April 9, 2015
By Ben Brockman `16
Coming off an under .500 season in 2014 that continued an eight-year drought from NCAA Regional participation, the University of Notre Dame baseball team finds themselves well above that mark so far in 2015. While much of this success can be credited to upperclassman leadership and a good team dynamic, the impact that the freshman class has had on this season’s squad cannot be overstated.
All eight freshmen have earned playing time this year. Jake Johnson has seen extensive playing time, starting 22 games in the outfield for the Irish while batting leadoff, and Jake Shepski has come up big at the plate over the last couple of weeks in a reserve role.
However the biggest contribution has come from the arms of six young gunslingers: Brad Bass (13.2 IP), Brandon Bielak (45.1 IP), Sean Guenther (25.2 IP), Evy Ruibal (8.1 IP), Peter Solomon (19.1 IP) and Charlie Vorsheck (1.0 IP), who have combined to pitch 113.1 of the 287.0 innings pitched this year for Notre Dame.Â
Fifth-year pitching coach Chuck Ristano says that, from the beginning, he knew that this class was special.
“It was just something about all of them collectively that I knew not only would they physically be able to help us, but they possessed a certain quiet confidence,” Ristano says. “That confidence kind of told us as a coaching staff and as a team that these guys were not only physically capable of helping us, but that they were ready to.”
And perform they have. Converging to South Bend from all across the country — East Coast to West Coast, with five different states represented, the freshman pitching staff has been able to come together as a single unit.
“The biggest thing for us is that we all want each other to do the best. No one is rooting against each other and hoping that someone does poorly,” Solomon says. “For us it is all about winning — we are just cheering for the next guy.”
While the youngsters have been able to work together, they say that competition drives them to be better each day.
“The competition thing is huge,” Guenther says. “We have all been balancing off of one another. If someone has a good day it is even more motivation, especially in the offseason, for you to go have a good day because you know you are competing with them for future innings. It’s a healthy competition.”
This collaboration and competition has led to some serious results for the Irish early in the strong-armed rookies’ careers. Bielak, the lone starter of the group, leads the team in strikeouts this year with 33 and has made three quality starts in eight chances. Meanwhile, Solomon has already racked up four saves and 19 strikeouts in just 19.1 inning of action (1.40 ERA).
Guenther, the freshman class’ singular left-handed pitcher, has made a team-high 15 appearances and boasts an impressive 2.45 ERA. Bass has been equally impressive, surrendering only three earned runs and seven hits in 13.2 relief innings. Ruibal has seen his innings increase recently, after working hard to recover from mononucleosis for much of winter training. That being said, Ruibal has pitched 8.1 innings and made eight appearances, including a spot start in the series finale against Pitt April 5. Lastly, Vorsheck earned the first playing time of his career April 8 against Valparaiso, tossing a scoreless inning in Notre Dame’s 6-0 win. He joined with four other pitchers — including Ruibal and Guenther — to hurl Notre Dame’s second midweek shut out in a row.Â Â
“I think it would be easy for them to look at each other and say, `Wow, did they really go overboard with the pitchers,'” Ristano says.
Ristano argues that the opposite has happened, though.
“They developed this relationship where they kind of said together, collectively, we’re going to take this thing and take it to the next level,” he says. “I think there is a competition between the guys, but I think it just drives all of their performances rather than creating separation between their relationships.”
While the talent was there, Solomon says that the youths on the mound didn’t have much of an agenda beyond pushing the team to be the best that they could be.
“I guess we didn’t expect anything coming into the year. We just came in hoping to help the team win, whether that’s pitching or on the bench cheering,” Solomon says. “Luckily, Coach gave us the opportunity and we all went out there and did our thing.”
While the success of the fire-armed youngsters has been impressive, one must realize the effect the whole team is having on their success and development. Not only does Ristano credit the early season success to a great defensive effort by the Irish, but also to the leadership and guidance of upperclassmen pitchers.
“We have a pretty good core of older pitchers who didn’t feel threatened by a talented group of young guys, and I think that is part of what we have built as a team,” Ristano explains.Â He says the veterans understand that the one pitching the innings “is the best guy for it, and that it is [his] responsibility as a bench player to not only support him, but also to work to continue to develop those guys.”
All six of the pitchers have been able to show off some impressive performances for the Irish.
Bass picked up his first career win against Akron Feb. 28. He allowed no hits and no runs while striking out four Zip batters in 2.2 innings of work to preserve a 5-4 Notre Dame victory. The display continued in his next outing as he again pitched 2.2 scoreless innings to preserve a 3-2, 10-inning win over Georgia Tech and improve to 2-0.
