NOTRE DAME, IN- It hasn’t been a season to write home about in South Bend. The Fighting Irish weren’t considered preseason contenders in the ACC and they weren’t a preseason top 25 team or anything along those lines, sure, but there were some serious reasons for optimism. Enough of them, at least, to make you think they could make another run to the postseason.
“Our expectations were pretty high,” said Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki. “I feel like we have some good, quality players. The thing that kind of derailed us a little bit was how poorly we started the season. That was really, really unexpected for us, and not something that, in my wildest nightmares, would have ever actually foreseen coming.”
As Aoki alluded to, things got sideways on the Irish from the very start.
They went 1-3 over opening weekend at a tournament down in San Antonio, with a loss to Lafayette and two losses to Saint Louis. The second weekend of the season brought an 0-3 result at the Tony Gwynn Classic in San Diego, with losses to UC-Irvine, San Diego, and San Diego State. That was followed by a 2-2 weekend at a tournament in Cary, North Carolina, with losses to Maryland and UMass-Lowell, and then a sweep at the hands of Clemson to start ACC play.
That 3-11 start went a long way toward sending Notre Dame’s at-large hopes to an early grave, and while they’ve played much better baseball overall since that sweep against Clemson, they’ve never really seemed to get fully on track.
Now, with the team’s best chance for RPI game-changing wins in their rearview mirror after the series against Louisville, the team is largely left to look ahead and try to get as prepared as possible for the ACC Tournament. Even with their struggles, with all but two teams from the league qualifying for the conference tourney, the Irish seem like a reasonably safe bet to get in, even if Aoki isn’t quite ready to count those chickens before they hatch.
“First, we’ve got to make it,” said Aoki. “There’s some work to be done there. We’ll try to work with them (the players) a little bit more on an individual, day-by-day basis and get them in here and work on some things that they’ve been scuffling with and just continue to reinforce some of the things that they’ve been doing well. Hopefully in these last seven games, we can go out there and play at a pretty high level.”
And while a series sweep at the hands of the Cardinals seems like an unlikely place to find some optimism about the team’s chances if they can indeed get into the conference tournament, it would appear that there are some things trending in the right direction.
Staring pitcher Brad Bass was outstanding on Friday night in his duel against potential national Player of the Year Brendan McKay. He threw 7.2 innings, giving up two hits and two runs (one earned) with three walks and six strikeouts. That came one week after working seven innings of four-hit, two-run (one earned) baseball against Duke and likely gave him, statistically, his best start since throwing seven shutout innings against Monmouth back in early-March.
On Saturday, Michael Hearne was pretty good as well. He threw 6.2 innings, giving up nine hits and five runs (four earned) with two walks and five strikeouts, but that doesn’t really paint an accurate picture of how well he pitched. He threw the ball extremely well for much of the game, but was victimized by defense and by a howling wind that caused misplays directly leading to runs being scored. Two weeks ago, he threw eight innings against Virginia, giving up six hits and two runs, and about a month ago, he threw 8.2 innings, giving up eight hits and three runs (one earned) with a walk and three strikeouts against Georgia Tech.
On Sunday, Brandon Bielak wrapped up the weekend by throwing five innings, giving up seven hits and three runs (two earned) with three walks and seven strikeouts. It wasn’t a perfect start by any stretch, but against a powerful Louisville offense, he showed signs of being the dominant force that he can be at his best. On top of that, it was probably his best start since tossing 5.2 innings of five-hit, one-run baseball against NC State at the end of March.
The fact of the matter is that there are better individual pitchers in the league and better overall rotations, but the Irish aren’t going to be overly outmanned on the mound against anyone in the league. For Aoki, the weekend in starting pitching performances was simply a continuation of what he’s seen for much of the season.
“Honestly, I think it (the starting pitching) has been pretty good for the better part of probably the last nine weeks,” said Aoki. “We didn’t do anything very well for the first three weeks for whatever the reason was. Since then, it’s been pretty good with the exception of one of those guys may have been touched up maybe once during that stretch, but I think that they’ve been pretty darn good for a while.”
The offense has been more of a struggle, frankly. As a team, they’re hitting .241/.331/.348. Just three players, Matt Vierling (.324), Kyle Fiala (.279), and Jake Johnson (.274) are hitting above .270, and Fiala is currently battling some injury issues, specifically, a broken hamate bone. That’s usually something one can return from in short order, but his is a bat that will be missed for as long as he’s out.
Still, there are reasons for optimism from an offensive standpoint.
One is the presence of Fiala, should he find his way back to the lineup relatively quickly. As recently as April 1st, he was hitting .231, but since then has turned it on. Four times since the start of April, Fiala has collected three or more hits in a game, compared to just once before the month of April began. His five home runs are good for second on the team, as are his 32 RBI.
The biggest reason for optimism on offense, however, is Matt Vierling, who has established himself as one of the better pure hitters in the ACC as a sophomore.
The St. Louis, Missouri, native is hitting .324/.398/.546 with 14 doubles, three triples, seven home runs, and 36 RBI. And he’s been pretty consistent throughout the season. He had one pseudo-slump during the middle of April that pushed his average down to the low .260s, but since then, he’s raised it 60 points to about where it was for much of the first half of the season. He’s done all of this after a solid, if unspectacular, freshman season that saw him hit .258/.322/.366 with three doubles, six homers, and 29 RBI.
“I think overall his approach is a little bit better (this season),” said Aoki. “I think sometimes it’s difficult to come in as a freshman, especially at this place. You get put under a lot of academic pressure, you’re playing in arguably the best conference in America, and as a freshman, he’s hitting right in the heart of our lineup. I think he was getting pitched in such a tough way. Pitchers were making good pitches against him last year, so while he had his moments of success, he had some moments where he wasn’t quite as successful. He’s been able to make some adjustments, he’s a little bit more consistent with things, whereas last year, when he started to scuffle a little bit, that lasted a little bit longer than the scuffle did this year.”
Notre Dame has also proven to be something of a streaky team this season. That’s been expressed in a negative way, such as their slow start, and in more recent sweeps suffered at the hands of Florida State, Wake Forest, and Louisville.
But that’s also been a positive, such as when they won five out of six ACC games in a series win over NC State and then a sweep of Georgia Tech and when they won five out of six games overall leading up to the Louisville series.
Sure, “streaky” is not an adjective that any coach is going to want to have placed on his team, but come conference tournament time, there are certainly worse things to be than streaky, because someone has to get hot and win the whole thing. And while it’s a longshot, if the pitching holds up, Vierling continues to lead the offense, and the Irish collectively get hot at the right time, why not Notre Dame?