Feb. 15, 2014
By Matt Unger ’14
On March 25, 2012, then sophomore University of Notre Dame baseball pitcher Sean Fitzgerald toed the rubber for his fourth career start. Only instead of pitching in front of a few hundred spectators, Fitzgerald was tasked with facing over 10,000 frenetic LSU fans at Alex Box Stadium, considered the premier regular season college baseball venue. The crowd expected their No. 11 Tigers to extend an eight-game winning streak against an unranked 6-5 Notre Dame squad. Further working against the Irish was Fitzgerald’s difficult stretch of early season starts. The Tigers’ offense averaging nine runs per game at that point thus saw him as the weak link in the rotation.
“I was kind of thrust out into this LSU atmosphere,” Fitzgerald said. “The pressure was definitely up there, and I was pretty nervous.”
However, the McLean, Va., native seized the moment and silenced both the Tiger crowd and bats. He carried a shutout into the eighth inning and spread six hits and one walk over 8.0 innings of one-run work. The Irish rode Fitzgerald’s outing to a 7-1 win for their highest-ranked victory on the road in a decade.
Flashing forward to his start in Saturday’s season opener against Florida Atlantic, Fitzgerald looks back at his LSU breakout performance for lessons for both his own pitching performance this season along with a young 2014 Irish squad.
“Being able to experience success like that at such a big level is definitely going to be something that will help us this year,” Fitzgerald said. “What can help us with our team being young is that I was pretty young. It’s also something I can lean back on when I struggle.”
As only one of just three seniors on the 2014 squad, Fitzgerald will be looked to as a leader both in the clubhouse and on the mound. Added to that is the challenge of switching to the ACC, where facing nationally ranked opponents will be the norm in conference play.
However, Fitzgerald embraces the numerous challenges as opportunities for success rather than burdens.
“Having three seniors is definitely not an overwhelming presence,” Fitzgerald said. “But when you have younger guys trying to make an impact, it’s definitely nicer to have a more comfortable feeling in the locker room as opposed to a more overbearing feeling from a lot of seniors and juniors.”
Meanwhile, on the mound, Fitzgerald strives to be a mainstay in the Irish rotation after alternating roles as a starter and reliever in his first three seasons.
At McLean High School, Fitzgerald was a standout both on the mound and in the batter’s box. His 1.69 ERA combined with a 28-9 record earned him numerous accolades including earning first team all-district honors three times and twice being selected as the Liberty District Player of the Year. As a hitter, he owned a .390 batting average with over 100 RBI.
In college baseball recruiting, he was primarily pursued by Virginia, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. The influence of his father, Joe Fitzgerald, as a Notre Dame alumnus ultimately shaped his final decision from an early age.
“I grew up watching Notre Dame football all the time,” Fitzgerald said. “My dad actually helped a lot but I kind of grew into it and loved everything about Notre Dame.”
Initially, the ongoing development of a change-up as a third pitch confined Fitzgerald to a role in relief. He spent his 2011 freshman campaign exclusively out of the bullpen. But his quick success led to Coach Aoki quickly trusting him in late-game situations, including the ninth inning as a closer. In 23 appearances, he registered a 2.38 ERA with 25 strikeouts in 34 innings and recorded five saves. Fitzgerald even shared the closer’s role with fellow classmate Dan Slania, who signed with the San Francisco Giants over the summer after being selected in the fifth round of the 2013 MLB Draft.
Fitzgerald began his sophomore campaign as a starter in Aoki’s three-man weekend rotation. However, shortly following the LSU game, current junior pitcher and starter Pat Connaughton joined the team after basketball season ended. Also, two established upperclassmen starters Will Hudgins and Adam Norton were ahead of Fitzgerald in the three-man rotation. Thus, he returned to the bullpen for the remainder of the season.
Yet, he was even more lethal in relief recording a 2.09 ERA in 20 appearances and nearly striking out one batter per inning.
Fitzgerald’s strong finish to the 2012 season earned him designation as the Irish’s number one starter in 2013. He put together an early season streak of three starts in which he allowed three combined runs against top national teams in Tulane, Tennessee, and UCLA.
However, inconsistencies began to plague him by the time BIG EAST play started. In a late March outing against Louisville, he could not escape the fourth inning as he allowed six runs. The Irish lost the game, 10-5, and were later swept in the three-game series. With Connaughton returning from basketball, he was again sent back to the bullpen.
“The only thing I’ve been having issues with is consistency with my slider the past couple of years,” Fitzgerald said. “Mechanically, it’s been on and off a little bit, so that’s been holding me back from consistent starts.”
By the end of April, Fitzgerald was given another chance in the third starting spot and held on to it for the remainder of the season. In his final outing, he helped pitch the Irish into the BIG EAST championship game. He tossed 6.2 innings against Pittsburgh allowing just one earned run in a game the Irish would win 3-2 in 10 innings.
This summer, Fitzgerald teamed with Connaughton on the Harwich Mariners of the Cape Cod League, considered by pro scouts as the premier summer league for college prospects.
He received a chance in a relief role to hone his skills against top-level collegiate talent. Also, in summer league play, pitchers are more inclined to experiment with their mechanics. In nine outings in relief, Fitzgerald recorded a 2.28 ERA with 14 strikeouts in 19.2 innings.
“One of the best parts about [the Cape Cod League] is developing relationships with those other good teammates and all those really good players out there that we’ll be seeing in the ACC this year,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a good way to gauge your talent against the top talent in the country.”
Fitzgerald believes his past experiences and offseason work will lead to consistent starts throughout the 2014 season. In order to accomplish this, he hopes to emulate Adam Norton, who was the Irish’s senior number two starter in 2013.
Fitzgerald’s high strikeout-to-walk ratio and command of the strike zone already resembles that of Norton. Now Fitzgerald also hopes to pitch with the same consistency start-to-start as Norton did.
“A guy like Norton last year was just someone you can rely on no matter what and we threw him out against UConn in the BIG EAST championship,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re going to need a guy like that this year, so hopefully I can fulfill that role.”
At season’s end, Fitzgerald will ultimately choose between pursuing a career with his finance degree or continuing his dream of playing professional baseball. However, he maintains the same mindset he employed sophomore year against LSU and every game throughout his career. His focus lies on the task at hand.
“That’s a worry I want to wait four months to worry about,” Fitzgerald said. “Now, all of us are really geared up for the season, so I’m going to take it one step at a time.”