Feb. 16, 2012
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in an ongoing series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2012 Notre Dame spring sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish baseball team, a young squad with big goals this season as it looks to return to its customary place among the BIG EAST Conference elite.
In Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki's second season, the team's 32-man roster composed of 13 freshman and six sophomores offers much potential and future upside. Despite the challenge of a youthful squad, Aoki wants his talented young players to hold high expectations for their performance.
"We have certain goals already set, including 35 plus wins and a BIG EAST conference regular season and tournament championship," Aoki said.
The Irish enter the 2012 season looking to improve on a 23-29-1 record in 2011, which included a 13-13 finish in BIG EAST play.
One of the benefits to the second year of Aoki's tenure is the fact that team is on the same page in terms of expectations and approach toward both practices and games. Thus, some improvements were evident this past fall.
"The energy we bring to practice and lifting along with the tempo at which we work is much improved compared to the start of last season," Aoki said.
In order to improve upon last season's win total, the Irish must make upgrades in their offense from 2011. As a team, they batted only .239 on the season, compared to a .266 average for their opponents.
This category should improve with the addition of 13 talented freshmen and the return of three key players from 2011, including sophomore first baseman Trey Mancini, sophomore left fielder Eric Jagielo and junior catcher Joe Hudson.
Mancini, the 2011 BIG EAST Freshman of the Year, led the Irish in nearly every offensive category, including each of the Triple Crown statistics (home runs, batting average and RBI).
"Trey's a very good hitter, and he has that rare blend of being able to hit with both average and power," Aoki said.
Jagielo, second in most every offensive statistic to Mancini a year ago, had a breakthrough summer for the Holyoke Blue Sox in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. He hit .313 with three home runs and 28 RBI. Jagielo (51) was one of four players in the league to amass 50 or more hits and ranked eighth in the NECBL in RBI.
Meanwhile, Hudson's value lies in his defense and ability to handle a pitching staff, which could make him a highly coveted draft pick in the 2012 MLB Draft.
"Defensively, there's no question in my mind that Joe, his ability to defend, stop the baseball and receive it gives our pitching staff, even last year's, so much confidence," Aoki said. "From a receiving, blocking, and throwing standpoint, Joe's as good as there is in the BIG EAST."
While veterans will occupy the catcher, first base and left field positions, freshman or other first-time starters will fill other starting positions. As a result, growing pains are likely an inevitable part of the process towards success, which Aoki also recognizes.
"I think for me, just as important with a youthful team, is the understanding that they also see the big picture," Aoki said. "This is our opportunity to come to the ballpark ready to play every day, ready to win the next pitch and not be influenced by prior events in the game, whether good or bad."
"The thing very difficult to replace this year is the poise that they had in games and their ability to pound the strike zone," Aoki said. "All three, whether it was Todd throwing the ball at 86-87 mph or Brian hitting 94-95 mph, had the ability to command the strike zone. That's something that we will be searching for."
Also, the schedule features tough tests for the Irish, both in non-conference games and in the BIG EAST. The foremost challenge will likely be two mid-March road games against LSU, ranked No. 14 in the preseason USA Today coaches' poll. Aoki's squad will face current Tigers and former Irish skipper Paul Mainieri, who led Notre Dame to NCAA Tournament bids from 1995-2006, including a 2002 College World Series appearance. Mainieri also guided the Tigers to the 2009 national championship.
Despite the challenge, Coach Aoki views this as a tremendous opportunity for his young squad.
"I think it's a good measuring stick for our program to understand where we want to be at some point," Aoki said. "It's also a great environment for our kids to be in, so we're excited about going down there."
The Irish will also face challenges within the BIG EAST from Louisville and St. John's. The Cardinals, who the Irish miss in the regular season, are ranked No. 24 in the USA Today coaches' poll, while the Red Storm are considered the preseason favorites by the BIG EAST coaches. Meanwhile, Connecticut, which advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals last season, had two of its players selected in the first round and 11 total in the 2011 MLB Draft. Yet, the Huskies still pose a threat.
"At the end of the day, if we win more pitches than the other team did, then we've probably won the game," Aoki said. "I think I'm caught up in sort of the process goals for us as I am for the outcome goals, especially this year."
Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2012 Fighting Irish baseball squad:
According to Aoki, Hudson possesses the defensive skills of a top MLB Draft prospect.
Hudson effectively limited the opposition's running game and deterred potential base stealers as he threw out 42.2 percent (19 of 45) of attempted base stealers. While Hudson tied for fifth in the BIG EAST for the number of runners thrown out, his percentage of base runners caught stealing led the BIG EAST for catchers with more than 18 stolen base attempts against.
