Feb. 12, 2015
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – After a tough 2014 season that featured 13 one-run losses in its first year in the elite Atlantic Coast Conference, the University of Notre Dame baseball coaching staff and team went back to the proverbial drawing board and took a look at the entire program from top to bottom. What they came up with was a motto that has become engrained in all facets of the program – “Blue Collar, Gold Standard.”
“We wanted to put down on paper what our core covenants are as a team,” said fifth-year head coach Mik Aoki. “Blue Collar, Gold Standard is what we want to try and live up to in all areas on and off campus. Whether that’s on the field, in the classroom, in training or in the community.
“We spent a lot of time on it and our players were involved in every step of the process as far as sculpting it, defining it and putting down on paper how it manifests itself on a daily basis. The standard gives us something to come back to throughout the year to hold each other accountable for doing the things that we are supposed to be doing.”
The changes have certainly been evident to those that have spent any time around the program since school began in August. Lively practices and scrimmages became the norm, as the team worked hard to put 2014 in the past.
“There are positive feelings around the program,” said Aoki. Last year was incredibly difficult for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the outcomes on the field weren’t what we wanted. We all took a long hard look at what we were doing and how we were going about doing it to see if there were better ways to do it. To date it’s worked. The guys have done all of the things that they need to do to put themselves in the best position to have some tangible success in terms of wins and losses.
“But we realize that sometimes you can do everything right and still lose a game or we might do everything wrong and win a game. So the idea with ‘Blue Collar, Gold Standard’ was that we needed something more than an outcome that is beyond our control to lean on. The way in which we attack each pitch, attack every moment in the classroom, how we are engaged in our community service or in the way we take the steps to eat right so we can train right ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢’Â¬Â¦ all those are cultural things that are within our control. So regardless if we are in a 10-game winning streak or a four-game losing streak, we can fall back on taking things one pitch at a time so to speak. We fall back on the culture that we have started to develop in our program that supersedes any win or loss, so hopefully that can iron out the hills and valleys of a season.”
On the field, the Irish return 23 monogram winners and 28 student-athletes total from 2014, losing just three regulars (Pro pitchers Sean Fitzgerald, Donnie Hissa & Pat Connaughton) from a year ago. Starters return at every field position.
After a year of sizing up ACC hitting and pitching, Notre Dame brings back a veteran team that is hungry to turn those one-run losses into wins. After a season’s worth of frustrations as the program traveled off campus for home games with FieldTurf renovations occurring at Frank Eck Stadium, the Irish finally returned home for the final two home series of the year – posting a 5-1 mark against ACC foes Clemson and Pittsburgh to give the team a positive end to the 2014 campaign.
The Irish welcome in an extremely talented freshman class that was ranked in the top 40 in the country according to Perfect Game. The class features two 2014 Major League Baseball Draftees in Brad Bass (33rd Round, Chicago Cubs) and Peter Solomon (21st Round, San Diego Padres). Fellow freshman Brandon Bielak is expected to break into the rotation immediately.
Leading the team into the season are co-captains, Forrest Johnson and Mac Hudgins. Johnson, a two-year captain, and Hudgins both have older brothers (Cole Johnson & Will Hudgins) who were captains on previous Irish baseball teams.
“We think that if we throw enough quality pitches and make enough quality at-bats throughout the year, and we are able to be an aggressive team on the base paths and play proficient defense, we should have a team that can compete with anyone on our schedule,” said Aoki.
Here’s a breakdown of the 2015 Irish position-by-position:
A constant strength under Aoki and fifth-year pitching coach Chuck Ristano, the Irish pitching unit should again be a strength of the team despite losing three standouts in Fitzgerald, Hissa and Connaughton that all played professional baseball barely a month after finishing up their Irish careers.
Under the direction of Aoki and Ristano, all three players showed tremendous improvement throughout their careers, ultimately providing the Irish with two steady starters (Fitzgerald and Connaughton) and their best reliever (Hissa) in 2014.
The pitching unit as a whole kept Notre Dame in many games, finishing with 23 quality starts in 53 games and boasting a 3.05 ERA, which was good for third in the ACC.
In addition to the three standouts already mentioned, two other Irish pitchers that are back in 2015 had breakout years in 2014.
