Feb. 13, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - As it steps into one of the premier baseball conferences in the country, the University of Notre Dame baseball team is making a big transition on the field and in the locker room as the Irish look to replace four Major League Baseball draft picks, two captains and one of the most accurate pitchers in recent school history.
All-Americans Eric Jagielo (.388 avg., 19 2B, 9 HR, 35 BB in 2013) and Trey Mancini (.389 avg., 7 3B, 7 HR, 54 RBI in 2013) and second-team all-BIG EAST standout Dan Slania (school-record 30 career saves) were all drafted in the 2013 MLB Draft. Also drafted was senior co-captain Charlie Markson. Other big losses for the Irish included senior co-captain and four year starter at second base Frank Desico (47 R, 19 SB in 2013) and first team all-BIG EAST pitcher Adam Norton (10-5, 2.40 ERA, 116.1 IP in 2013).
However, despite all the losses head coach Mik Aoki knows that his team is deeper than it was a year ago.
"While the upper end of the roster might not be as talented, I believe the overall depth of our team is far and away the best it's been since I've been at Notre Dame," said Aoki. "We really like Brian Kelly's (Notre Dame head football coach) mantra of the `next man in.' We think there is very little drop off from one player to the next at each position and that will definitely be a strength of the team this season."
Even though the Irish enter a loaded conference that features six teams ranked in Baseball America's preseason top 25, Aoki has confidence in his Irish that they can be competitive right away.
"Just like every year we want to make the conference tournament and have a shot at the NCAA Regionals," said Aoki. "I want our guys to remember that no matter who is across from them on the diamond that it's still baseball. If you play at your best, you'll more often than not have a great chance to win."
Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Notre Dame baseball squad:
Just a season ago, Aoki was working to fill the huge hole at catcher that was left when Cincinnati Reds sixth-round pick Joe Hudson bypassed his senior season. However, junior Forrest Johnson filled the position admirably, starting 54 of the 58 games, fielding at an impressive .986 clip.
This year, one half of the battery has more depth. Johnson returns and will be joined by sophomore Ricky Sanchez and highly touted freshman Ryan Lidge.
Johnson was almost unanimously voted as one of the two Irish team captains and brings a strong work ethic to the table.
Sanchez showed great improvement in the fall after a solid summer campaign with the Terre Haute Rex of the Prospects League saw him earn a spot in the league's all-star game. A good athlete with solid offensive prowess, Sanchez has the ability to hit for power.
Lidge, a cousin of former Irish pitching great and MLB closer Brad Lidge, was drafted in the 40th round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Boston Red Sox. He displays an above-average throwing arm in addition to having switch-hitting ability.
While the position could see multiple starters throughout the year, the veteran Johnson should earn the spot on opening day.
The infield was most heavily hit by departures as the MLB draft took the All-Americans Mancini and Jagielo off the roster, while graduation removed long-time second baseman DeSico from the lineup.
Jagielo, a first round pick of the New York Yankees, and Mancini, an eighth round selection of the Baltimore Orioles, finished in the top two on the team in average, hits, doubles, home runs, slugging percentage and on-base percentage, while both led the team in other categories as well.
DeSico was a four-year starter at second base that played in 217 games (214 starts) throughout his career. He was a burner on the base paths as evidenced by a team-high 19 stolen bases and 47 runs scored (tied for team lead). DeSico also was a steady defender that registered a .979 fielding percentage during his career, committing just 27 errors in 1,258 chances. He finished his tenure with a school-record 683 fielding assists.
Despite the losses, Aoki feels confident in the next man up philosophy and wants the guys charged with replacing the three veterans to be themselves on the field and help the team by using their own specific strengths.
"A good program develops players and gives them a chance to play professionally," said Aoki. "So we are happy and excited for all of the guys that moved on to the pros after last season. This year, we need guys to be who they are and we'll make up for Trey and Eric in different ways. It will definitely be a team effort to replace them and not just one player.
"So many of our guys competing for spots are veterans that might not have started every game, but have experience being in the lineup and at the plate. They have been with the team through the ups and downs of the last couple of years and will help to replace the guys we lost."
