Irish head coach Mik Aoki has his program in the ACC Tournament for the first time.

Irish Extra: Sweep of Seminoles Big Boost for Mik Aoki and Company

April 13, 2015

When Florida State third baseman Dylan Busby chased a nasty fastball that brushed the right corner of home plate for the final out of the University of Notre Dame’s 4-1 college baseball victory Saturday, Fighting Irish freshman reliever Sean Guenther walked off the mound to shake hands with catcher Ryan Lidge and then the Irish lined up for handshakes and high fives.

After that, the Irish quickly got back to business, working on the new FieldTurf and getting ready for Sunday’s series finale against the national-power Seminoles.

Florida State ended up Tomahawk-chopped, as Notre Dame stung the Seminoles again on Sunday 2-1, pulling off a three-game sweep against No. 7 Florida State. It marked the first series victory for the Irish against a top-10 team since Notre Dame stunned the then-No. 1 Seminoles in a 2002 NCAA Super Regional in Tallahassee.

Virginia is the last team to pull off a sweep against heralded Florida State in Atlantic Coast Conference play, and that came in the 2013 season.

While  Saturday’s  victory qualified as a milestone for the Notre Dame baseball program, head coach Mik Aoki and the Irish took it in stride and kept the emotions in line with a mantra that has served the Irish well this season — focus on winning the pitch ahead of you.

“It’s special, considering the type of tradition and the type of history Florida State has,” Aoki said of the series sweep. “I really think it’s a manifestation of the fact that these kids have done such a great job of competing game-in and game-out. Their engagement level and their attitude coming into every game have been superlative.”

Playing a brutal ACC schedule, the Irish improved to 24-10 after the hat trick of victories against Florida State and moved to 9-9 in the ACC, good for a tie for third place in the Atlantic Division and a tie for fourth overall in the race for 10 spots at mid-May’s ACC Tournament.

Notre Dame still faces series at home against North Carolina State (April 17-19) and North Carolina (May 8-10) and at Wake Forest (April 24-26) and at Boston College (May 14-16).

Notre Dame entered the Florida State series with the No. 31 RPI rating in the nation, and victories against the Seminoles, who were No. 3 in the RPI, bumped the Irish up to No. 21, which places them just behind defending national champion Vanderbilt.

However, Aoki and the Irish aren’t looking beyond the daily grind that has forged the Irish into a gritty club.

“There’s still a long way to go,” Aoki said. “I think we’re just going to worry about the things that we can control. The only things that we can control on a daily basis are the attitude, effort level and engagement level that we bring to the field. As long as we do that, I feel like we’re a talented enough group that, at the end of the year, all of the things that we want to happen will happen.

“But, quite frankly, in this game, the ball needs to find a hole for that to happen. Over the marathon of a 56-game season, with a talented group that will happen more often than not. I trust that it’s going to happen.”

Every aspect of the Irish game has stepped up.

In running up an eight-game winning streak through Sunday’s victory, the Irish had put together a streak of 69.2 consecutive innings without committing an error.

Guenther praised the Irish defense. According to Guenther, the solid defense has given the Irish pitchers confidence to be aggressive facing enemy batters. During the eight-game winning streak, Notre Dame’s pitchers have a combined earned-run average of 1.12, striking out 58 and walking only 12.

Aoki’s crew has played tough in the face of adversity. Guenther stepped into the closer role when regular closer Peter Solomon was sidelined with shoulder issues. Guenther responded with two saves against the Seminoles, striking out seven in 3.2 perfect innings.

When Scott Kerrigan couldn’t make his  Friday  start, sophomore Ryan Smoyer stepped in for the spot league start and handcuffed the Seminoles in a 5-2 victory.

“Ryan’s been really good,” Aoki said of Smoyer, who is 5-0 with a 1.50 ERA in his last five appearances. “He stepped in and did a great job. Gunny has stepped into the role of closer and done well. We’ve pieced it together. Nobody has felt sorry for himself. Nobody got down about it. We just try to be the best on every pitch.

“We’ve pitched it really well the last couple of weeks, but truth be told I think we’ve pitched it pretty well all year long.”

Irish senior leader Ryan Bull, an outfielder, said the Irish haven’t blinked when staring at adversity.

“We’ve had some injuries, and we’ve had some setbacks,” Bull said. “People are getting dinged up, but we’ve fostered this idea of the ‘next-man-in’ mentality. Regardless of what your role might be on any given day, we have a bunch of guys who are all pulling in one direction. They want to be the best, whatever their role is that specific day. If they get an opportunity, they rise to the occasion.

“We’ve just done a great job being a completely family-first team, working for each other,” Bull said. “Whoever the nine guys are in the lineup that day, it doesn’t matter. We’re rooting for each other.”

Aoki said even when the Irish took some tough losses, the team played well and was fiercely competitive.

“I know that we had series against Louisville and Virginia where we lost. But I can’t say that we played poorly,” Aoki said. “I feel that we got beat in those games. I think that’s a really big key. We were able to put it together (this weekend) and get some timely hits, where we didn’t in those other series. But, really, it’s a manifestation of our kids fighting their rear ends off day-in and day-out.

“Our hitting has come around a little bit,” Aoki said. It took two elite pitching staffs to shut that down for a six-game spell. Six games only represent five percent of the entire season. I don’t want to belabor that or try to reinvent the wheel after that. You tip your hat and give credit where credit is due. We still had an opportunity to win four out of those six games.”

Pitching stood out in the sweep of the Seminoles.

Smoyer got the Irish started with a 5-2 victory.  Saturday’s  4-1 triumph featured a sterling pitching performance by freshman Brandon Bielak (one run, four hits, seven strikeouts, two walks), another no-error game and clutch hitting. Sunday’s gem came about via a 2-1 pitch-by-committee effort, with four Irish hurlers limiting the Seminoles to one run on six hits.

In sweeping the Seminoles, the Irish certainly had the look of a team that will be dangerous to face in the ACC Tournament.

“As we keep going, we just play to what our identity is,” Aoki said. “We’re pretty good at everything. We might not be exceptional at any one thing, but we’re pretty stinking good at most of the game.”

Bull said the Irish hope to continue take steady strides toward a strong finish in what could be a season to remember for Irish fans.

“These wins definitely build momentum,” Bull said of the series victory against the Seminoles. “We know that Florida State is a great team, but we’re also extremely confident in our ability. I feel like the entire year we’ve competed well. We’ve played tough. We have six pillars that we build our team around. Today (was) ‘Relentless  Saturday.’ I feel like, today, our effort and constant engagement exemplified that.”

By Curt Rallo, special correspondent