Tim Erskine / IrishIllustrated.com

Irish stagger across finish line

The Irish managed just 30 runs in their final 15 games. The pitching was too inconsistent outside of two solid performers. The injuries made continuity difficult.

The demarcation came two-thirds of the way through April with Notre Dame solidly in the middle of the ACC pack at 23-12 overall and 9-7 in conference play.

The three-game trip to Tallahassee to play No. 7 Florida State was predictably tough, including a 7-6 loss in 12 innings in the second game of the Seminole sweep.

After winning each of their first eight mid-week games, with victories over Oregon, Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana, the Irish suddenly lost three out of four at home to Eastern Michigan and Ohio University.
Then the walls came tumbling down. Notre Dame closed the season with 15 losses in its last 19 games, including a pair of losses to Pittsburgh, two against North Carolina, a couple of heart-breakers to powerhouse LSU, and then a three-game sweep by Clemson to complete the Irish season at 27-27 overall and 11-17 in ACC play.

“I thought they handled it pretty well,” said head coach Mik Aoki of the adversity faced by the Irish over the final four weeks of the season. “I never got the sense that there was the mail-in factor. They came to work and tried to get a little better every day and have some fun.

“The losses clearly were disappointing. At one point we were like 10 games over .500 and we were sitting pretty good in terms of the tournament and positioning ourselves from an NCAA standpoint. But you can never see all the injuries coming.”

The injuries were significant on a team with most of its starters returning from a trip to the NCAA tournament in ’15 – its first since 2006. The Irish were well-positioned to duplicate last year’s 37-23 overall record and 17-13 mark in ACC play.

The injuries started early with catcher Ryan Lidge going down the first week of the season. Lidge had batted cleanup and knocked in 36 runs as a sophomore. He would hit .199 with 19 RBI in ’16.

Third baseman Kyle Fiala battled a thumb injury among an assortment of physical setbacks. Hot-hitting senior outfielder Ricky Sanchez experienced shoulder issues late in the season. Veteran first baseman Zak Kutsulis began dealing with back problems with 15 games to go. The Irish lost 12 of those games.

“In retrospect, you wish Zak hadn’t run that hard down the first base line late in the Indiana game,” said Aoki of the start of Kutsulis’ physical ailments.

But it was more than just bad breaks. Notre Dame’s pitching staff under coach Chuck Ristano – a constant in Aoki’s first five seasons with the Irish – never could find the consistency outside of senior lefthander Michael Hearne (8-3, 2.13 ERA) and sophomore righthander Brandon Bielak (3-2, 2.10 ERA).

Junior Ryan Smoyer, who was 9-1 with a 2.27 ERA in ’15 while leading the Irish to the NCAA tournament, finished the ’16 campaign with a 6.15 ERA against ACC competition.

Versatile junior lefthander Scott Tully went down with an injury after pitching just eight games. Sophomore lefthander Sean Guenther and sophomore righthander Peter Solomon couldn’t match their rookie performances.

“Our pitching staff was too up and down over the entirety of the year,” Aoki said. “We certainly had some bright moments. The way that Mike Hearne pitched throughout the whole year. The way that Brandon Bielak pitched once he got his legs under him…

“But we just never had that consistency throughout the year with our staff and that kind of put everything up in the air. When six guys aren’t what you thought they were going to be at the start of the year, it’s pretty hard to be consistent.”

Scoring became an issue down the stretch as well. Notre Dame managed just 30 runs in its final 15 games, including seven games of one run or less.

Although most of Notre Dame’s overall talent returns, four of the top hitters will not. Sanchez, with a .306 average, three home runs and 26 RBI, will move on, as will fellow seniors Kutsulis (.315, 3 HRs, 30 RBI) and long-time starting shortstop Lane Richards (.327 in ACC play). Second baseman Cavan Biggio (.311, 4 HRs, 28 RBI, 14-14 SBs) is expected to enter his name in the MLB draft.

But a healthy Lidge and Fiala are expected back, and outfielder Matt Vierling – who homered six times with 29 RBI – should build on a strong rookie season.

The surprise of the season was sophomore Jake Shepski, who had a three-home run, nine-RBI game en route to six of seven homers in ACC play with a .304 average and 21 RBI.

Every significant inning pitched this season was thrown by a player who will return in ’16.

“We’ll bounce back,” Aoki said. “We’ve got to learn from the rabbit holes that we stepped into and try to stay healthier if we can control that piece of it.”

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