At first base, as many as five or six guys could get an opportunity, but junior third team all-BIG EAST performer Ryan Bull looks to have an edge at the position. A high school catcher, Bull made the switch to the outfield at Notre Dame, showing much improvement as a sophomore. The Eden Prairie, Minn., native also offered a steady bat, hitting .319 with nine doubles, five triples and 27 walks in his second campaign. Bull started only a pair of games at first base last season in place of Mancini, but has earned the nod somewhere in the lineup a whopping 109 times in his first two seasons at Notre Dame.
Others that could see playing time at the position throughout the course of the year include juniors Blaise Lezynski and Phil Mosey, sophomores James Nevant and Sanchez and freshman Lidge.
Freshman Cavan Biggio appears to have second base locked up after putting together a solid fall and preseason camp. A consensus high-school All-American, Biggio played for Team USA at the International Baseball Federation Junior AAA/18U World Championship and was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies (29th round) in the 2013 MLB Draft. Named the top second base prospect nationally by Perfect Game from the class of `13, Biggio's skill set at the plate reminds Aoki a lot of Mancini and Jagielo as freshmen in 2011.
"Cavan is really talented at the plate and appears to be a hybrid of Trey and Eric when they were freshmen," said the fourth-year head coach. "He has some power like Eric, is left handed like Eric and has a lot of moving parts to his swing like Eric, but has great plate discipline and pitch recognition like Trey."
Shortstop is the one position that is returning for the Irish infield as sophomore Lane Richards is back. Praised by the coaching staff for having the strongest infield arm on the team, Richards fielded at a .949 clip during his rookie season.
"Lane was an exceptional defender for us last year and I believe he has gotten better," said Aoki. "We are looking for him to improve at the plate, but with a year's worth of at-bats under his belt we anticipate for him to get better in that area."
Third base is extremely wide open as a handful of guys are fighting for playing time. Mosey started two games at third last year and has appeared in 52 games through two seasons. Fellow junior Kevin DeFilippis has played in 30 games throughout his two years, while freshman Kyle Fiala enters the fold after being named the No. 2 shortstop prospect in the state of Indiana for the class of 2013 by Perfect Game.
In what could end up being the strength of the team, the outfield boasts some talented athletes and skilled defenders. Aoki is excited about the potential despite the graduation of co-captain Markson, who started 54 games last season before being drafted in the 38th round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers.
"I feel better about the outfield than during any of my other three years," said Aoki. "From a talent standpoint, we have the ability to be better defensively and more productive at the plate too. I think we'll strike a much better balance than in previous campaigns."
While there are several options in the outfield, sophomores Zak Kutsulis and Kyle Richardson are expected to start on opening day in left and center field, respectively, while junior transfer Robert Youngdahl will man right field.
"Robert proved almost immediately that he was one of the better players on our team in the fall," said Aoki.
Youngdahl, who started his college career at Kansas State, comes to the Irish from Iowa Western Junior College. As a senior in high school, the New Brighton, Minn., native was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 37th round of the 2011 MLB Draft.
Kutsulis started 38 games last year, mostly in right field, and hit .292 with nine doubles while fielding at a .970 clip.
Richardson played in 24 games as a freshman last season, mostly as a defensive replacement in later innings. Aoki believes Richardson has the skill set to be one of the best defensive outfielders in the country.
When not playing at first, Bull can also play both corner outfield spots as he started 17 in left field and 22 in right field a year ago on his way to third team all-BIG EAST accolades.
Others who have seen plenty of action and should figure prominently into the outfield rotation include juniors Conor Biggio (six starts in LF in 2013) and Mac Hudgins (30 starts in LF and one in RF in 2013), Nevant (eight starts in RFin 2013) and Sanchez (four starts in LF in 2013).
Lezynski can play outfield or first base, but will start the year as the team's designated hitter, a position he manned 13 times a year ago.
A deep pitching staff leads the Irish into their first season in the ACC as seasoned veterans and newcomers alike give Aoki and pitching coach Chuck Ristano a lot to work with despite losing innings-eater Norton (team-high 10 wins in 116.1 innings pitched in 2013) and shutdown closer Slania (team-best 1.21 ERA, .217 opponent b/avg in 2013).
