Feb. 17, 2016
Editor’s Note:Today’s preview of the Irish outfield is part three of a four-part series leading up to the start of the 2016 season this Friday at Santa Clara (9 p.m. ET). Part four will come out Thursday and take a look at a deep and talented pitching unit.
Part 1:The Steady Infield
Part 2: The Leader Behind The Plate
By Sean Tenaglia `16
An embarrassment of riches may be accompanied by challenges, but for the 2016 University of Notre Dame baseball team, you can never have too much of a good thing. Such is the case in the talented and deep Irish outfield, which features four freshmen, two sophomores, one junior and three seniors.
With such a competitive crowd in the outfield, anyone could make an impact on a given day. One of the leaders for the unit is senior Kyle Richardson, who appeared in 47 games for the Irish in 2015, including 23 starts. As one of the most experienced members of the Notre Dame outfield, Richardson is expected to make an impact in centerfield.
“Kyle Richardson has been in and out of the lineup and played a decent amount of games over his time here,” Irish head coach Mik Aoki said. “He’s a really talented kid and I hope that his maturity level allows him to just worry about the things that he can control. He’s a very good defender, and as a whole I think we have a chance to be an extremely good defensive team in the outfield.”
Richardson turned in a strong fall ball season for the Irish and was impressed by the outfield’s athletic and mental development throughout preseason training.
“We have a lot of talented outfielders on this team, so we’re going to take all of the work we put in during the fall and winter and use it on the field,” Richardson said. “We got a lot of drills in, working on getting a quick step and attacking the ball and working on our throws. There’s a lot to build on, and that’ll only get better once we get out there on the field.”
Sophomore Jake Johnson made an immediate impact in the leadoff spot during his freshman campaign last season, appearing in 25 games including 22 starts. An oblique injury derailed the remainder of his 2015 season, but Aoki expects the athletic right fielder to make his presence known right off the bat in 2016.
“Jake played every day for us early on in the season before he got hurt, and from what I’ve seen, there’s been no change is what he’s able to do,” Aoki said, “so I feel really good about that and he’ll probably see a lot of time in right field.”
Johnson finished fourth on the roster with a .392 on-base percentage in 80 at-bats last season, and along with second baseman Cavan Biggio, is expected to find himself near the top of the lineup, where his ability to wear down pitchers and reach base opens up scoring opportunities for the Irish.
“Jake and Cavan are similar in a lot of ways in that both of them have really great plate discipline,” Aoki said. “Jake is a really good two-strike hitter, and you’re going to have to make a good pitch to get either of them out. They go up there with a plan and stay committed to it at the plate.
“We have two guys that are on-base machines and make a pitcher throw eight, nine or ten pitches to get them out. That has a cumulative effect of wearing opposing pitchers down early. Both will be near the top of the order and give up an opportunity of creating some pressure and getting guys on base.”
The talented freshmen foursome of Eric Feliz, Eric Gilgenbach, Connor Stutts and Matt Vierling have competed with the upperclassmen throughout the preseason and will push for playing time early on in the Irish outfield.
“These young guys have a lot of heart,” Richardson said of his young teammates. “A lot of them are going to be able to contribute as freshmen in the ACC, which I think is incredibly impressive. They came in and competed right from the start this fall. They pushed the older guys to get better and they pushed themselves, so they’ve really helped us improve as a team.”
Vierling, who also may see some time on the mound, is likely to make an immediate impact at the left field position for the Irish. While acknowledging the young outfielder’s talent, Aoki said it is important for Vierling to ease his way into playing at the collegiate level.
“I don’t know if I have any really high expectations just yet,” Aoki said. “I think he’s a talented player and he’s still learning. I want him to just be able to mentally take the game one pitch at a time. It’s a lot easier said than done, and for him, I’m sure in some way, shape, or form he might have expectations for himself. If he can just focus on how good he can possibly be from pitch to pitch, he should be good, and that’s all we can expect from him at this point.”
In agreement with his coach’s assessment, Vierling said he has been working hard to adjust to the learning curve of college baseball and has relied on some of the veteran outfielders to ease his transition.
“You realize when you come in that everything is a lot faster and a lot more organized, and you just have to get acclimated to the system quickly,” Vierling said. “It’s been a good transition for me, and I think for a lot of the freshmen it’s been a really smooth transition.
“The guys, especially the senior class, have really brought us in and treated us like we’re part of the family. I was here during the summer, and from day one, they just helped us get used to the culture. Especially in the outfield, we have a couple of veterans and they’ve really brought us in and showed us how we do things in the outfield, so it’s really helped.”
Sophomore Jake Shepski, junior Torii Hunter Jr. and seniors James Nevant and Ricky Sanchez add depth and experience to the outfield and should make their presence known early in the season for the Irish. With such a talented and athletic group of players, Richardson said the unit is looking forward to showcasing its preparation by making plays in the outfield.
“For us as outfielders, we just continuously want the ball,” Richardson said. “We just need to be aggressive and go attack it. Whether the ball is in the air or on the ground, our goal is to go out there and make plays for our pitchers. It’s definitely been something we’ve worked hard on, and it’ll be a strength of ours moving forward.”
Echoing the words of many of his teammates, Richardson said the outfield’s goal is to do whatever they can to help the Irish surpass last year’s impressive postseason run and reach the College World Series.
“You’re never going to forget the feeling of being there, and you’re never going to forget the feeling of losing there in the Regionals,” Richardson said. “We’re going to learn from what we experienced last year and work from that to move forward. Instead of taking steps back, I think we’re going to take those memories and build on them. The main thing is continually working to improve.
“We say `let’s get one percent better every day,’ and this group of guys has been working really hard to do that.”