Ryan Lidge’s bat is finding its rhythm for Notre Dame
Zach Klonsinski | Friday, April 21, 2017
For Irish senior catcher Ryan Lidge, baseball is a series of dances.
Behind the plate, he has multiple partners: the umpire, the batter and his pitcher on the mound.
Those are dances he’s excelled at — he was named the top defensive catcher in the Northwoods League during summer ball in 2014, and then he was named to the Johnny Bench Award Watch List for the nation’s best catcher as a sophomore. He finished second in the ACC that season with six runners picked off and fourth in the conference cutting down 17 would-be base stealers. After dealing with injuries during much of his junior season, Lidge has already gunned down 13 runners while picking off two more this year.
But for most of last season and the first third of the 2017 campaign, Lidge tried to dance with two left feet while in the batter’s box.
“There’s a saying I heard from a couple big leaguers, and it’s ‘Dance with the pitcher,’” Lidge said Wednesday night. “Have a dance with him, so that when his hands break, maybe that’s when my leg comes up and that’s when I’m slowly coming forward. I was being super fast earlier in the year. I wasn’t really in rhythm with him, so I was late on balls, super early on balls.”
“He was pressing a bit to force some things, and in this game, that never works,” Irish head coach Mik Aoki said of his catcher. “ … It also really throws off your timing. It tends to lengthen up the swing, and it kind of felt like he was that way early in the year. And I felt like he kind of battled with that last year.”
Lidge’s batting average bottomed out at .125 in the Clemson series finale on March 12, Notre Dame’s 14th game of the season.
Lidge has found his groove recently, however.
In Notre Dame’s last 23 games, Lidge has hit .289 with 16 RBIs while drawing 12 walks and posting a .381 on-base percentage.
“I put a little more rhythm in my swing. Once I had that, there was just a day where it just clicked,” Lidge said, snapping his fingers for emphasis. “I think it was way back in Pitt when we played them [March 17 and 19]. From there, I’ve just been a lot more comfortable at the plate, not pressing or anything.”
Lidge said focusing on the little things he did right in each at bat slowly pulled him out of his funk.
“I just kind of sat back and said I had to start taking positives from things that maybe had a negative result,” Lidge said. “Maybe I hit a hard ground ball to the second baseman with two strikes, but I hit it on the barrel, just right at him. Or maybe I swung at the pitch I wanted to, and maybe it resulted in a fly out.
“The game is so hard, and it’s such a game of failure, but it’s those positives that you’ve got to take to help you keep going.”
“Even [Tuesday against Central Michigan], he only had one hit to show for a solid game,” Aoki added. “And the hit that he had got was the one that he hit absolutely the worst. He stepped on the other three balls he hit — a missile to the second baseball, one bomb to center field the guy somehow got to and there was one more that he just absolutely stepped on.”
During his current 15-game on-base streak though — dating back to Notre Dame’s win over Chicago State on March 28 — Lidge has hit .320 and posted a .426 on-base percentage while knocking in 13 runs and drawing 10 walks.
“Now, I tap the plate, I say, ‘Alright, have a dance with the pitcher right here,’” Lidge said. “Every pitcher is different with where I have to time him up, but for the most part, I just try to get my leg up early and trust that my foot is going to get down.”
Lidge figuratively completed his return to form Wednesday night.
With Notre Dame trailing 3-0 and two outs in the bottom of the first inning against Illinois State at Frank Eck Stadium, Lidge stepped to the plate with two outs and two runners on.
He turned on the 3-1 pitch and sent the ball flying down the right field line, hooking all the way.
“I hit it and I see it tailing, and I’m just praying, ‘Please. Please, please, please,’” Lidge said. “I pretty much knew the only way it was going to be fair was if it hit the very, very edge of the foul pole.”
It did just that, glancing off the outside of the pole for his first home run of the year. Combined with an RBI double in the third inning, Lidge’s four-RBI night powered the Irish to a 7-6 victory.
“That was huge, just to get our energy back up,” Aoki said, adding that the team did not return to campus until 1:30 a.m. Wednesday morning after its game against Central Michigan at Detroit’s Comerica Park on Tuesday night. “That could have easily been where we slept-walked through something, so Lidge giving us that spark was really big.”
Lidge’s return gives Notre Dame another weapon in its lineup that struggled to score runs for much of the early part of the season.
“There was a stretch there, those first three weekends of us getting turned around, where we had like five guys in our lineup that were hitting, and our pitching staff really picked us up,” Aoki said. “Now, you see [freshman left fielder] Jake [Johnson] coming out of it a bit. Lidge has come out of it in a big, big way. Now we’re able to actually score some runs.
“It adds a dimension that was sorely needed.”
Despite his recent success with the bat in his hands, though, Lidge said he still knows where he’s needed most.
“I go out there and say, ‘Catching first,’ because you’re a catcher,” Lidge said. “You’re in every play.
“Hitting’s kind of an extra.”
Lidge demonstrated his abilities calling a game behind the plate Wednesday night, too. With the Irish clinging to a one-run lead, Lidge combined with junior righty closer Sean Guenther to strike out five of the six batters Illinois State sent to the plate over the final two innings.
“I love catching Sean Guenther,” Lidge said. “ … Sean is just like a bulldog coming out of the pen. You can see it in his face. He says, ‘I’m going to get you out. If you get a hit, good for you, but I’m going to get you out.’ He just says, ‘Here it is.’”
Lidge said he gets a thrill out of the chess match of calling a game, and not just against the opposing batter.
“I just like the chemistry with the pitcher,” Lidge said. “A guy like [senior left hander] Scott Tully who shakes a ton versus a guy like Sean who might never shake, or [graduate student lefty Michael Hearne] who might never shake. The, ‘OK, I get it, you don’t want that. Now I know what you want.’ Then later, as the game goes on, that feeling that we’re on the same page, that we want the same pitch.
“It’s hard to explain, but it’s like you have that connection, that energy flow between the two that I think is really cool.”
Kind of like dance partners?
That drew a laugh from Lidge as he started back toward the dugout.
“A baseball game’s just a dance, I guess.”