Feb. 18, 2016
Editor’s Note:Today’s preview of Irish pitching is part four of a four-part series leading up to the start of the 2016 season this Friday at Santa Clara (9 p.m. ET). Links to each of the previous three previews can be found below.
Part 1: The Steady Infield
Part 2:The Leader Behind The Plate
Part 3: Roaming The Outfield
By Sean Tenaglia `16
“The competition has promoted a really healthy conversation about who will pitch where, and I know that they’re all going to be pulling for one another and be ready to execute on the mound on any given day. It’s a really good position for us to be in.”
University of Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki used these words to describe the 2016 Irish pitching staff, one of the deepest and most versatile units the Irish have fielded in recent memory. The 2016 team returns an incredible 472.2 of 554.2 innings pitched during the 2015 season, in which they finished third in the ACC (26th – D1) in earned run average (3.13). The Irish also added several talented freshman arms that are likely to make their presence felt in the bullpen.
Leading the Irish rotation is junior right-hander Ryan Smoyer, who earned first-team Mideast-ABCA/Rawlings all-region and third-team ACC honors in 2015. In 17 appearances, including 11 starts, Smoyer posted an impressive 9-1 record with a 2.27 ERA. The 6-4 junior also posted a complete-game shutout against Eastern Michigan before turning in a 1.77 ERA in four starts with the Bourne Braves of the Cape Cod League this past summer. Despite his previous success, Smoyer noted that he is continuing to learn and develop as a pitcher on a daily basis.
“Mentally, I’m in a better spot,” Smoyer said. “Last year, I maybe wasn’t as sure about myself on the mound. I always felt like I had to do something extra to get outs, but I think I can build off of the success I had at the end of last year and during the summer. Now I’m ready to go out there and be myself on the mound and rely on my teammates, and I think everything else will just take care of itself.
“I just need to stay within my routine and take it one day at a time and one pitch at a time and not trying to be anything outside of myself. That’s what has allowed me to find success over the past year, and I just need to take what I’ve learned and apply it to the next day to continue that process. I just want to learn and get better as the days go by, and if I can do that, there’s more success ahead.”
The Bowling Green, Ohio native attributed much of his success to the elite infielders and athletic outfielders behind him on the diamond.
“Especially being the type of pitcher I am, it’s great knowing we have that defense behind me with those guys up the middle and [Kyle] Fiala and [Zak] Kutsulis at the corners,” Smoyer said. “It’s comforting to know that if there’s a ball in the infield that a play will be made and it’s going to benefit us in some way. We joke about the fact that to lead the country in double plays, you have to let guys get on base, but it’s great knowing you can get out of jams at a very high rate. It’s something that we can really lean on as pitchers.”
Smoyer was named the starting pitcher for Friday night’s opening night matchup at Santa Clara. Aoki credited Smoyer for his ability to overcome adversity and take control of the game on the mound.
“I think you could make the argument that there are guys on our staff with maybe a little more arm strength, but Smoyer’s ability to just be the embodiment of a complete pitcher is huge,” Aoki said. “It starts with having poise and confidence as the guy who is the focal point of our game. He’s a strike thrower, he commands the running game and he can field at his position.
“Honestly, I think he’s a very battle-tested kid. He’s worked his way through some adversity in our program. He didn’t pitch much early last season and then ended up finishing 9-1 as our Friday starter. He had some success in the Cape, and he’s been a guy whose work ethic is exemplary. He embodies pretty much everything we want in a player in our program, and for that to manifest itself in him being our opening night starter is very appropriate.”
Sophomore right-hander Brandon Bielak said Smoyer’s confidence in any situation trickles down to the other pitchers on the staff.
“We have different pitching mentalities on the mound- he pitches more to contact where I may pitch more to hit my spots for strikeouts- but his mentality and confidence on the mound, no matter who we’re facing, is impressive,” Bielak said. “He goes out there with 110 percent confidence that he’s going to get the job done.”
Behind Smoyer on the opening weekend rotation are sophomores Peter Solomon and Sean Guenther, who will toe the rubber for the Irish on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Both pitchers appeared almost exclusively out of the bullpen as freshmen, with Solomon recording a 2-0 record and 1.40 ERA with four saves in nine appearances and Guenther notching a 2.72 ERA and five saves in 27 appearances. Despite their experience as relievers, Aoki believes their talent can translate into starting roles.
“I think Peter showed it last year with his [seven-inning] outing against (No. 8) Louisville that he could go around a really good lineup a couple of times,” Aoki said. “He’s a very talented kid, so I don’t think it’s that big of a jump for him. Peter has had to make an adjustment because as a reliever, you come in with the mindset that you’re just trying to get three or four outs. It’s easier to pour yourself into every pitch. As a starter, you have to have a mindset that you want to go six, seven, eight innings or a complete game and at times there may be a tendency to try to pace yourself and not commit as much as you need to.
