Irish look to take next step toward NCAA elite
Zach Klonsinski | Friday, May 13, 2016
Coming off its first NCAA tournament berth since 2006, Notre Dame entered the 2016 season ready to start establishing itself in the national landscape.
With eight games remaining in the regular season, the Irish (26-20, 10-12 ACC) have established themselves as a consistent presence in the upper tier of the rankings, but they are still searching to crack into the elite ranks, both nationally and in conference.
Notre Dame is just 3-10 against teams ranked in the top 30 nationally, and that record drops to just 1-9 against top-10 opponents. All of those top-10 losses have come at the hands of ACC opponents: The Irish were swept in road series against No. 5 Louisville and No. 6 Florida State before taking one of three from No. 12 North Carolina State. Notre Dame then dropped a game to No. 4 Miami at Frank Eck Stadium.
The Irish have largely taken care of the rest of their competition, however: Notre Dame is 23-10 against teams outside of the top 30, including a 17-6 mark since March 22.
Even in losses to high-quality competition, the Irish have been close to making the jump to college baseball’s elite. Two losses against Louisville were by a single run as was one against Florida State, and the Irish jumped out to a 5-0 lead over the Seminoles in the series finale before being burned by the big inning in an 11-5 loss.
“I think you just compete and try to compete at as high a level as you can on every pitch,” Irish head coach Mik Aoki said of working to get wins against top-tier competition. “I think we’ve had the misfortune of playing teams as solid as Louisville or Florida State or an NC State … I’m not saying that it’s fair or unfair, but we’ve played them on the road. And in this conference, playing on the road versus playing at home seems to make a big difference when you look at records around the league.
“… We’ve gotta understand that you just go play baseball, doesn’t matter where it is.”
The Irish have been helped in their mid-season resurgence by the emergence of senior left hander Michael Hearne and sophomore right hander Peter Solomon.
Hearne has anchored Notre Dame during mid-week action, pushing the Irish to a 9-1 in mid-week games he started while boosting himself to a 7-1 record and 2.00 ERA.
Solomon struggled early in the season but has now established himself as the Friday starter for the Irish, including a 10-strikeout performance against Ohio on April 29. Solomon scattered six hits over six innings of work in Notre Dame’s 2-1 victory.
“[Hearne and Solomon] come in and they work and they try to be as good as they can every single day,” Aoki said. “Whether it’s with their side work or their lifting or trying to take care of their nutrition and their rest and recovery, which sometimes at this place is difficult because of the academic demands.”
The Irish have also been bolstered by an infusion of youth into the lineup this season, led by freshman jack-of-all-trades Matt Vierling. Vierling has established himself in the clean-up spot in the Irish lineup while hitting .273 with five home runs and 27 RBIs, third on the team. The freshman has also, on two separate occasions, come in in relief in the later innings of a game and then given himself, and his team, the walk-off victory. The first instance was a walk-off home run against Niagara on March 6 in the USA Baseball-Irish Classic, and the second came on a bases-loaded single to defeat Central Michigan on April 20.
Utility player Nick Podkul has also made his presence felt for the Irish after establishing himself as a regular in the lineup. The freshman is batting .295 while reaching base at a .430 clip, good for second among starters. Sophomore outfielder Jake Shepski has also forced his way into the starting rotation by batting .307 and leading the team with seven home runs and a .561 slugging percentage.
“They’ve bought into the idea that we just try to be as good as we can from pitch to pitch,” Aoki said. “I think they’ve bought into the idea that your work and your preparation is what gives you confidence to be able to make a transition from high school to college. … Matt Vierling’s been really good, [freshman infielder] Cole Daily’s been really good, Nick Podkul has been really good for us. [Shepski] has had a bit of a breakthrough year for us. I think [freshman right-hander] Connor Hock has come on really well at the end of the season.”
Second baseman Cavan Biggio has been the standout for Notre Dame so far, though. The junior leadoff hitter is batting .331, tied for the team lead among starters and also boasts a .493 on-base percentage — 23rd nationally — behind a team-high 47 walks, which is more than double the next Irish player’s total — Vierling with 19 — and is tied for sixth nationally.
“… My job, obviously, first of all, is to get on base, try and get something going early on, but also try and get the pitcher to throw all of his pitches so guys behind me can see what he has,” Biggio said. “… My grandpa always told me a walk’s as good as a hit, so getting on base is a big key to winning.”
Notre Dame wraps up its regular season by hosting No. 13 LSU on Tuesday and Wednesday during Senior Week, followed by a road series against No. 19 North Carolina on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and then a home series against No. 22 Clemson the following weekend. ACC tournament action begins May 24 while NCAA regional play is slated to begin June 3 if the Irish qualify for further postseason action.