Two seasons ago – Mik Aoki’s fifth year at Notre Dame and the program’s second in the ACC – was a breakthrough year for Irish baseball.
After failing to land an NCAA tournament berth in nine seasons, the Irish were back in the post-season, advancing to the regional finals in Champaign, Ill.
But Notre Dame was unable to build upon the success of the 2015 season, falling to 27-27 overall and 11-17 in the ACC last year to finish last in the Atlantic Division.
Now, with several veterans gone from the 2016 roster – including three-fourths of the infield – Aoki must build his success around an experienced pitching staff and as many as seven underclassmen in the everyday lineup.
“That component isn’t going to change,” said Aoki of the mighty ACC, which features perennial national title contenders Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville and Miami.
“Pitching-wise, we’ve got a lot of familiar names back. I don’t know any person in our program that would disagree that our pitching is our strength, and that’s a good place to be strong.”
Ryan Smoyer, Peter Solomon, Brandon Bielak, Michael Hearne, Brad Bass, Sean Guenther and Scott Tully are all familiar names dotting Notre Dame’s roster of pitchers, who once again will be instructed by pitching coach Chuck Ristano.
As a sophomore, Smoyer put the Irish on his back and carried them to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006, notching a 9-1 record and a 2.27 earned run average while walking just 18 hitters in 79 1/3 innings.
But Smoyer faltered in ’16, losing his command (37 walks in 61 1/3 innings) as his ERA more than doubled (4.34).
“I think we’ll see a Ryan Smoyer much like his sophomore year,” predicted Aoki of the 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior.
He’ll get plenty of help. Solomon, who was 3-6 with a 4.68 ERA last year, caught fire over the summer in the Cape Cod League, emerging as a MLB draft prospect as the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder enters his junior season.
Sitting atop of the rotation will be junior righthander Brandon Bielak, one of two starters who posted quality numbers last season. Bielak was 3-2 with a stingy 2.10 ERA while striking out 54 in 55 2/3 innings.
Co-captain Michael Hearne, a left-handed graduate student, recorded an 8-2 mark with a 2.13 ERA in ’16.
Expected to anchor the back end of games are 6-foot-6, 250-pound junior Brad Bass (1-1) and junior lefthander Sean Guenther (3-5, 4.62). Senior lefthander Scott Tully also is expected back in the bullpen after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
“When you look at Ryan Smoyer, Michael Hearne, Scott Tully, Peter Solomon, Brad Bass, Sean Guenther…those are guys who have pitched a lot of important innings,” Aoki said.
Settled but much less secure is the everyday lineup following the graduation of first baseman Zak Kutsulis, shortstop Lane Richards and leftfielder Ricky Sanchez, and the early departure of second baseman Cavan Biggio to the draft. Kutsulis, Richards and Biggio were the backbone of the Irish the previous three seasons.
“We have to work really hard to keep our culture and chemistry, and then we just have to play at or near what we’re capable of playing on a day-in and day-out basis,” Aoki said.
“On the days where the majority of our guys are feeling it, I think we have a chance to be great.”
Senior co-captain Kyle Fiala moves from third base to shortstop. Sophomore Nick Podkul, who took over at third base after Fiala took a 98 mile per hour fastball off his hand, figures to be a mainstay.
Sophomore Matt Vierling is a stabilizing presence in centerfield after hitting six home runs and knocking in 29 runs last year. Ryan Lidge, who has struggled at the plate, has developed into a defensive weapon behind it.
Junior Jake Shepski moves into a full-time role in left field after an early-season three-home run, eight-RBI game propelled him to a team-leading seven home runs and 25 RBI.
Three freshmen and a sophomore are in the picture at first base, designated hitter and right field. Freshman Connor Power will slot in the lineup at first base or designated hitter
What at-bats Power doesn’t get in those two spots are likely to go to sophomore Eric Gilgenbach and freshman Patrick McDonald. Freshman Nick Neville is projected as the starting rightfielder.
“We have to stay healthy,” Aoki said. “We have more pitching depth than we do positional depth.”
Notre Dame begins play Friday, Feb. 17 at noon ET in San Antonio in the annual Alamo Irish Classic. The Irish will play four games, opening against Lafayette, while also taking on St. Louis and Incarnate Word.
In subsequent weeks, the Irish will travel to San Diego to play San Diego University three times, followed by four games in Cary, N.C. for the USA Baseball-Irish Classic against Maryland, UMass Lowell, Rhode Island and Monmouth.
ACC play begins at Clemson on March 10 with Notre Dame’s home opener slated for March 24 against Florida State.
It’s about trying to make your bad days good, which comes down to consistency,” Aoki said. “Those are the days we’ve got to find a way to compete to win. If we can do that, we have a chance to be pretty good.”