Seniors Sean Fitzgerald and Donnie Hissa provide solid leadership for the staff as the duo has combined to hurl over 250 innings in their Notre Dame careers.
Fitzgerald, who came out of the bullpen as a freshman, has upped his starts in each of his next two years. Now, as a team co-captain, the McLean, Va., native is going to be asked to carry a heavy load on this year's squad. Over the summer he had the opportunity to pitch in the elite Cape Cod Baseball League and put together a 2.28 ERA in 19.2 innings of work for the Harwich Mariners.
"Fitz will be asked to pitch a lot of significant innings for us and be a staple of our staff," said Aoki. "The bottom line is, for us to be good we need Sean to be good."
Look for Fitzgerald to open the season for the Irish in the opening day slot against Florida Atlantic.
Hissa has had some ups and downs throughout his time with the Irish, but put together a solid summer in the Northwoods League as he was named the league's No. 22 prospect by Baseball America.
The Iron River, Wis., native could be asked to start, come out of the bullpen or a combination of both during his final campaign in the Notre Dame blue and gold.
Two-sport star Pat Connaughton will once again join the team following the 2013-14 basketball season and is expected to provide a steady force at the top of the rotation.
The Arlington, Mass., native has received plenty of positive preseason press, as he was named the No. 22 RHP prospect among draft-eligible players for the 2014 MLB draft by Perfect Game, while Baseball America ranked him the No. 2 prospect in Indiana, the No. 6 prospect in the ACC and the No. 22 pitching prospect nationally.
"Pat is a talented player that still has a lot to learn about being a pitcher," said Aoki. "One thing about him that I'm not sure you can teach is that he is a gamer. He has the self-confidence to finish games and find ways to wiggle out of bad situations."
Other rotational guys will include Youngdahl, juniors Scott Kerrigan and Kyle Rubbinaccio, sophomores David Hearne and Nick McCarty and freshman Ryan Smoyer.
The previously mentioned Youngdahl will earn some quality innings on the mound as a lefty starter or reliever in addition to his regular position in right field.
Kerrigan and Rubbinaccio are both returning from season-ending injuries a year ago. Kerrigan is anticipated to get the nod as the third starter against FAU in the opening weekend.
Hearne, who was named the No. 2 prospect in the Far West League over the summer, pitched 44.0 innings last season between eight starts and 13 relief appearances. Aoki credits Hearne as being one of the most physically talented pitchers on the roster and expects him to work through an up-and-down rookie campaign to provide the Irish a big arm on a consistent basis.
McCarty, slated to start game two against the Owls in the season-opening series, gave the Irish some big innings as a freshman, working as a multi-inning reliever. He put together a 5-4 record in 29 appearances while pitching 62.1 innings, third-most on the team.
Smoyer will see time both as a starter and reliever after going 6-0 with a 0.70 ERA as a high school senior to earn pitcher of the year honors in the Northern Buckeye Conference.
The potential closer for the Irish is junior Cristian Torres. Torres boasts a large frame (6-6, 220) and has increased his baseball IQ since arriving on campus. Aoki sees Torres putting together a breakout campaign to help fill the role of Slania.
Options out of the bullpen for the Irish this season include sophomore side-arm pitcher Joey Cresta, fellow sophomores Michael Hearne, Connor Hale and Kutsulis and freshmen Jim Orwick and Scott Tully.
A formidable 54-game schedule that features four series against former BIG EAST Conference foes, 13 games against Baseball America preseason top-25 teams, 20 contests against 2013 NCAA Regional teams and 30 Atlantic Coast Conference games awaits the Irish as they enter their first year in the highly competitive ACC in 2014.
Eight teams that qualified for the NCAA Regionals last year litter the Notre Dame schedule including defending national champion UCLA, College World Series qualifier and ACC foe NC State, and NCAA Super Regional participant and ACC opponent Florida State. Other NCAA Regional qualifiers include Florida Atlantic, Virginia Tech, Valparaiso, Miami and Clemson.
"The highlight of our schedule this season is clearly the move to the ACC, which is arguably the most competitive baseball conference in the country year in and year out," said Aoki. "You look at teams like North Carolina, NC State, Florida State, Virginia, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami ... It's kind of a who's who of college baseball.
