Feb. 16, 2016

By Sean Tenaglia ’16

Editor’s Note:Today’s preview of Irish catching is part two of a four-part series leading up to the start of the 2016 season this Friday at Santa Clara (9 p.m. ET). Part three will come out Wednesday and center on a retooled outfield before the pitching staff closes out the season preview series Thursday.

Part 1: The Steady Infield

“If we’re not thinking about Omaha, then why are we even here?”

Ryan Lidge shows no hesitation in letting you know his goals for the 2016 University of Notre Dame baseball team. Following a successful 2015 campaign in which the Irish reached the NCAA Regional round for the first time in nine years, anything short of the College World Series would be a disappointment for Lidge.

Now in his third season with the Irish, the junior catcher is the go-to man for the Notre Dame pitching staff and a key leader in the clubhouse.

Head coach Mik Aoki said that Lidge’s steadiness and experience behind the plate are crucial to the team’s success on a daily basis.

Junior Catcher Ryan Lidge

(Junior Catcher Ryan Lidge)

“I think the biggest thing is just being steady for them,” Aoki said. “For any player, when things aren’t going great personally or for the team, having a catcher who can almost send some confidence out to you is really important. That’s what he brings. I think the experience factor is a big one, and he’s graduated to the point where he understands that he and the pitcher are a team.

“It’s about trying to be the best pitching battery you can be out there, and he’s worked really hard to develop that. He’s been able to watch some of the best catchers in the country and pick up bits and pieces from them. He’s gotten better at blocking as well, and he’s begun to take a great deal of pride in his defense.”

Particularly with a young Irish pitching staff that features six freshmen and six sophomores, Lidge’s role behind the plate is critical to developing confidence on the mound. The junior catcher takes pride in cultivating friendships with the pitchers, both on and off the field, to build relationships of trust and respect.

“Honestly, the relationship you develop with your pitchers is the most important thing a catcher does,” Lidge said. “I try to start those right away, and I think a lot of that happens off the field. Whether it’s hanging out, eating food, studying, or just talking in the locker room, we’re just developing these friendships. Then with those relationships off the field, on the field trust and respect just comes along naturally. On the field, we trust one another and I just want to show them everyday that I’m working my hardest and that I care for them.

“There are a lot of guys on the team but every single one is different, so there is a lot to learn and develop. How should I set up for a certain pitch? Or how should I get some energy going? For someone like Scott Tully, I don’t have to throw energy at him because he’s always ready to go. Someone else may need a little kick to get that going. It’s just kind of taking it one guy at a time. When you’re catching in the bullpen, you’re focusing on a bunch of guys, but out on the field, it’s just you and one guy on the mound.”

Lidge made his presence known during his freshman campaign in 2014, appearing in 31 games, including 24 starts. In 2015, the Barrington, Illinois native became an everyday starter, finishing second on the Irish roster in RBI (36) and on-base percentage (.402), as well as third in batting average (.279).

His impact was felt defensively as well, as the catcher recorded a .992 fielding percentage while throwing out 17 of 26 runners attempting to steal a base and committing only three errors. Lidge’s physical development and throwing strength have greatly impressed his head coach over the past two and a half years.

“I think the first big jump that Ryan made was physical,” Aoki said. “He’s become a more athletic kid. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll outrun everyone or thrown down a tomahawk slam dunk, but he has become a much more dynamic catcher. A catcher has to be quick inside about a five-foot circle to be able to block balls, catch and throw, and I think he’s done that. He’s gotten stronger and paid more attention to his nutrition, and all of those things have manifested themselves on the field.

“The one constant is his ability to throw. He has an elite catch-and-throw ability. He threw somebody out during an intersquad game off of a backhand pick and threw a strike flatfooted to second base. He’s really good from that standpoint. He can change the complexion of a game just by back picking a runner at first base. He has the confidence and good judgment to do that.”

Aoki believes that Lidge’s ability to develop confidence and avoid mental setbacks will play a critical role in the overall effectiveness of the pitching staff.

“From last year to this year, I’m hoping to see a kid who makes a similar sized jump in terms of the mental game,” Aoki said. “Ryan may have been a little quick to get down on himself a little during his freshman year, but last year he really was able to value the team, which was an important transition.

“He still may get a little over-analytical of his swing, and get a little ‘paralysis via analysis’ type of thing going. He’s done a good job of overcoming that and establishing himself as a leader and as somebody that the pitchers know will be their best teammate. He’s out there encouraging them and working as hard as he can to try to frame those borderline pitches and frame some strikes.”

Echoing his head coach, Lidge said that putting the team first has allowed him to overcome some of the mental struggles that may have plagued him in the past.

“I’ve been working not to get too down on myself,” Lidge said. “I just need to understand that I have a long way to go, as does everyone. It also comes with helping your teammates. Not everything is about you, and ‘family first’ is one of our big pillars here. I’ve really been able to grow as a person and a player once I’ve stopped focusing solely on myself.”

Lidge spent last summer with the Harwich Mariners of the Cape Cod League, where he played with Irish teammate Cavan Biggio. In 25 games played, he faced some of the top major league pitching prospects in the nation. As one of the most impressive bats in a Notre Dame lineup that will face a tough slate of opposing pitchers this year, Lidge continues to develop his approach in the batter’s box.

“I’ve been fine tuning some things with my swing, but I try to tell myself to just take it one swing at a time,” Lidge said. “It’s a difficult thing to try to do, but you can’t worry about what’s going to happen down the road. Right now, I’m focused on what I have next. Today, I’m going to work on this. Once tomorrow comes, I’m going to focus on that, and when our first game comes, I’ll be locked in on my first at-bat. After the game, I can analyze what I did right and wrong and try to work on that before the next game. I just need to go at it and rely on my instincts.”

In reference to his personal goals for the upcoming season, Lidge returned to the tenets that have made him universally loved and respected in the Irish clubhouse: confidence and energy.

“My goal is just to go out there and put 100 percent effort into everything I do and be the most energetic guy out on the field,” Lidge said. “As a catcher, if I’m not showing good energy, that could be the difference between a bad pitch and a good pitch. But if we’re down 7-0 and I’m still showing that positive energy, we have a chance to come back. Stats are stats and they come with it and end up sorting themselves out at the end of the day. My goal isn’t necessarily results but just being in the process and giving my all and best energy every day.”

As Lidge so abundantly will make clear, it’s Omaha or bust for the 2016 Notre Dame baseball team. If the junior catcher has his way, the Irish will be celebrating in a dogpile at TD Ameritrade Park come the season’s end.