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Season Recap: Irish struggle in inaugural ACC campaign

| Friday, May 16, 2014

It was a year of many changes for the Irish in 2014: a new powerhouse conference, a new identity as a team and several new stadiums to call home throughout the season.

Although Notre Dame (19-31, 6-21 ACC) finished as runner-up in last year’s Big East tournament and barely missed out on a trip to the NCAA tournament, the transition to the ACC did not guarantee the team would have the same kind of conference success this year.

“We knew certainly that we were going to go into a conference that, up and down, is extremely competitive and filled with great teams,” Irish coach Mik Aoki said.

Junior first baseman Blaise Lezynski takes a pitch during the 2-1 Irish victory against Clemson on May 9 at Frank Eck Stadium.Michael Yu | The Observer
Junior first baseman Blaise Lezynski takes a pitch during the 2-1 Irish victory against Clemson on May 9 at Frank Eck Stadium.
Additionally, the Irish lost two of their top offensive powers from the previous season — third baseman Eric Jagielo, now with the Yankees organization, and first baseman Trey Mancini, now with the Orioles organization —and their closer, Dan Slania, currently with the Giants organization, while ace right-hander Adam Norton graduated.

To fill the holes left by those departures, Aoki said several players have stepped up, such as junior first baseman Blaise Lezynski, who leads the team with his .299 average and 29 RBIs and is the only player to start every game this season.

Junior outfielder Mac Hudgins, a key reserve the past two years, noticeably improved as well, earning 26 starts and batting .288, as has senior right-hander Sean Fitzgerald, who leads the rotation with a 2.29 ERA and 48 strikeouts.

“I’ve been very gratified to see kids like Blaise Lezynski and Mac Hudgins and Sean Fitzgerald, having gone through everything, and the number of kids having good seasons, having seasons where they’ve shown a great deal of improvement and development, so from an individual standpoint, I’d point to things like that,” Aoki said.

However, the Irish struggled in the new conference, not picking up an ACC win until March 21 against Virginia Tech and not winning a series until mid-April against Boston College.

Aoki said he saw Notre Dame’s 7-4 victory at then-No. 11 Miami (Fla.) on April 20 and the team’s 13-10 nonconference record as highlights to the season.

Additionally, the Irish were not able to take their home field at Frank Eck Stadium until May 9 because of cold-weather issues that delayed the installment of new FieldTurf. As a result, they were forced to play their home games in various stadiums throughout the area, including Four Winds Field in downtown South Bend, U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, Ind., and CSU Baseball Stadium in Chicago.

“As a coach and for me as an individual, you hate to sit there and make excuses at things like that, but it certainly didn’t make a year that was so full of transitions, both from losing some of those players to joining a new conference to having a lot of new guys in different roles, and then to add the fact that old man winter didn’t cooperate with us very much in terms of allowing our field get done,” Aoki said. “It was difficult.”

Despite these struggles on the diamond, Aoki said his players impressed him with their non-baseball work, noting their “head-shaving escapade,” benefitting the Bald and the Beautiful at the meet-the-team dinner Feb. 25 and their active participation with Daniel Alexander, a 12-year-old pediatric brain tumor patient whom the team adopted as its No. 1 fan through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation.

“You look at some of the stuff off the field — the visit to Walter Reed Hospital [on May 2] was great,” Aoki said. “The involvement with Daniel Alexander, who’s suffering from a brain tumor, that we’ve adopted — the relationship he has with our team and  in particular a handful of guys like [sophomore outfielder] Kyle Richardson, [sophomore outfielder] Zak Kutsulis and [junior infielder] Phil Mosey, who have really done a really good of leading that. So those are the things that I think sort of stand out.”

The team will only lose three players to graduation after this season — Fitzgerald, catcher Forrest Johnson and right-hander Donnie Hissa — and Aoki said he is excited that trio will be able to celebrate its senior day at Frank Eck Stadium.

“I’m thrilled for our program, but in particular, for those three kids,” he said. “They’ve been the backbone for our program for a couple of years now, just great kids, so I’m thrilled as can be for those three guys in particular.”

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