"If we can have some success against this schedule, it's going to put us in position to play in the postseason by giving us an outstanding RPI. The schedule is so radically different than what Notre Dame has ever played before simply because of the new conference. Going to a conference where baseball is prioritized will be very exciting for our players, staff and fans."
The usual Southern swing opens the season and sees the Irish play 18 games from Feb. 15 - March 16 away from the friendly confines of Frank Eck Stadium. Highlighting the month of action is a season-opening series against NCAA Regional qualifier Florida Atlantic (Feb. 15-16) in Boca Raton, Fla., the elite USA Baseball-Irish Classic (Feb. 28 - March 2) in Cary, N.C., and road ACC series against ACC power NC State (March 7-9) and Duke (March 14-16). All three games at the Wolfpack and the first two games at the Blue Devils will be streamed live on ESPN3.
The USA Baseball-Irish Classic features as good of a field as any regular season tournament in the nation as UCLA, NC State, Michigan, Appalachian State and Youngstown State join Notre Dame for a three-day event.
"The opportunity to play host to a regional rival in Michigan, the defending national champion in UCLA, a College World Series team in NC State and solid mid-major teams in Appalachian State and Youngstown State makes for a great field," said Aoki.
In addition to co-hosting in Cary, Notre Dame also welcomes three teams to San Antonio, Texas for the Irish Classic the week prior to the USA Baseball joint venture. In San Antonio, the Irish will meet Santa Clara, Gonzaga and Incarnate Word in a four-day tournament that will feature Sunday championship and runner-up games.
As the program awaits completion of the new state-of-the-art artificial surface from Field Turf, the Irish will play an unknown number of home games away from home.
Those games get started March 21-23 as former BIG EAST rival Virginia Tech will play the Irish at South Bend's Coveleski Stadium for one game before heading to the U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, Ind., for the final two games of the series. Notre Dame leads the all-time series 7-6, including a 2-1 series win at home (2004). The Irish bested the No. 25 Hokies, 3-0, last season in Cary, N.C., at the USA Baseball-Irish Classic.
Other ACC home series include Wake Forest (March 28-30), Boston College (April 11-13), Clemson (May 9-11) and Pittsburgh (May 15-17). The Friday game against Clemson will be televised live on ESPNU.
The conference series with Boston College will be the first since 2005 and will pit Aoki against the program he coached from 2007-10. Notre Dame holds a 23-9 all-time advantage against the Eagles.
Notre Dame and Pitt is a continuation of a long-time BIG EAST rivalry that the Irish lead 32-18. The Panthers swept Notre Dame last season in Pittsburgh before the Irish advanced to the BIG EAST Championship game by taking down Pitt two games in a row by a total of three runs.
In addition to the road ACC series with NC State and Duke to open the conference slate, the Irish also play at NCAA Super Regional qualifier Florida State (April 4-6), NCAA Regional participant Miami (April 18-20) and Maryland (May 2-4).
The Friday game against Florida State and Monday contest at Miami will be broadcast live on ESPNU, while the other four games against the two schools will be shown live on ESPN3.
Regional mid-week opponents include Illinois-Chicago (March 25), NCAA Regional team Valparaiso (April 1), Chicago State (April 8), Michigan (April 9), Michigan State (April 15), Toledo (April 16), Central Michigan (April 22), Western Michigan (April 30) and Eastern Michigan (May 13). Notre Dame also plays at Appalachian State (March 11) on its spring break trip to North Carolina. Check UND.com for information on locations for all these games.
The 2014 ACC Championship tournament (10 teams) is set for May 20-25 at NewBridge Bank Park in Greensboro, N.C., with NCAA Regional action getting underway a week later.
Aoki and assistants Jesse Woods and Ristano are all back for their fourth seasons under the Golden Dome. Aoki mentors the outfielders, while Woods tutors the catchers and hitters and Ristano coaches the pitchers.
Former University of Alabama standout and minor leaguer Adam Pavkovich joined the staff in September 2013 and works with the infielders.
--Russell Dorn, Assistant Media Relations Director