Feb. 15, 2016
By Sean Tenaglia `16
Editor’s Note: Today’s preview of the Irish infield is part one of a four-part series leading up to the start of the 2016 season this Friday at Santa Clara (9 p.m. ET). Part two will come out Tuesday and center around Johnny Bench Award candidate Ryan Lidge, the veteran behind the dish, before the outfield and the pitching staff are previewed in parts three and four on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.
4-6-3. 6-4-3. 5-4-3. Double play after double play after double play. In 2015, the University of Notre Dame infield led the nation with 75 double plays turned in just 60 games.
Following a season that saw the Irish advance to their first NCAA postseason trip since 2006, expectations have never been higher under the Golden Dome. With the 2016 season just days away, the Irish will continue to rely on their experienced and talented infield as they face off against some of the top teams in the nation.
The Irish return all four starters from their 2015 infield, which finished ninth in the nation in fielding percentage (.979). Senior Zak Kutsulis will man first base while junior Rawlings Gold Glove winner and Baseball America preseason first-team All-American Cavan Biggio will return at second. Junior Kyle Fiala returns to the hot corner at third base and senior co-captain Lane Richard will lead the unit from the shortstop position for the fourth year in a row.
Head coach Mik Aoki said that returning such a talented and experienced unit makes his job that much easier heading into a new season.
“It’s a great help to just begin the year,” Aoki said. “They know all of our stuff, in terms of our first-to-third throws and our bunt defenses. Honestly, baseball isn’t like football and basketball where you have set plays. For those guys, it’s an experiential thing of knowing where to be and looking for things on the field. It’s nice to just not have to worry a ton about them. In a way, they’re kind of coaching themselves out there.”
Having watched his infielders develop as players and teammates over the past two years, Aoki emphasized their work ethic on and off the field as a major key to their growth.
“As a whole, when you look at that starting crew, the talent is important, but just as important is the culture that they’ve created among themselves,” Aoki said. “They work. They know that they’re pretty good but they do not take that for granted. I give [former volunteer assistant coach] Adam Pavkovich a lot of credit for it because I think he did a phenomenal job of getting those guys to work and buy into a culture of taking pride in their defense.
“They work at it everyday. It’s something that is now being passed down to the guys behind them, and I think that all of those guys are starting to learn what it takes to play at this level. It’s fun to hit them ground balls, and watch them have some fun with it.”
Richards noted that the unit’s ability to mesh so quickly has allowed them to achieve great success on the diamond.
“Right off the bat when Zak (Kutsulis) and I were sophomores and Cavan (Biggio) and Kyle (Fiala) were freshmen, we really hit it off and developed great chemistry,” Richards said. “Ever since, we’ve been pushing each other to be better. We’re always spending time together and talking to each other on the field, and it’s really helped to develop our game.
“No one is afraid to say anything to each other and we’re always looking to help out. We’re so close and won’t hesitate to say what needs to be said to give our team the best chance for success.”
Along with senior outfielder James Nevant, Richards was selected by his teammates to serve as a captain for the 2016 campaign. The Pendleton, Oregon native leads not only from the shortstop position, but also in the dugout and in the clubhouse.
“Going into this year, I looked back at my freshman year and what made it so special, and it was really the seniors and how they embraced me into the program that made me feel so comfortable,” Richards said. “So I wanted to do the same thing for the younger guys this year. Hopefully, we’ve been able to do that.
“I’ve made it a point to get to know everybody and try to be there for the freshmen that may need some advice from someone who has been in their shoes. It’s a great class and they’ll definitely have a huge impact on our season, and you always need that from your freshmen.”
Fiala said Richards was one of the first players to welcome him to South Bend in the fall of 2013 and continues to serve as the go-to leader for the infield and team.
“Lane is the main guy in the infield and he’s always leading us,” Fiala said. “He took up a leadership role and took Cavan and I under his wing from the moment we stepped on campus. At that point he had a season under his belt, so he was able to share a lot. He’s continued to do that and continues to teach us and we feed off of him.”
After his sophomore year was cut short by Tommy John surgery, Richards returned to form in his junior campaign and set career highs in nearly every offensive category. However, Aoki has been most impressed with Richards’ constant desire to improve his defense.
