Since sixth-year assistant coach Chuck Ristano first stepped foot on campus Notre Dame pitching has been a model of consistency at the conference and national level while churning out Major League Baseball draftees at a rapid rate.
In five years, Ristano has seen MLB draft eight of his former Irish pitchers. These include RHP Brian Dupra, RHP Cole Johnson, RHP Will Hudgins, LHP Steve Sabatino, LHP Joe Spano, RHP Dan Slania, RHP Donnie Hissa and RHP Pat Connaughton.
On the diamond, Irish pitching has recorded five consecutive years with a team ERA south of 4.00 (3.42, 3.92, 3.75, 3.05 & 3.13 from 2011-15) after posting team ERAs of 4.38, 5.36 and 5.95 in the three years (2008-10) prior to his arrival at Notre Dame.
A few of the other improvements include:
- Three consecutive seasons with fewer than 3.00 walks per nine innings for the first time in school history from 2011-13 … the Irish led the BIG EAST in fewest walks per nine innings in 2011 (2.67), 2012 (2.81) and 2013 (2.59) … only eight times since 1957 has an Irish team averaged below 3.00 walks per nine innings with 2011-13 marking three of those occasions … in 2015, the Irish finished third in the ACC in walks allowed per nine innings (3.13), improving by seven spots in the league standings (0.77 less walks per nine innings) from the year before.
- Tallied five consecutive seasons (2011-15) with an ERA below 4.00 for the first time since 2000-04.
- Increased the saves total every year from 2011-13, going from 12 in 2011 to 14 in 2012 to 17 in 2013 … the Irish finished sixth in the ACC in saves in 2015 with 14 as six different pitchers earned at least one save on the year.
In addition to mentoring MLB draftees during his time at Notre Dame, Ristano has teamed with fellow assistant coach Jesse Woods to bring in five top-45 classes (including four in the top 40) from 2011-15. True recruiters nationally, the duo has helped bring in talented classes that feature student-athletes from coast-to-coast and over 15 states since the fall of 2010.
Several elite pitching prospects have chosen to come to school after hearing their names called in the MLB Draft include recent high school draftees Peter Solomon (21st Round, 2014) and Brad Bass (33rd Round, 2014).
While some coaches have the benefit of a consistent ace for multiple years at a time, Ristano has mentored a new ace every single season he has been at Notre Dame, often times taking an undrafted player out of high school and turning them into an MLB Draftee when they leave the Irish. Despite the challenge, the Notre Dame pitching staffs have consistently been some of the best in its conference.
2015 proved to be no different as the Irish tied for third in the ACC and qualified for their first NCAA Regional since 2006 behind another strong effort from Ristano’s pitching staff. Notre Dame finished third in the league (26th – DI) with a 3.13 ERA, totaled five shutouts (3rd –ACC), posted a slim 1.28 WHIP (3rd – ACC) and had an impressive walks allowed per nine innings mark of 3.13 (3rd – ACC). A mostly ground ball inducing staff, Irish pitching forced opponents into a D1-leading 75 double plays (1.25 per game).
Despite losing Connaughton, Sean Fitzgerald and Hissa to minor league baseball and 2014 weekend starter Michael Hearne to an elbow injury just two weeks into the 2015 season, the Irish pitching staff showed considerable resiliency.
New ace Ryan Smoyer (JR) put together a brilliant campaign with a 9-1 record and 2.27 ERA in 79.1 innings of work to earn first team all-region and third-team all-ACC accolades. Senior Scott Kerrigan gave the Irish 76.1 innings (3.89 ERA) while battling injuries, and underclassman pitching prospects Scott Tully (3.17 ERA, 65.1 IP), Brandon Bielak (3.55 ERA, 88.2 IP), Bass (1.91 ERA, 33.0 IP), Sean Guenther (2.72 ERA, 46.1 IP), Solomon (1.40 ERA, 19.1 IP) and Evy Ruibal (4.58 ERA, 35.1 IP) all provided the Notre Dame pitching unit with solid years while filling a variety of roles. Bielak and Guenther both earned ACC all-freshman honors, while Bass and Guenther were named Louisville Slugger Freshman All-Americans.