In addition, Hudson assisted a confident pitching staff with his ability to limit passed balls as he only allowed six in 51 games started. In addition, he posted a .989 fielding percentage, committing only four errors in 377 attempts.
However, offensively, Hudson will look to develop this season to improve his standing with MLB scouts. Hudson's batting average regressed during his sophomore campaign, as he hit .239 with no home runs and 14 RBI compared to a .264 batting average with one home run and six RBI in his freshman season. Hudson batted .266 in 26 Big East games and posted a .367 on-base percentage, drawing 11 walks compared to just nine strikeouts.
Meanwhile, Johnson, Carter and Palmer provide the Irish with some youth and depth behind the plate.
Johnson, whose older brother, Cole ('11), was the Irish's top starting pitcher in 2011, only appeared in one game but possesses strong defensive skills, but still needs to develop his hitting.
Carter, who could also see time at first base and designated hitter due to his potential at the plate, sits behind Hudson on the catching depth chart. While his catching fundamentals require fine-tuning, he brings impressive high school batting stats from Orangewood Christian H.S. in Florida. As a senior, he hit .490 with 15 home runs and 50 RBI. In addition, the MLB Draft Guide ranked him as the 19th-best catching prospect for the 2011 draft.
Palmer, who earned a spot on the team as a walk-on his freshman year, received limited playing time in 2011, only appearing in nine games.
Mancini looks to follow up a strong freshman campaign at first base, while junior Frank DeSico returns to second base where he hopes to improve his hitting production.
Mancini, who provides a feared middle of the lineup power hitter, hit .323 with nine home runs and 34 RBI. He also was the team leader in most offensive categories, recording 15 doubles and three triples while scoring 33 runs. In addition, Mancini had a .577 slugging percentage and a .385 on base percentage.
One of his most memorable home runs occurred in a May 1 home contest against Seton Hall. Trailing 4-2 with two out in the bottom of the eighth inning, Mancini stepped to the plate with two runners on base. He drilled a 1-0 pitch over the batter's eye in left-center field to give the Irish a 5-4 lead, which would be upheld in the top of the ninth. Three of his nine home runs on the season either tied the game or gave the Irish the lead.
Mancini also proved agile defensively at first base, committing only six errors in 436 chances for a .986 fielding percentage.
Meanwhile, DeSico enters his third season and serves as the veteran of the Irish infield, having started 98 games at second base. After a strong freshman campaign, DeSico's offensive and defensive statistics both declined in 2011. DeSico, who is primarily a contact hitter with speed, batted .237 with no home runs and 11 RBI last season, down from his freshman year, when he hit for a .333 average with one home run and 25 RBI. Yet, while DeSico's ground balls were not finding holes in 2011, he remained patient at the plate as he drew 23 walks to just 19 strikeouts. When he did reach base, DeSico proved to be a threat for opposing pitchers and catchers. He led the Irish with 13 stolen bases in 19 attempts. Defensively, DeSico registered eight errors in 293 attempts for a .973 fielding percentage, down from a .980 fielding percentage in 2010. He did aid in 29 double plays.
Freshman Kevin DeFilippis offers depth for the Irish at second base, and, according to Aoki, has helped push DeSico in the offseason for the starting job. At Providence Catholic H.S. in New Lenox, Ill., DeFilippis displayed strong defensive skills and athleticism. In addition, he was primarily a line drive and contact hitter in high school with a knack for getting on base.
This was evidenced by his .475 batting average and .603 on-base percentage during his senior season. DeFilipis also recorded 27 RBI and stole 21 bases. His efforts earned him recognition from Chicago newspapers. The Chicago Sun-Times named him first-team all-area while the Chicago Tribune placed him on the all-area second team.
However, the shortstop and third base positions remain uncertain. Last season, seniors' Mick Doyle and Greg Sherry anchored the left side of the Irish infield, starting at shortstop and third base respectively. This season, the only returning veteran shortstop is senior co-captain Tommy Chase. After missing his entire sophomore campaign following knee surgery, Chase appeared in 11 games for the Irish in 2011, starting one at second base. While he has not received much playing time over his career, Chase is the perceived leader in the clubhouse by both the coaching staff and his teammates.
Thus, it is possible that two freshman will start for the Irish at shortstop and third base. Jason McMurray is among the leading candidates for the starting shortstop position. McMurray's range and strong throwing arm made him a heralded recruit from Dowling Catholic H.S. in West Des Moines, Iowa. Perfect Game regarded him as the top prospect in Iowa, and ProspectWire.com ranked him the 167th-best overall prospect in his class. He led Dowling Catholic to the Iowa 4A State Championship his senior season. In addition to his defensive skills at shortstop, McMurray also can hit to all fields for average.