After making just five appearances out of the bullpen in 2013 and totaling an 8.44 ERA, junior lefty Michael Hearne hurled two quality starts and registered a 2.51 ERA in a team-high 86.0 innings of work as a regular weekend starter.
“Mike had a lot of success for us last year. He certainly pitched beyond what his won-loss record showed,” said Aoki. “Some people have that grinder mentality and Mike is one of those guys. He didn’t let some setbacks his freshman year affect him. He looked at himself in the proverbial mirror and said ‘I’m good enough to pitch at this level.’ He kept working and made the most of his chances last year. He put himself in a great position to be successful. He will go out there and pitch to who and what he is ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢’Â¬Â¦ we know we will get the same compete factor from him no matter the situation.”
After battling back from shoulder surgery that kept him out for the entire 2013 season, senior righty Scott Kerrigan was downright dominant over the season’s final two months. Having made just two appearances in two years since arriving on campus, Kerrigan made the most of regular work in 2014. After posting a 13.50 ERA in his first 3.1 innings to open the year, he totaled a tiny 1.16 ERA for the remaining 54.1 innings, totaling a team-best 1.87 ERA (2nd – ACC).
Elsewhere for the Irish, sophomore righty Ryan Smoyer was named co-Pitcher of the Year in the Northwoods League over the summer, and junior righty Nick McCarty finished second on the team in quality starts (5) last year.
“I think our program has a pretty good history of moving a new Friday night guy in there, whether it’s Brian Dupra and Cole Johnson to Will Hudgins, or Will Hudgins to Adam Norton, or Adam Norton to Fitzgerald and Connaughton,” said Aoki. “We’ve been able to establish a Friday night guy in the past and I believe we can do that again this year.”
Several strong freshman arms should help the Irish right away, highlighted by Bass, Solomon and Bielak. Bass, a big 6-6, 245 pound righty from New Lenox, Illinois, boasts a power arm that displays a big fastball, big slider and a solid changeup. Solomon, a 6-4 righty from Ellicott City, Maryland, has a live arm and can throw an impressive fastball, curve and changeup. A two-way player that should immediately make an impact on the Irish, Bielak is a righty from Sayreville, New Jersey.
“We have an incredibly deep and talented freshman class this year,” said Aoki. “They can all step in there and compete. They are physically ahead of where freshman usually are. We look for them to all have a lot of success this season.”
Coming out of the bullpen the Irish have plenty of options. Sophomore lefty Scott Tully, a potential starter in addition to relief duties, enjoyed a successful summer ball season with the New Bedford Bay Sox of the New England Collegiate Baseball League and the Harwich Mariners of the prestigious Cape Cod League. Seniors Matt Ternowchek (12 APP, 2.13 ERA) and Cristian Torres (2 saves, 14 APP) have a wealth of experience, while juniors Joey Cresta (11 APP) and Connor Hale (1 APP) and senior Kyle Rubbinaccio (4 APP) give Aoki plenty of options no matter who is at the plate.
Two starters return in the outfield for the Irish, as Hudgins is set to man centerfield, while fellow senior Robert Youngdahl heads back out to right.
Hudgins, who joins older brother, Will, as the second member of the family to co-captain the Irish, had a breakout junior campaign before a shoulder injury sidelined him for the last month of the season. In addition to sporting a 1.000 fielding percentage, the Richmond, Virginia native led the team in on-base percentage (.383), finished third in slugging percentage (.378) and batted .288 with six doubles, two triples, 10 RBI and 13 runs scored primarily from the leadoff spot.
Youngdahl, who spent his first year in a Notre Dame uniform in 2014 after a year at Kansas State and a year at Iowa Western Junior College, showed flashes of brilliance during the early and late parts of the year, hitting .370 in the first seven games and .313 in the last 14 games, but only .143 in the middle 32 contests. The New Brighton, Minnesota product led the Irish and was tied for second in the ACC in triples (5) and tied for the team lead in homers (3).
Freshman Jake Johnson will get the first crack in left field, after he displayed steady defense, solid running and good plate discipline in the fall and preseason. A four-year letterwinner from the Westminster School in Atlanta, Georgia, Johnson was ranked the 14th best outfielder coming out of high school in Georgia according to Perfect Game.
