When Notre Dame reflects on its pre-conference games leading up to the start of ACC play, the record books will show walk-off wins in the bottom of the ninth to defeat Texas Southern and Gonzaga en route to the Irish Alamo Classic championship in San Antonio.
But the awakening of Notre Dame’s at bats actually came a few hours before the victory over Texas Southern when an eighth-inning rally against Bradley fell short in a 4-3 loss, which dropped the Irish to 1-3 to start the ’16 season.
Coming out of a three-game series at Santa Clara in which the Irish managed to hit just .194 while dropping the last two games of the set, the Irish were headed down the same path against the Braves, trailing 4-0 and showing little-to-no life offensively.
Notre Dame scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth before a ninth-inning rally was snuffed out for its third straight loss. But for the first time in four games, the fire in the Irish bats began to burn.
Victories over Texas Southern (6-5), Incarnate Word (13-2) and Gonzaga (7-6) – lifting the Irish to 4-3 on the season -- produced 38 hits in 100 at bats (.380) and the Irish had a three-game winning streak to extinguish the remnants of a three-game losing streak.
“Obviously we were disappointed losing the series to Santa Clara and the loss to Bradley,” Aoki said. “But we just didn’t swing the bats that great.
“After the loss to Bradley, (pitching coach) Chuck (Ristano) said, ‘I feel like we got a monkey off our back.’ Guys were pressing a little bit, and then after we got those three runs in the eighth, we started to swing the bats better. Our approach was a lot better.”
Senior first baseman Zak Kutsulis hit .533 (8-of-15) in San Antonio with three RBI while senior catcher Ricky Sanchez – filling in for injured Ryan Lidge – hit .412 (7-of-17) with three RBI and five runs scored.
Sanchez had three hits against Incarnate Word and rapped the game-winner against Gonzaga in the bottom of the ninth to send the Irish home on a high note.
“That first weekend in Santa Clara, (Kutsulis) was victimized by balls he hit hard that went at people,” Aoki said. “Ricky Sanchez has been swinging the bat exceptionally well.”
Also hot for the Irish in San Antonio’s Nelson Wolff Stadium were freshmen Matt Vierling (.467, 7-for-15, 8 RBI) and Connor Stutts (3 hits, 5 RBI).
Vierling is no surprise. The right-handed hitting rightfielder was the only projected freshman starter on a team returning seven starters at the eight every-day positions.
Vierling knocked in the first of four ninth-inning runs against Texas Southern, drove in two more against Incarnate Word, and then completed a spectacular second road trip in a Notre Dame uniform with three RBI in the come-from-behind victory over Gonzaga.
Stutts, on the other hand, had to wait until the second weekend of the season to get an extended look. His run-scoring triple was part of a four-run ninth-inning rally that tied the Texas Southern game before sophomore leftfielder Jake Johnson knocked in the game-winning run.
The switch-hitting Stutts also launched a three-run home run in the one-sided victory over Incarnate Word.
“Connor is a kid with a lot of offensive talent,” Aoki said. “He has some pop in his bat. He’s ultra-aggressive, but what he’s begun to learn very quickly is when he shortens up his swing, he can be pretty good. He’s learning to dial down that swing to the point where the triple and home run came with two strikes.
“Ultimately, he’ll end up being a corner outfielder. I don’t know that we need him to do that now, but he certainly has put his name squarely in the hat as a kid that probably needs to be in the lineup.”
Through seven games, the Irish are hitting .280 as a team. Sanchez leads the way (.400, 10-for-25) with Vierling just behind at .391 (9-for-23). Senior second baseman Cavan Biggio checks in next at .375 (9-for-24), followed by Kutsulis (.320, 8-for-25).
Vierling leads the team in RBI with nine. Biggio is 3-for-3 on stolen-base attempts.
As usual, Ristano’s pitching staff is off to a fast start with a 2.95 earned run average and a .221 batting average against.
Junior righthander Ryan Smoyer (1-1, 1.35) was the tough-luck loser against Bradley, allowing four runs before the Irish bats came to life. But he was brilliant in the season-opener against Santa Clara when he allowed just two hits in seven innings.
“Smoyer wasn’t all that sharp against Bradley, but he’s good even when he’s not very good,” Aoki said. “That’s a sign of a really mature guy.”
Sophomore righthander Peter Solomon (0-1, 6.35) has struggled out of the gate, but Aoki believes he’ll get straightened around. Sophomore lefthander Sean Guenther – a new addition to the rotation this season – bounced back from a middle-of-the-road ’16 debut against Santa Clara to pick up the win against Incarnate Word when he allowed just four hits and one run in 7 1/3 innings.
“Sean Guenther has thrown the ball really well,” Aoki said.
Aoki hopes to get sophomore righthander Brandon Bielak (1.59 ERA in two appearances) back into the rotation for the start of ACC play versus Louisville (March 11-13) after arm problems sidelined him late in the ’15 season.
Before traveling to Louisville, Cardinals, the Irish travel to Cary, N.C. for the USA Baseball-Irish Classic where Notre Dame will play Alabama, Brown, Bucknell and Niagara.