Freshman Phil Mosey, a native of Fishers, Ind., is poised to compete for the starting third base job. Mosey projects as a power hitting threat in the middle of the order who can also hit for average. In addition, he brings strong range and athleticism to the third base position.
At Cathedral H.S., Mosey hit consistently for average and power, helping lead his team to a 92-5 record over the course of three seasons. In addition, Cathedral finished as the Indiana 4A Runner-Up his junior and senior seasons. In his senior season, Mosey batted .329 with eight home runs, 27 RBI and a .793 slugging percentage.
Other freshmen competing for playing time include Conor Biggio and Blaise Lezynski. Biggio's positional versatility will allow him to immediately provide depth for the Irish in both the infield and outfield. While he did not hit for much power at St. Thomas H.S. in Houston, his quick bat speed and smooth swing helped him get on base. During his senior season, he hit .356 with 52 runs scored, helping lead St. Thomas to a TARPS Class 5A State Championship. Biggio's father, Craig, played 20 years for the Houston Astros before retiring in 2007 and is a member of MLB's exclusive 3,000 hit club.
While Lezynski can play third base, he is more likely to help the Irish in the corner outfield and designated hitter roles this season. Lezynski projects as a solid hitter who can develop power as he progresses in his collegiate career.
At Notre Dame H.S. in Lawrenceville, N.J., Lezynski batted .492 with four home runs and 23 RBI during his senior season. In addition, he stole 14 bases in 17 attempts. Lezynski's athleticism was also displayed on the gridiron. He was a strong defensive football player recording 4.5 sacks in only four games, but missed the majority of the 2010 season due to injury.
Jagielo, who initially played first and third base, saw most of his work in the outfield, starting 30 games in left field and 15 games in center field. He displayed the ability to drive the ball for power and average as a left-handed hitter. As the season progressed, he occupied the third spot in the batting order, coupled with Mancini.
Jagielo finished third in the team with a .269 batting average, and second with five home runs, 28 RBI, and 32 runs scored. In addition, he showed patience at the plate, recording a team high 25 walks to only 30 strikeouts. Defensively, Jagielo made five errors in 136 attempts at four different positions.
Markson will look to improve his batting average in 2012. He appeared in 32 games in 2011 and started 14, including 12 in center. Markson received an unfortunate break in the season opener, when he was hit in the face with a pitch against Michigan State. After being sidelined for three weeks, Markson returned and finished the season with a .244 average with no home runs and five RBI.
Also, Markson struck out nearly once every three plate appearances (16 times in 52 PA). However, he shows ability as a contact hitter who can hit for a high average and has improved during the fall training season.
Meanwhile, the switch-hitting Robinson is the most experienced of the group. He is similar to Markson in that he is a contact, line-drive hitter with speed. Robinson's strength lies in his defense athleticism and strong-throwing arm.
Starting 36 games, including 26 in center, He registered a .979 fielding percentage with only two errors in 92 attempts. In addition, he recorded three assists. However, he looks to improve his skills at the plate as he batted only .222. He will also look to reduce his strikeout rate and patience at the plate as he struck out 28 times and walked only five times.
After 2011 senior starting right fielder Herman Petzold graduated, Markson, Robinson or one of four freshman newcomers could fill right field.
Freshman Mac Hudgins will provide outfield depth as he projects as a prototypical leadoff hitter and strong defensive outfielder. He attended Douglas S. Freeman H.S. in Richmond, Va., where he was named an all-district outfielder.
Meanwhile, freshman Ryan Bull can play either of the corner outfield positions and provide power as a switch-hitter. The graduate of Eaden Prairie H.S. in Minnesota was ranked as a top 500 prospect by Perfect Game in 2011 and named a Central Region All-American.
Also, Biggio and Lezynski possess the ability to play the outfield.
Norton can fill roles both on the pitching mound and in the line up. On the mound, while Norton does not overpower hitters with his fastball, he mixes his off-speed pitches to pound the strike zone. This has allowed him to maintain an impressive 3.6 strikeout to walk ratio for his Irish career. He also has averaged 7.47 strikeouts per nine innings.
In 2011, Norton appeared in 15 games, starting five, and finished 2-2 with a 3.75 ERA in 48.0 innings. His longest outing of the season occurred against Iowa on March 17 as he pitched 8.0 innings allowing only one earned run with five strikeouts.
Meanwhile, Norton possesses skills on offense as he started 36 games combined at third base and in the designated hitter role. He batted .254 with two home runs and 17 RBI but struggled with plate discipline as he drew three walks to 17 strikeouts.