“Jake doesn’t have one attribute that really jumps off the page, but all his skills add up to being a really good baseball player,” said Aoki. “He has a mature approach at the plate, great hand-eye coordination and is a really good defender.”
A host of veterans will see plenty of time in the outfield, as Ryan Bull (31 starts, 3 HR, 21 BB), Kyle Richardson (30 starts, 5 SB, .988 FLD%), Ricky Sanchez (9 starts, 2 3B, team-high .394 SLG%), Conor Biggio (16 starts, .381 OBP) and James Nevant (3 starts, 1.000 FLD%) have shown the ability in the past to help the team.
“If we are going to be good, a lot of these guys will play and they will help us in some significant moments,” said Aoki. “We feel like we have a really good combo of guys that can defend and show some offense on a high level.”
Three returning starters are back to provide the Irish with an impressive left half of the infield. Talented shortstop Lane Richards is back after missing the last month of the season following Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow. Sporting a powerful and accurate arm, Richards has provided the Irish steady defense in each of his first two years in South Bend. Last year, he helped turn 31 double plays while fielding at a .949 clip (nine errors in 177 chances).
A pair of sophomores surround Richards, as Kyle Fiala (third base) and Cavan Biggio (second base) return for their second year at their respective positions. The trio helped the Irish lead the nation in double plays turned before Richards went out with his injury.
Biggio led the team in runs (29), assists (163), sacrifice flies (8: T-1st ACC) and double plays turned (39) while tying for the team lead in walks (21), but struggled to find consistency at the plate with a .246 batting average. Similar to Youngdahl, the Houston, Texas native had a solid start and finish to his rookie campaign. After hitting .346 for the first eight games of the season, Biggio struggled throughout the middle part of the year before finding his stride again with a .281 average over the final 18 contests.
Meanwhile, Fiala started 47 games between third base and shortstop and hit .268 with 11 RBI, six doubles, 19 walks and 27 runs scored. He boasted a 13-game hitting streak and a 17-game on-base streak during the early part of the season, both Notre Dame season highs.
Former outfielder Zak Kutsulis is making the move to first base after two years predominately in left field. He provides an athletic presence at the base that should help make up for his newness in the role. Last year, he hit .255 with nine doubles, 13 walks and 18 RBI in 42 starts.
“We feel like we have the opportunity to have a really good defensive infield with all those guys,” said Aoki. “Kyle has gotten stronger and more physical in the offseason and looks much more comfortable at third base than a year ago. His throwing has become much more accurate. We are happy to have Lane back after having to shut him down last year. He seems to have rebounded very well from the surgery. Cavan has improved tremendously. The biggest area from high school to college that he needed to improve was his defense, and he has done that. He is also a much more physical, stronger-looking athlete than he was a year ago. He has been swinging the bat well this year. Zak is such an exceptional athlete and he has made a pretty smooth transition to first base so far. Like a lot of guys, he looks a lot more physical this year than he did in his first two seasons.”
Talented utility infielder Phil Mosey will provide backup at all four infield spots after seeing time at first base, shortstop and third base a year ago. A righty with some power, Mosey has hit five homers, two triples and eight doubles in his career.
“Phil has done a nice job at improving at the plate,” said Aoki. He has a much more mature approach and is really working to play to his strengths at the plate.”
Other infield options include senior Kevin DeFilippis, who hit a monster RBI triple at No. 11 Miami last year, and freshman Jake Shepski, who is a switch hitter and touts a good arm and solid athleticism.
Johnson, who has started 85 games over the last two seasons, sports a .987 fielding percentage after just two errors at his position last year.
Lidge, meanwhile, made 24 starts in his first year with the Irish and posted a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage. Over the summer, he was named the No. 1 defensive catcher in the Northwoods League by the coaches.
“We feel confident that whichever guy is in there, we are going to get really solid play from behind the dish,” said Aoki. “Forrest provides a very steady leadership hand and we are excited to have his passion for baseball, this program and Notre Dame back for one more year. Ryan keeps getting better. As he has physically gotten stronger, his arm keeps getting better. He has a quick release and is very accurate. He has done a lot in the last year to improve.”