“Lane has taken great pride in his defense,” Aoki said. “He is a kid who will go out and take ground balls in lieu of taking swings at the end of batting practice. I think that’s a mentality that he’s always had. He’s steady and has a great arm and just continues to work at it.”
Fiala arrived at Notre Dame as an experienced high school shortstop but readily accepted the challenge of shifting over to third base. While he admits he is still learning the position everyday, Fiala has found a comfortable home at the hot corner.
“It’s definitely been an adjustment,” the Carmel, Indiana product said. “The coaching staff and the other guys in the infield have really taught me a lot. It’s been a daily goal just to have anyone help me learn how I can best play in the infield and I think it’s really paid off.”
Fiala has made his biggest impact in the batter’s box, leading the Irish in 2015 with a .301 batting average while reaching base in an incredible 47 consecutive games. In Aoki’s eyes, the sky’s the limit for his third baseman’s offensive potential.
“He would certainly be one of the most improved players on our team over the past few years and to say that about a kid who came in and started as a freshman is pretty good,” Aoki said. “This is a kid who was a part of the lineup right off the bat, and he’s never hit lower than the three-hole. He has continued to get better. The higher up the curve you go, usually you hit a flat line, but I don’t think Kyle has hit a flat line yet, which is pretty good.
“He is a kid whose daily process and work ethic are exceptional at a really high level, and that’s what leads to improvement. He takes care of business in the classroom, he identifies areas for improvement, and he works at it. He wanted to get stronger, and if you stand next to him today in comparison to two years ago, he has clearly worked on his body.
“He keeps seeming to get a little bit faster and a little bit stronger, and have more body control each year. Those aren’t things that happen by accident. They are the accumulation of making the right choices and doing the right things over a long period of time. When you do that, there comes a point where you really start to see the gains. All of the habits of excellence he’s created have really started to kick in, and it’s reflected in all that he does, on and off the field.”
The junior third baseman credits his success at the plate to preparation and discipline.
“The main goal is just to be able to use the whole field and not get pull-happy,” Fiala said. “I want to be able to take a pitch that is away and hit it to the opposite field or take a pitch that is inside and pull it. Going up to the plate with a plan of what you might get and not just guessing is key. We can watch the guy on the mound and see what he’s doing to pitch to different hitters, which gives me a better idea of what to expect. It might not always happen, but it’s always good to go in with an idea and work from there.”
After beginning his Notre Dame career as a pitcher and outfielder, Kutsulis made the shift to first base before the 2015 season and excelled. Aoki noted the move allowed the infield to mesh and achieve such great heights last season.
“Zak has athletic ability that usually isn’t equated with a first baseman,” Aoki said. “Moving him over there was a really instrumental part of our infield defense. It gives our guys confidence to know that they don’t need to necessarily be perfect with their throws, and that allowed them to play with a little sense of liberation.”
The senior first baseman not only makes plays on the field, but also keeps the team loose before, during and after games.
“Zak may not be as vocal of a guy but he’s always keeping things loose on the field, and he’s somebody we can feed off of on the field,” Fiala said. “We can joke around, but when it’s not time to joke around, we go out there and make plays.”
Rounding out the infield at second base is Biggio, who has received well-earned preseason recognition following a 2015 that saw him hit nine home runs and draw a remarkable 50 walks (14th – DI) while leading the Irish with a .406 on-base percentage. Entering his junior campaign, Biggio is widely considered one of the top MLB prospects in Division I college baseball.
Biggio’s desire to improve every facet of his game over the past three years has greatly impressed his head coach.
“I don’t know that anybody embodies our culture more than Cavan,” Aoki said. “He was a kid coming out of high school who a lot of people thought was a high level hitter, but maybe wasn’t that strong of a defender, and I think he’s truly become a high level defender.
“Cavan is probably one of the most intuitive overall baseball players I’ve ever seen. I think he’s come a long way, and he has a long way to go still, but he just sees things at a high level and anticipates things. I think it goes under the radar how well he communicates that to the other guys in the infield.”
Biggio, along with Kutsulis, Fiala and Richards will look to return to last year’s form that saw them lead the nation in double plays turned. With another year of experience under their belt and looked to as leaders of the team, Aoki’s expectations for the infield have only increased.
“They’re a good group, and I expect them to be better than last year, which is asking a lot, and as much a testament to their work ethic as it is to their talent.”