In addition to Norton, Notre Dame returns an impressive group of relief pitchers from 2011 that will also compete for weekend starting spots. Sophomore right-handed pitchers Sean Fitzgerald and Dan Slania both were highly rated pitching prospects and pitched well out of the Irish bullpen in 2011.
Fitzgerald effectively pounds the strike zone, and his movement on his fastball makes him a tough study for hitters. In 2011, he led the team with five saves and made 23 appearances on the season, going 1-2 with a 2.38 ERA. In 34.0 innings pitched, he struck out 25 batters. He also improved as the season progressed, finishing with a 1.64 ERA in 13 appearances in BIG EAST play.
Slania, similar to Fitzgerald, also throws strikes, and his tall, 6-5 frame makes him an imposing figure on the mound. Perfect Game recently rated him as the No. 17 MLB prospect in the BIG EAST. Last season, Slania also appeared in 23 games, finishing with a 2-3 record and a 2.35 ERA. He recorded 20 strikeouts to just nine walks. In big east play, his ERA also dropped to 0.75 as he gave up one earned run in 12.0 innings pitched.
Junior right-hander Patrick Veerkamp is also in the mix for a rotation spot, possibly as a mid-week starter. However, he must carry over his improved performance from fall scrimmages as, in 2011, he surrendered seven earned runs in only 4.1 innings of work.
Either Slania or senior co-captain Will Hudgins with the other likely filling a possible weekend rotation spot will likely anchor the Irish bullpen. With his competitive mentality and desire to pitch in pressure situations, Hudgins could serve as the team's closer. The right-handed sidewinder had a breakout 2011 campaign, in which he was dominant as a set-up man. In 18 relief appearances, he finished 4-0 with a 1.78 ERA and 18 strikeouts. Opposing batters struggled to reach base against him as they drew only eight walks and hit .222.
Spano will likely compete for a role in the bullpen. He throws a fastball in the high 80s and also features a devastating breaking ball. Controlling his pitching arsenal will be key for Spano, who has issued 37 walks during his 40.2 innings of work in his Irish career. His record is 1-4 with a 5.98 ERA and he has recorded 32 strikeouts.
Richter will look to replicate his successful freshman campaign, which earned him a spot on the Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-America team in 2009. That season, he went 5-2 with a 3.86 ERA in 13 appearances, including three mid-week starts. However, in 2010, his ERA rose to 7.15 as he finished 1-1 in 13 appearances.
Sophomore right-handed hurler Donnie Hissa will also look to contribute to the bullpen. While he struggled his freshman season, allowing nine runs in 7.0 innings of work, he brings an imposing 6-7, 245 pound figure to the mound. With offseason strength training and a tweak to his delivery, he hopes to boost his velocity and success on the mound.
The Irish bullpen will be complemented by the addition of five right-handed freshmen, some of who will also compete for mid-week rotation spots. Scott Kerrigan, Kyle Rubbinaccio, Matt Ternowchek and Cristian Torres look to make immediate impacts in the bullpen while dual-sport athlete Pat Connaughton will join the baseball team once basketball season concludes.
Kerrigan was a three-year starter at Saugus H.S. in California before missing his senior season due to an ACL tear. His arm strength and size give him a high ceiling, and he will look to immediately help in a middle relief role.
Rubbinaccio earned first-team all-State Group 4 at Manalpan H.S. in New Jersey. He has a power arm and can also mix in a breaking ball. In his high school career, he went 19-2, including a senior season in which he finished 5-0 with a 1.55 ERA.
Ternowchek, from Dowington H.S. in Glenmoore, Pa., earned accolades from the Philadelphia Inquirer as a top five pitcher in Southeast Pennsylvania. His size and strong arm will allow him to compete for innings in the Irish bullpen immediately. His 6-1 record coupled with a 1.61 ERA in his senior season helped lead Dowington to a 16-3 record.
Torres' strong frame (6-6, 205 pounds) and arm strength offer much upside at the collegiate level. At Palos Verdes Peninsula H.S. in California, he finished his senior season with a 7-2 record and 2.13 ERA. He also struck out 55 batters in only 53.2 innings.
Finally, Connaughton, who currently starts as a combo guard-forward on the basketball team, is regarded as one of the top prospects in all of collegiate baseball. His explosive, mid-90s fastball with movement caused Perfect Game to rate him as the No. 4 MLB prospect in the BIG EAST. When he joins the team following the end of basketball season, he will likely contribute in the bullpen. In his senior season at St. John's Prep in Danvers, Mass., Connaughton was nearly unhittable as he finished 11-2 with a 1.75 ERA and amassed 160 strikeouts in 90 innings.
