
This marks the 22nd NCAA tournament appearance by the Irish in its history. Its first came in 1949, but over the next 39 years, Notre Dame made just seven trips back, five of which came from 1956-60 under Jake Kline, who coached the Irish from 1934-75 – 42 seasons – and won 558 games.
The pinnacle of Kline’s tenure came in 1957 when Notre Dame crashed the party by winning three-out-of-four in the District Round in Kalamazoo, Mich. to advance to the College World Series in legendary Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb. The Irish defeated Colorado State, 23-2, and Texas, 9-0, and lost to Iowa State (13-8) and Penn State (5-4).
Forty-five years later, after Murphy took Notre Dame to the NCAA tournament in 1989 – its first trip since 1970 – the Irish embarked upon a run that would set the standard for Notre Dame baseball over an 18-year stretch.
Murphy won 73.2 percent of his games in seven seasons, taking the Irish to four NCAA tournaments before parlaying his success into the head-coaching position at long-time baseball powerhouse Arizona State.
Enter Mainieri, who took it up several notches, including nine NCAAs, eight of which concluded his 12-year run with the Irish that propelled him to the LSU job. Mainieri won 533 games at a 71.4 percent clip. Notre Dame won at least 40 games in 11 of Mainieri’s 12 seasons in South Bend, including 50 in the 2002 College World Series run.
Other MLB players produced by Mainieri were pitchers Brad Lidge, Aaron Heilman, John Axford, and Christian Parker, and third baseman Matt Macri. Among Murphy’s players, current Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell and outfielder Dan Peltier made it to the big leagues with the former claiming a World Series championship ring.
Armed with a 3.05 earned run average and a Division I-leading 74 double plays, the 2015 Irish will try to re-establish a tradition that grew strong under Murphy and Mainieri.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” Aoki said. “Illinois has had a phenomenal season, and with Wright State and Ohio, you have two conference tournament winners.
“So we’re playing against teams that know how to win and expect to win. It will be a great challenge for our group.”