After a dominating three years in the BIG EAST (2011-13), the Irish pitching staff picked up right where they left off when they joined the ACC in 2014. Behind new ace Sean Fitzgerald, the Irish staff turned in 23 quality starts in 53 games, consistently keeping their squad in games against some of the nation’s best teams. Notre Dame finished the year with the third-best ERA in the powerful ACC (3.05).
Ristano mentored several pitchers that had career years in 2014. Before missing the last month of the season with a forearm injury, Fitzgerald was pitching as well as anyone in the ACC, with a 2.29 ERA, eight quality starts in 10 chances and the first two complete games of his career. After not being drafted out of high school, Fitzgerald was seen as a sure-fire draftee before his injury. He earned a free agent deal with the Los Angeles Angels in June 2014.
After making just five appearances out of the bullpen as a freshman in 2013 and totaling an 8.44 ERA, M. Hearne hurled two quality starts and registered a 2.51 ERA in a team-high 86.0 innings of work as a regular weekend starter.
Connaughton, who had not thrown a complete game and had gone 6.2 innings or more just twice in his first two years, showed the ability to be a real “innings eater” in 2014, as he hurled two complete games and went 6.2 or more innings in each of his last six starts. Connaughton also never allowed a home run in 154.2 innings on the mound. He was drafted in the fourth round of the 2014 draft by the Baltimore Orioles.
After battling back from shoulder surgery that kept him out for the entire 2013 season, Kerrigan was downright dominant over the season’s final two months. Having made just two appearances in two years since arriving on campus, Kerrigan made the most of regular work in 2014. After posting a 13.50 ERA in his first 3.1 innings to open the year, he totaled a miniscule 1.16 ERA for the remaining 54.1 innings, totaling a team-best 1.87 ERA (2nd – ACC).
Entering his senior year with a career 5.84 ERA, Hissa showed the ability to be a closer as well as to work in long relief during different parts of the season. Hissa finished the year with a 2.66 ERA and a team-high five saves in 31 appearances and was drafted in the 21st round by the Milwaukee Brewers following the season.
2013 proved to be another standout year for the Irish pitchers under Ristano as Slania was fifth in the country in ERA (1.21) and 20th in saves (13), while senior Adam Norton was third in Division I in shutouts (3), 18th in walks allowed per nine innings (1.16) and 27th in victories (10). In the BIG EAST, Norton led in complete games (4) and shutouts, while Slania was first in ERA. For their efforts, both earned first team all-BIG EAST honors with Slania later becoming the highest drafted Notre Dame pitcher (fifth round) since Jeff Samardzija went in the fifth round in 2006. In addition to Slania and Norton, Connaughton sported a 1.71 ERA in 10 starts.
A year earlier, Ristano was instrumental in Hudgins' breakout senior campaign and ultimate selection in the 2012 MLB draft (22nd round selection of the Washington Nationals).
Hudgins was named all-BIG EAST second team following his only season as a starter. He went 5-3 and led the league with a 2.06 ERA. Hudgins was the first Irish starter to complete a season with an ERA in the neighborhood of 2.00 since David Phelps, now a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees, posted a 1.88 ERA in 2007. Hudgins struck out 90 and walked 24 in 96.1 innings. Hudgins topped the BIG EAST in fewest earned runs allowed (22), ranked fourth in strikeouts (90), seventh in opposing batting average (.233) and ninth in innings pitched (96.1). He collected nine quality starts and allowed one earned run or less in 10 of his last 14 starts.
In Ristano's first season (2011), the Irish were carried by one of the top pitching staffs in the BIG EAST. Notre Dame finished 2011 with a 3.42 ERA (down from 5.95 in 2010), which was the best by an Irish staff since 2004 (3.36). Notre Dame actually took a 2.82 ERA into the final week of the regular season, which would have been the lowest by an Irish club since 1960 (2.60, school record) and ranked 15th in the NCAA at the time.
Notre Dame's starting pitchers registered a quality start (pitcher completes at least six innings and permits no more than three earned runs) in 33 of 53 games for the Irish. The 33 quality starts is even more impressive when you consider Notre Dame totaled 11 in 2010. The Irish owned a 2.57 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which was light years better than the total of 1.73 from 2010. Notre Dame led the BIG EAST in fewest walks by a large margin. The Irish walked only 143 batters in 481.2 innings, good for a 2.67 average per nine innings - slightly off the school record for fewest walks per nine innings (2.48 in 2001), but still ranked third all-time.