“It’s the same thing with Sean. We wanted make sure that his stuff would play a second and third time through the lineup and we’ve seen that through the preseason. We’ll see how it all goes and we’ll learn. We have a few four-game weekends coming up so we’ll apply our lessons from opening weekend and move forward with our rotation from there.”
As a whole, the sophomore class may be one of the most talented pitching units ever seen in South Bend. Solomon, Guenther, Bielak and right-handers Brad Bass, Evy Rubial and Charlie Vorsheck all saw playing time as freshmen in 2015. Solomon (No. 11), Bielak (No. 14), and Bass (No. 15) were recently featured in Perfect Game’s top 15 prospects for the 2017 Major League Baseball Draft. Smoyer said it is a great benefit for the team to have such talented young hurlers who can contribute at a moment’s notice.
“I think our sophomore class as a whole all have electric arms,” Smoyer said. “As a class, I think they have the biggest potential when it comes to velocity. There’s the excitement of `Who’s going to touch 95 today’ and they all have swing-and-miss ability, and it’s great for our team to have those types of stoppers. Any day of the week, they can go out and absolutely dominate, and that’s great to know you have that on your team.”
Bielak said the mixture of experience and healthy competition has only allowed the sophomore pitching class to improve throughout the offseason.
“We came in and were able to make an impact in the pitching staff as freshmen, but as sophomores we’ve gained a lot more experience. I think we’re going to be ready to go this year. Everybody is competing. There are no days off. Having all these great arms is pushing us to be the best pitching staff in America.”
The Irish also feature several impressive upperclassmen in the bullpen, including juniors Scott Tully and Jim Orwick and seniors Joey Cresta, David Hearne, Michael Hearne, Connor Hale and Nick McCarty. Aoki praised his veterans for their leadership on and off the field and said he looks to them to fill important roles for the pitching staff this season.
“You could say that someone like Scott Tully could be factoring in after an outstanding offseason,” Aoki said. “He’s gotten better and more complete as a pitcher. When it’s all said and done, Michael Hearne definitely can be one of our weekend starters and I think he’s pitched exceptionally well. Nick McCarty has pitched very well in our scrimmages throughout the winter. Connor Hale and Joe Cresta are guys who just go about their business the right way every day.
“We’re going to end up counting on them at some point. There are always guys who step up unexpectedly. It’s no coincidence, in my opinion, that the guys who step up in those moments are the guys whose daily routines promote these habits of excellence. Our seniors embody that better than anybody and they’re great examples and leaders for our team.”
Given the usage of young pitchers in recent years, Irish fans should expect to see the freshmen class of right-handers Jack Connolly, Connor Hock and Matt Vierling to take the mound at Frank Eck Stadium. Aoki expressed his anticipation of seeing what type of impact the freshmen arms can make this season.
“We’ve seen some really good things from them,” Aoki said. “I think at some point we’ll see all of those guys in the mix, probably in the bullpen, but maybe once we start playing some mid-week games at home, you might start seeing them more often. They’re good kids and are doing a good job of learning. Our upperclassmen have been doing a great job of getting them into the system and part of our program, so I expect they’ll do a great job when their numbers are called.”
Arguably the defining aspect of the 2016 Irish pitching staff is its versatility. Solomon and Guenther will open the year as starters after successful freshmen campaigns as relievers. Bielak, McCarty and Tully will start as relievers, but can all slot in as starting pitchers. Bass could be a closer, but also has the ability to start and pitch more innings over the course of the season. Aoki said the staff’s overabundance of versatile arms is one of the best problems a team can have entering the season.
“It made for an incredibly competitive preseason and some difficult choices,” Aoki said. “I think there’s a number of guys who could start for us and any of them could be at the back end closing for us or filling all kinds of roles in between. I think these guys are caught up in promoting a culture where they’re working to be the best pitchers they can instead of focusing on a certain role.”
Smoyer said the key for the staff as a whole is attacking the plate early to keep hitters on their toes and runners off the base paths.
“It’s just about making sure we can locate pitches,” Smoyer said. “We’ve hung our hat on making hitters get themselves out when it comes down to tough counts and not giving in. We just need to stay on the attack. We always talk about giving up extra bases, and I think as a pitching staff, we’ve done a really good job in the past of limiting the opportunities that other teams have to get easy bases. That’s something that we’re going to focus on this season, and we’re going to do really well in preventing teams from taking advantage of us.”
Now just one day away from Opening Day, the anticipation and expectations for the upcoming season are higher than ever. Smoyer believes that managing those expectations, particularly early in the season, will allow the Irish to achieve lasting success in 2016.
“It’s exciting and I think we’re all ready to get going,” Smoyer said. “Being the guy that gets to take the ball the first time definitely brings a lot of excitement. There’s going to be a lot of energy, and with that comes the opportunity to be a little over-anxious. The big thing for us is to take that energy and funnel it down during the game, and if we do that, the results should take care of themselves.”