The four BIG EAST home series for the Irish include games versus Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. John's and Rutgers. Notre Dame's home slate features midweek games against traditional non-conference rivals, most notably Eastern Michigan, Toledo, Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Northwestern.
In all, the Irish will play 13 games (St. John's, Seton Hall, Connecticut, Illinois and Texas State) against teams that reached the 2011 NCAA Tournament and that does not include Notre Dame's most high-profile road trip. The Irish will travel to Baton Rouge, La., and Alex Box Stadium to face 2009 NCAA College World Series Champion LSU.
"It is pretty obvious we put together a demanding schedule, especially our non-conference slate to open the year," said second-year head coach Mik Aoki. "We will field a pretty youthful club this spring, but we felt it is important to give those players an good idea about the level of baseball we want to ultimately reach."
Notre Dame opens the 2012 season in the Clearwater/St. Petersburg, Fla., area for the fourth annual Big Ten-BIG EAST Baseball Challenge on Feb. 17-19. The Irish play at 1:00 p.m. ET on Friday against Illinois at the Walter Fuller Complex, 10:00 a.m. ET on Saturday against Iowa at Jack Russell Memorial Stadium and at 10:00 a.m. ET on Sunday against Purdue at Al Lang Stadium.
Notre Dame hits the road the following weekend (Feb. 25-26) for the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C. The Irish will play host to Hofstra in a non-conference three-game tilt. The series opens with a doubleheader at 12:05 p.m. ET on Saturday and concludes at 12:05 p.m. ET on Sunday.
Notre Dame then heads to the city of San Marcos and the great state of Texas (March 2-4) for a three-game set with three-time defending Southland Conference champion Texas State. The Bobcats went 1-2 in the Austin Regional a year ago - defeating Princeton, 3-1, and dropping an extra-inning game to Kent State (4-2, 11) and a one-run affair to host Texas (4-3). Texas State and the Irish will open the series at 6:30 p.m. CT on Friday, which will be followed by contests at 6:30 p.m. CT on Saturday and 1:00 p.m. CT on Sunday.
Notre Dame's difficult non-conference slate grows exponentially the following weekend (March 10-12) when the Irish travel to six-time NCAA CWS champion LSU. The Tigers have reached the NCAA regionals in 23 of the last 27 years and advanced to Omaha 15 times along the way. The weekend in the bayou will also feature a reunion, as the Irish will play Mainieri for the first time since he took over the LSU program in June 2006.
Notre Dame opens its spring break with a matchup against rival Michigan on Saturday at 1:00 p.m. CT. The Irish then play a day-night doubleheader with the Wolverines (10:30 a.m. CT) and LSU (3:00 p.m. CT) on Sunday. Notre Dame closes the tournament with the host Tigers on Monday at 6:30 p.m. CT before hopping on a bus and heading back to Texas for their annual trip to San Antonio (March 14-18).
Notre Dame faces Texas-San Antonio (6:05 p.m. CT) on Wednesday at Wolff Stadium before it plays host to the Irish Baseball Classic over the weekend. The rest of the field includes Houston Baptist (4:05 p.m. CT, Thursday), Kansas (12:05 p.m. CT, Friday) and Indiana State (12:05 p.m. CT, Saturday). The Irish will play a fourth game that weekend against one of the previous three schools depending on their round-robin finish (11:05 a.m. CT, Sunday).
Each of the 12 BIG EAST baseball teams is again scheduled to play nine others in three-game series (Notre Dame will not face West Virginia or Louisville in the 2012 regular season). All but one of the series involving Notre Dame will be three-day series, with a nine-inning doubleheader scheduled for April 5 at Seton Hall over Easter weekend (series concludes on Sat., Apr. 7). Fans are reminded that the road series versus Georgetown (Bethesda, Md./Povich Field; April 20-22) and Villanova (Plymouth Meeting, Pa./Villanova Ballpark; May 4-6) are played at off-campus venues.
In addition to those games mentioned above, dates for Notre Dame's other BIG EAST road series include March 30-April 1 at USF and May 17-19 at Connecticut. The BIG EAST home series are March 23-25 vs. Pittsburgh, April 13-15 vs. Cincinnati, April 27-29 vs. St. John's and May 11-13 vs. Rutgers.
The BIG EAST Tournament again will be played under an eight-team format from May 23-27, at Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater, Fla. The format will mirror the College World Series with two four-team brackets playing double-elimination games on the first four days. The bracket winners then will meet in a single title game on May 27.
The 2012 NCAA Regionals are scheduled for June 1-4, with the Super Regionals set for June 7-10. The College World Series will take place June 15-26 at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.