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McDaniel: Notre Dame righting ship at midseason

| Thursday, April 7, 2016

As the Irish approach the midway point of their season this weekend, they are clearly trending in the right direction. They have won eight of their last nine, as well as 10 of their last 13 games.

Notre Dame (16-11, 6-6 ACC) has seemingly found a formula for success in recent weeks, combining quality starting pitching with consistent offensive success — they have now scored at least five runs in 10 consecutive contests and have averaged 9.8 runs per game in the same stretch.

And in the last nine games — a 15-run outburst from Wake Forest aside — the pitching staff has held opponents to just 3.5 runs per game.

Irish senior first baseman Zak Kutsulis swings at a pitch during Notre Dame's 4-2 loss in 14 innings to NC State on April 18 at Frank Eck Stadium. Michael Yu | The Observer
Irish senior first baseman Zak Kutsulis swings at a pitch during Notre Dame’s 4-2 loss in 14 innings to NC State on April 18 at Frank Eck Stadium.

After Tuesday night’s win over then No. 17 Michigan, Irish head coach Mik Aoki commented on Notre Dame’s success after struggling early.

“All along, I felt like this was — the way we’ve been playing for the last two or three weeks — is how I thought we’d play the whole thing,” Aoki said. “Like I said, we got off to that slow start. But I think it speaks volumes to our team that they’ve stuck with it, and they’ve hung in there and they didn’t let the little bit of disappointment of the way we started the year affect anything else.”

One of the reasons the Irish have been playing so well so far this season has been senior starting pitcher Michael Hearne. The lefty improved to 3-0 on the season with his win Tuesday, and Notre Dame is now 6-0 in games he starts.

Hearne leads Irish starters with a 3.18 ERA, has 21 strikeouts to only 10 walks and is holding opponents to a .228 batting average against.

“For Michael, it’s always about the fastball — being able to command the fastball on both sides of the plate,” Aoki said Tuesday. “It’s not like his fastball is a lights-out 92-93 miles an hour fastball, but, with the type of pitcher he is, it’s incredibly important that he commands both sides of the plate with the fastball. And typically he does. He’s pretty darn good.”

The Irish will likely need that to continue if they are to build on their winning ways in the second half of the season. Beyond Hearne, each of the other three Irish starters — junior Ryan Smoyer and sophomores Sean Guenther and Peter Solomon — have ERAs under 4.

On the offensive side of the ball, Notre Dame has been led in part by junior Cavan Biggio and seniors Ricky Sanchez and Zak Kutsulis. All three players have batting averages well over .300, while Biggio is tied for the NCAA lead with 35 walks this season already.

The reason they have been able to put up so many runs recently, however, is that they have had contributions up and down the lineup. In the win over Michigan, for example, every single starter found his way on base at least once as they combined for 14 hits and six walks, while six different players recorded an RBI.

And with the highest-ranked team they’ve played all season — No. 3 Miami — coming to South Bend for a three-game set over the weekend, the Irish will need to keep up their consistency on both sides of the plate.

They’ve proven they can do it, with wins over the Wolverines, Oregon and No. 14 North Carolina State as well as back-to-back conference series wins over Virginia Tech and Wake Forest so far.

As the team moves through April and into May, Notre Dame will have to show it can hang with similar top teams if it hopes to make any kind of run in the conference and earn a berth in the NCAA tournament in June. If recent performances say anything about the state of this team, the Irish certainly have the ability to play with, and beat, anyone.

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