Sizzling ND Ready for Florida St. Challenge

Notre Dame is one of just five out of 14 ACC baseball teams with a conference record above .500, joining Louisville, Miami, Florida State and N.C. State.

There was a time in Notre Dame’s early participation in ACC play when a 1-5 start against conference competition likely would have snowball into something even worse.

Since losing three games at Louisville and two of three in Raleigh against North Carolina State in mid-March, the Irish have won eight of the last 10 versus Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Miami and Boston College to emerge as one of just five teams above .500 in ACC play heading into the third weekend of April.

“We’ve played at a really high level, even if you extend that back to the Louisville weekend,” said Irish head coach Mik Aoki, whose squad (22-12, 9-7) has won 14 of 16 overall, including mid-week, non-conference victories over Oregon, Michigan and No. 21 Michigan State Tuesday.

“We followed up at N.C. State and probably didn’t play that well in two of three games. But we’ve been playing pretty darn well over the course of the last five or six weeks.”

The winning turnaround began on the road – in Blacksburg, Va. – where the Irish claimed 16-4, 6-2 and 5-2 victories, which included sophomore Jake Shepski off-the-chart three-homer, nine-RBI game against the Hokies.

Notre Dame made its 2016 ACC home debut with victories in two of three against Wake Forest. Some northern Indiana spring weather sabotaged a three-game Frank Eck Stadium home series against No. 2 Miami with the Hurricanes claiming a 10-2 victory in the only game played.

But the Irish crept over the .500 mark in ACC play for the first time with 4-1, 4-1 and 11-9 victories at home over Boston College on Blue-Gold Game weekend.

The Irish overcame a 9-4 deficit to the Eagles in the final three innings of game three to complete the sweep.

“Playing with some mental toughness, playing one pitch at a time regardless of the game situation, and not letting the game situation make you press,” said Aoki of his team’s comeback win Sunday in which the Irish scored a combined seven runs in the seventh and eighth innings.

Seven walks and a hit by pitch surrendered in the first two innings of Sunday’s game against Boston College left the Irish with a five-run deficit with nine outs remaining. But a five-run seventh and a two-run eighth did the trick.

“We fell down, we got punched in the face, and things were going against us,” Aoki said. “Let’s just keep playing and see what the hell happens.

“We made mistakes along the way, but we talk all the time about the idea that life and baseball is 10 percent about what happens to you and 90 percent about how you react to it. We reacted great. Our dugout never packed it in.”

The Irish have gotten breakout performances from players who struggled in previous seasons. Veterans Cavan Biggio and Zak Kutsulis, the right side of the Irish infield, remain at the forefront of the attack with the former hitting .310 in ACC play and the latter at .324 through 16 conference games. Shortstop Lane Richards (.300, 1 HR, 9 RBI), a four-year starter, also has hit well in ACC play.

But it’s been the development of designated hitter/outfielder Shepski (.444, 4 HRs, 15 RBI in ACC play) and leftfielder Ricky Sanchez (.316, 2 HRs, 8 RBI) who have helped lead the Irish with an impressive .286 batting average in ACC play.

Shepski, who wasn’t in the starting lineup when the season began, hit just .228 as a freshman in ’15.

“Early on he struggled in some of our practices,” said Aoki of Shepski. “I don’t think we felt as though, at least early in the year, he was the best option. He has certainly proved that incredibly wrong.”

“When he got his opportunity, he made the most of it, and it started at N.C. State on a two-strike, battle-mode ball into right centerfield that got us going. Then obviously Virginia Tech weekend, he went absolutely cuckoo for coco puffs.”

Sanchez hit an anemic .182 for the Irish a year ago. Now, he’s an automatic insertion into the No. 3 spot in the Irish lineup.

“Ricky has done a superb job of adjusting with two strikes,” Aoki said. “He’s shortened his swing down. He’s a good hitter and all good hitters sometimes find themselves in negative counts. His improvement in those negative counts has been really big.”

Now the Irish travel to Tallahassee with a huge opportunity against No. 10-ranked Florida State.

“It’s a difficult place to play,” said Aoki of the Seminoles’ Dick Howser Stadium. “As good of an atmosphere as there is in the entire ACC, which is a big statement.

“Every borderline call down there goes their way. The strike zone is typically the size of a coffee can. That crowd gets going and the umpires get caught up in that whole deal.

“It’s a phenomenal venue. A great place to go and compete and see how good we are.”

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