Nov. 4, 2014
By Sean Tenaglia (’16)
Blue-Gold Series – Thursday Game
Blue-Gold Series – Sunday Game
It seems fitting that fall ball wrapped up on a windy day that saw the high temperature at Frank Eck Stadium barely crack the mid-40s. As winter rapidly descends upon South Bend, the University of Notre Dame baseball team looks ahead with anticipation toward its 2015 campaign.
After a challenging 2014 campaign saw the Irish struggle to a 9-21 record in their inaugural season of Atlantic Coast Conference play, the team is out to prove that they belong in the elite conference. Head coach Mik Aoki is confident his team has taken an important first step in turning around the program this year.
“I thought our kids really worked hard and played hard,” Aoki says. “The freshman class really acquitted themselves well. They did a really good job in terms of coming in and performing at a high level. I think a big part of that was also having our returning players helping them to acclimate to Notre Dame and really welcome them in.
“I think our team dynamic, in terms of chemistry, is probably as good as it has ever been. I’m excited about this group. They are hard-working, and I think we’ve learned our lessons from last year.”
Graduate student Forrest Johnson, who will assume the role of “elder statesman” for the 2015 team, agrees that Notre Dame’s fall performance has set them up for success this spring.
“The past couple months have been great,” Johnson says. “We did a lot of soul searching this summer, both the coaches and the players. We realized that last year we weren’t at the place we wanted to be, so we needed to step up and make some big changes in our program.
“This is definitely the best fall I’ve had here in five years. We had a ton of energy, and it was fun to be out here at the field. There was a lot of positivity. We had a great mental conditioning coach Brian Cain come in and help us make some changes. We wanted to take the everyday routine and add a lot of energy and focus, so it’s been great.”
The 2015 Irish will feature a group of new faces, including eight incoming freshmen. Johnson believes that this year’s freshman crop has the opportunity and talent to step right in and contribute to the team.
“I’ve probably been more impressed with this freshman class than any I’ve seen in my five years here,” Johnson says. “We have a ton of guys who can come step up and play a big time role for us, and that is what we’re going to need this year.
“Although they are freshmen, they have to carry themselves like they are upperclassmen. They’ve been awesome in all standpoints. I don’t want to point out one individual because I feel I’d be doing a lot of guys a disservice, but it has been a good fall for them.”
The pitching staff will also feature some turnover, as the Irish must adjust to the loss of graduating seniors Sean Fitzgerald and Donnie Hissa in addition to junior Major League Baseball draftee Pat Connaughton. Aoki says he is looking forward to some healthy competition this spring as the team reassembles its starting rotation and bullpen.
“I think it is going to be really competitive to figure out who is going to fill the roles on our pitching staff,” Aoki says. “We’ve got some really talented young arms, in terms of quantifiable categories like velocity. Our returning guys like Nick McCarty, David Hearne, Michael Hearne and Connor Hale are really good strike-throwers who have competed through adversity and come out on top. It’s going to be a really interesting dynamic to see how it all shakes out.
“I think there are going to be some guys who push our returning pitchers in a healthy way to make sure we are getting the best out of them on a daily basis. I think we also have the talent and ability to fill some roles in our bullpen at more of a championship level than we did last year.”
Among the position players who are expected to step up and assume bigger roles in the Irish lineup are sophomores Ryan Lidge and Kyla Fiala. Lidge was named an All-Star and the No. 1 defensive catcher in the Northwoods League this summer, while Fiala turned in an All-Star campaign for the Lake Erie Monarchs and was named the No. 5 prospect in the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League.
Fiala, who is expected to be a mainstay on the left side of the Irish infield, built off his strong summer campaign with an impressive fall and looks forward to maintaining his high level of play this spring.
“I used what I wanted to get better in this summer and continued to work on it this fall,” Fiala says. “I changed up some things with my swing and my defense. I saw what I could do, and let go of what I didn’t like and kept going with what I did like.
“I think I just need to focus on getting better each day. Anything you can do, you want to improve each day. When the season comes up, I think we’ll be in a good position to compete.”
The Irish fall season came to a conclusion this past weekend with the annual Blue-Gold Series, which featured two intrasquad scrimmages. Junior pitcher David Hearne and senior outfielder Blaise Lezynski, who are both recovering from injuries, managed the Blue and Gold teams, respectively, and engaged in some friendly competitive banter.
The scrimmages featured a unique scoring system that rewarded players for execution in several categories. In addition to the traditional run-scoring system, the Irish also tracked “energy points” for heads-up play and “situational points” for the execution of various “small-ball” situations that may appear over the course of a game. Johnson says the scoring system challenged the Irish to remain locked in throughout the scrimmages.
“It was different for sure,” the M.B.A. grad student says. “It was just a way to quantify the little wins and added a new element to the game. There was no excuse to take a play off because every play was getting scored. We really needed to encourage our teammates throughout the game, so the energy and focus were definitely there and that was a positive change.”
Aoki believes that the scoring system not only was useful to gauge the team’s improvement this fall, but also will serve an important tool to assess team chemistry going forward.
“The point of it was to keep our bench involved,” Aoki says. “Baseball is an odd game because you can only have up to ten guys playing at once, so you have 25 guys on your bench. The energy of the whole team is largely the responsibility of the guys who aren’t playing, so to have those guys involved, locked in, and giving energy is a big deal.
“I think we were able to put our kids in situations that they need to execute. The scoring system was something that we tried, and I think it came at the perfect time in our fall schedule. Baseball, sometimes because it is such a repetitive sport, can get a little monotonous, but I think this took the monotony out of it.”
The fall also featured several highlights off the practice field for the Notre Dame baseball team. On Oct. 13, the Irish hosted their close friend Daniel Alexander and his Chesterton teammates for a scrimmage at Jake Kline Field. During fall break, the Irish also were able to travel to Chicago for a day of career networking. Then, on Nov. 1, pitching coach Chuck Ristano married Irish associate softball coach Lizzy Lemire in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on campus.
After a busy fall, the Irish now enter another important period in their preparation for the upcoming season.
“We transition to a period of more individual skill development,” Aoki says. “These last five weeks have been a lot about team development. Now, our guys will have a little more time to live more like a typical college kid and experience the opportunities that Notre Dame gives them. At the same time, we’re going to work with them to develop their skills.
“We’ll look at what guys did well and what they need to improve, and we’ll try to go to work on them until the semester wraps up and hopefully it carries over. When we come back from Christmas break, we’ll hit the ground running, because it comes up pretty fast once we get back.”
Irish players and fans alike now expectantly look ahead to the warmer weather and an exciting 2015 campaign that will arrive soon enough in South Bend this spring.