Bielak has allowed two earned runs or fewer in five out of his eight starts on the mound. In one of his most impressive showings of the year, the young starter completely shut down Pitt April 4 to set a tone for the series for his team. He hurled seven shutout innings and only allowed four hits and two walks while striking out a career-high eight batters to help stake the Irish to a 7-0 lead in a game Notre Dame eventually won 8-1.Â
Guenther continues to improve, allowing zero runs in 10 of 15 appearances and lowered his ERA in each of his first 11 performances. The lefty demonstrated his resiliency in his first career victory by not surrendering a run after allowing a double and a triple in 1.1 innings of work against ACC foe Clemson.
While limited, Ruibal has pitched six of his 8.1 innings in highly competitive Atlantic Coast Conference play, including 1.1 shutout innings against No. 12 Virginia March 29.
Solomon, a lanky righty, has not allowed a run in seven of his nine appearances thus far this year. After going no more than 2.2 innings all year, Solomon threw 98 pitches and turned in seven strong innings for the Irish to keep his team in the game in extra innings against No. 8 Louisville March 21.
Finally, Vorsheck gave up a double and a single upon entering the game against the Crusaders for his first career appearance, but settled down nicely to record three consecutive outs and preserve the shut out.Â Â
Now that he has gotten his feet wet, Ristano believes that fans will see much more contributions from Vorsheck over time.
“He’s got an element of savvy, that I think, as soon as his physical gifts catch up with him, he is going to be a really stable presence in games,” Ristano says. “When the opportunity comes, and it will, he will be ready for it.”
While the freshman pitchers do have a great deal of success under their belts, there are additional pressures associated with collegiate pitching and the talent of the ACC. To compound this stress, five of the six come out of the bullpen and are often placed in late game, high-pressure situations as a result.
“It’s exciting, definitely,” Guenther says. “It’s a lot different from what we might have done in high school. It’s higher stakes.
“I know the first outing, I was definitely nervous, but I think after that your team always has your back and everyone is yelling from the dugout helping you do your best. There is definitely some pressure, but I think it is getting more comfortable among all of us.”
Ristano, in his fifth year with the Irish, says that while there is a significant amount of pressure associated with the reliever role, the mentality of the team and the pitching staff makes things a lot easier.
“We are saying win one pitch at a time. Don’t try to win the game with every pitch that you throw or every swing that you take,” Ristano says. “We need total commitment to the thing that we can control and the only thing that we can control is the pitch in front of us.”
Bass says that it is this pitch-by-pitch mentality and the idea that it is his job to win the pitch not to win the game that allows him to relax and find a rhythm on the mound.
“You focus on that breathing instead of freaking out and worrying about the fans,” Bass says. “You are really just focusing. It kind of takes the weight off your shoulders.”
While adjusting to the college game can be challenging, transitioning into the academic life of a university can be just as difficult for an incoming freshman.
“It was a tough adjustment coming from high school. You can’t really prepare for a college like Notre Dame,” Bielak says.
That being said, the pitchers have proven to be just as affective in the classroom, with each recording solid grades for their opening semester at Notre Dame.
“They have kind of sheltered us in at first. We weren’t required to do a whole lot of things early on, so we got the academic stuff together,” Guenther says. “Then, we come here and the guys have helped us get baseball together. It is kind of piece-by-piece. We’re still not super good at it, but we’re getting better.”
While the on-the-field and academic success is impressive, it is the individuals behind the baseball caps that are truly special.
“The most fun part about this is that we enjoy the time that we spend together,” Ristano says. “I think that they know that our relationship with them and our responsibility to them extends beyond when the uniform comes off. … They are great players, but they are better kids and I think that is what is going to translate into continued and future success for them.”
If the young squad can continue to grow and develop as a group, in the classroom and on the field, there is a great deal of potential for both ACC and NCAA Tournament success.
“This team right now, we can do whatever we put our mind to,” Solomon says. “We just need to hit our stride.”
“Everything is there, we have a really good staff coming in and a really young team,” Bass adds.
Coach Ristano agrees, but says that there is still additional improvement to be made by his young fast ballers.
“They all have strides to make,” he says. “Just because they are having success and just because we are leaning on them so heavily doesn’t mean that they have even scratched the surface of their development.”
Still, this leads Ristano and the team to be hopeful for the future.
“If everyone is staying healthy and everyone keeps playing well, if we keep competing with each other and keep competing on the field we will win more games and kind of see where it takes us,” Guenther says.
“When it is said and done,” Ristano says, “without trying to use hyperbole, this could be one of the best groups that this university has ever seen in terms of a collective bunch of pitchers all in the same class.”