Both should see starting time during the opening weekend in Oklahoma.
While there are several guys that could handle the designated hitter role and the position could change depending on the lineup, senior Blaise Lezynski will start the season in the spot.
The team’s most consistent hitter last season, Lezynski hit .329 with 52 hits, 10 doubles, 27 RBI, 13 walks and 21 runs scored in the team’s first 41 games before struggling at the plate in the final 12 contests (.188 average).
After working through a wrist injury in the fall, Lezynski’s at-bats have been solid in the preseason according to Aoki, as he has used the entire field like he did for much of last year.
“He has really been picking his spots to get the bat out there and drive some balls,” said Aoki. “He’s looked like the guy that played the first three-fourths of the season for us at a really high level.”
The coaching staff stayed intact from a year ago, as Aoki is back for his fifth year at the helm of the Irish and is joined by fifth-year assistant coach Jesse Woods, fifth-year pitching coach Chuck Ristano, second-year volunteer assistant coach Adam Pavkovich and second-year director of operations Tad Skelley.
After playing only six games at the friendly confines of Frank Eck Stadium last season due to FieldTurf installation, the Irish returning home in a big way in 2015 with a monster home slate that features Atlantic Coast Conference series against four 2014 NCAA Tournament teams including College World Series participants Louisville and Virginia.
The Irish are slated to play 56 games and one exhibition contest in 2015, with 26 set for Frank Eck Stadium. ACC home contests include 2014 College World Series participant and former BIG EAST foe Louisville (March 20-22), 2014 College World Series runner-up Virginia (March 27-29), 2014 NCAA Tournament team Florida State (April 10-12), 2013 College World Series participant NC State (April 17-19) and 2014 NCAA Tournament team North Carolina (May 8-10).
In its off ACC weekend, Notre Dame welcomes in Northwestern State for a three-game series May 1-3.
Non-conference midweek home games include local squad Bethel (March 17) in the home opener, Mid-American Conference opponents Central Michigan (March 18), Eastern Michigan (March 31) and Toledo (April 15), Horizon League team and in-state foe Valparaiso (April 8), Western Athletic Conference opponent Chicago State (April 22), Big Ten foe Michigan State (April 28) and 2014 NCAA Tournament team and Big Sky Conference member Sacramento State (April 29).
The Irish kick off the new season in Norman, Oklahoma Feb. 13, as they meet SIU-Edwardsville in a single game, before opening a three-game series against Big 12 opponent Oklahoma (Feb. 13-15).
A pair of annual home away from home tournaments are back in 2015 and are played in back-to-back weekends after Oklahoma.
First up, Notre Dame welcomes Incarnate Word, Villanova and Northwestern to San Antonio, Texas for the traditional round-robin tourney at Nelson Wolff Stadium Feb. 19-22.
The next week, the Irish are in Cary, North Carolina at the impressive USA Baseball National Training Complex for the third annual USA Baseball-Irish Classic. This year, Notre Dame plays East Carolina, Seattle and Penn State Feb. 27-March 1.
In addition to the impressive ACC home slate, league road series include reigning ACC Tournament champion and NCAA Tournament qualifier Georgia Tech (March 6-8), 2014 NCAA Tournament team Clemson (March 13-15), Pittsburgh (April 3-5), Wake Forest (April 24-26) and Boston College (May 14-16).
Mid-week, non-conference road games include Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference squad Savannah State (March 11), Horizon League team Illinois-Chicago (March 24), 2014 NCAA Tournament team, 2013 College World Series qualifier and in-state opponent Indiana in Indianapolis (April 21) and MAC school Western Michigan (May 12).
The only other game on the 2015 schedule is an exhibition contest with the South Bend Cubs, the Class A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, at Four Winds Field in South Bend April 7.
This year’s 10-team ACC Tournament is slated for May 19-24 at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park (Triple A affiliate – Rays) in Durham, North Carolina. The NCAA Regionals would be the following week (May 29-June 1) with the NCAA Super Regionals (June 5-8) and the College World Series (June 13-24) wrapping up the 2015 college baseball season.
–Russell Dorn, Assistant Media Relations Director