The Irish pitching staff ranked first or second in the conference in sacrifice bunts allowed, walks allowed, hit batters allowed, runs allowed, earned runs allowed, wild pitches allowed and balks allowed.
Notre Dame's 2011 weekend rotation of Dupra, Johnson and Todd Miller totaled 29 quality starts as opposed to the weekend rotation of 2010, which accounted for just 11. Dupra, Johnson and Miller struck out 221 batters and walked only 71 in their 287.0 innings of work. That equated to a 3.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 6.93 punch-outs per nine innings and 2.23 walks per nine innings. They registered nine straight quality starts to open the season. The Irish had not gone that many consecutive games with a quality start in nearly 10 years.
Notre Dame's starting rotation of Dupra, Johnson, Miller, Anthony McIver and Norton averaged 6.38 innings per start. In fact, Dupra, Johnson and Miller averaged 6.52 innings per start on weekends. Notre Dame's starting pitchers averaged only 4.73 innings per start in 2010. They combined for 25 starts of at least 7.0 innings. The Irish managed only seven such starts the year prior to Ristano's arrival.
Dupra and Johnson each ranked among the top 10 in the BIG EAST in innings pitched with Dupra (104.2) ranking fifth and Johnson (101.0) ninth. Notre Dame was the only school in the conference that had two pitchers ranked among the top 10 in innings pitched. Johnson (2.76) ranked eighth in the BIG EAST in ERA and Dupra (3.10) ranked 12th.
Notre Dame's bullpen did not disappoint as Hudgins, Fitzgerald, Slania, McIver and Norton finished with a 2.90 ERA. The bullpen amassed 12 saves and limited its opponents to a .253 batting average. The quintet struck out 94 and walked 42.
The Irish relief corps was even better in BIG EAST action. Notre Dame's bullpen posted a 2.08 ERA in 73.2 innings. They owned a 7-4 record and seven saves in league play. The bullpen struck out 43 and walked 20. Irish opponents batted just .230 against the bullpen in BIG EAST games. The pen surrendered two home runs and 12 total extra-base hits in 26 league games.
Prior to Notre Dame, Ristano acted as the recruiting coordinator and pitching coach at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey for four years (2006-2009). He not only directed all phases of recruitment, but also was responsible for the development of off-season throwing and conditioning programs. Ristano coordinated study hall and all travel plans, and even assisted in numerous fundraising activities. He placed players in a number of top-level summer collegiate leagues.
Ristano helped guide the Hawks to the conference title and automatic NCAA bid in 2007 and 2009.
Monmouth won 30 or more games in three of his four seasons on staff, including a school-record 37 victories in 2008. The Hawks appeared in the 2007 Tempe Regional and 2009 Oxford Regional.
Ristano also recruited and tutored three pitchers selected in the Major League Baseball draft, including Ryan Buch and Brett Brach, who were selected in the eighth and 10th rounds, respectively, in the 2009 MLB Draft. In total, eight of his recruits eventually signed professional baseball contracts.
Under Ristano's guidance, seven pitchers earned all-conference honors, four received earned all-region accolades and four more were named TPX All-Americans, including Brach, who was the 2007 NEC Pitcher of the Year.
In his first season at Monmouth (2006), Ristano's pitching staff ranked eighth nationally in ERA (3.34), setting a school record. In 2008, his staff posted a 3.99 ERA, as the Hawks joined 11 other teams to finish in the NCAA top 20 in ERA in two of the previous three seasons. In 2007, his staff set a school record with 374 strikeouts.
During his four seasons at the school, Monmouth posted a 132-89 record and compiled a team ERA of 4.35. The Hawks led the NEC in ERA in 2006, finished second each of the other three years and led the conference in strikeouts twice.
In 2005, Ristano served as pitching coach at his alma mater Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. He tutored both first team all-conference pitchers, including the league's pitcher of the year, and helped the Pioneers to their first ever NEC Tournament appearance.
Ristano, who spent the 2010 season as the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at Temple University, was a four-year letterwinner at Sacred Heart (2001-04). He was a two-time captain and four-time NEC All-Academic Team honoree. Ristano graduated with a B.S. in sports management in 2004.
Ristano and his wife, Notre Dame softball associate coach Lizzy (Lemire) Ristano ('01), were married in November 2014. The couple resides in Granger, Indiana with their dog Mo and are expecting their first child in April 2016.