Feb. 17, 2011
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the eighth in an ongoing series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2011 Notre Dame spring sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish baseball team, which opens a new chapter in its storied history this season with the arrival of new head coach Mik Aoki.
New University of Notre Dame baseball coach Mik Aoki did not mix his words at his opening press conference. He understood the potential of the Irish program moving forward and its deserved place among the top in the country.
"I think that Notre Dame is arguably the biggest brand name in college athletics," said Aoki. "It is one of the best academic institutions in the country, and I feel that model is one that can help us get back to Omaha."
Aoki quickly and succinctly established the goals of his program, but he did not stop there.
"I think we have the components to win championships in the BIG EAST," said Aoki. "It's an opportunity to win regional championships, super regionals and get to Omaha and win the National Championship."
In all, Aoki used the words "Omaha" or "championship" a total of 12 different times in his first public stage as Irish head coach.
The process of returning the program to level of its past - 21 total NCAA tournament appearances and 12 over a 15-year span from 1992-2006, including a trip to the 2002 College World Series - starts at the ground floor.
"We want to instill a certain type of work ethic," said Aoki. "We need to carry a certain tempo, pace and sense of urgency to the way we practice and play. It also carries over to the way we lift weights, condition and conduct ourselves on campus and in the classroom."
Aoki has also needed to work on the players psyche as well.
"I just needed to remind the guys that it is a game and that they must enjoy it," said Aoki. "They need to have fun with it and return a sense of passion and love for the game.
"We needed to build a sense of team and family. That stage of the process has been put in place and the wheels are in motion."
Aoki is not unfamiliar with the process. He was instrumental in building the Boston College program from the ground floor and eventually took the Eagles to uncharted territory. He led the Eagles to the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in 2009 and 2010 (the only two ACC Tournament appearances in school history) and their first NCAA Regional appearance in 42 years (2009).
In 2009, the Eagles nearly knocked off number-one national seed Texas in an NCAA-record 25-inning game that would have propelled them to the finals of the `09 Austin Regional and given Boston College a great chance at reaching its first Super Regional in program history.
Aoki's `09 squad qualified for its first ACC Tournament and made a statement there as well. Entering the tournament needing at least one win to likely ensure a spot in an NCAA regional, the Eagles lost their first game to seventh-ranked Florida State. Boston College responded emphatically, beating 13th-rated Georgia Tech and 16th-ranked Miami in the next two games by a combined score of 17-4 to earn its bid to Austin.
The Eagles' 34-26 overall record qualified as their best since 2005 and their 13-15 record in ACC play marked the most league wins since joining the conference in 2006 (Boston College eclipsed that total in 2010 with 14). The New England Intercollegiate Baseball Association tabbed Boston College as its team of the year for its performance.
Despite the loss of two top-50 overall draft picks following the `09 campaign, Boston College finished 30-28 overall, 13-15 in the ACC, and qualified for 2010 ACC Tournament. The Eagles took two of three to open the season at perennial power Tulane and recorded five victories over foes ranked in the top 10, including Miami (twice), Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech.
Aoki mentored six all-ACC performers in his four seasons as head coach, including the program's only two first-team nominees in Sanchez (2009) and Mickey Wiswall (2010). Four Eagles earned all-conference honors in 2009, the most since joining the ACC. Aoki's teams also produced eight all-New England selections, five all-ACC Academic Team members and two All-Americans (Belfiore and Sanchez).
Aoki also spent five years (1999-2003) as Columbia head coach. His teams won 20 or more games in each of his last three seasons. Before the Aoki era, the Lions had not posted a 20-win season since 1987.
Aoki feels the players have definitely made some positive adjustments to the first level of the process.
"We have done a good job to display the worth ethic that is necessary in order to compete at this level, the ultimate level, which is a national level," said Aoki. "The guys have gotten more and more accustomed to the tempo and pace of which those things need to occur as well.
"I don't know that the necessary enthusiasm and energy level has been fully reached yet, but we are definitely getting closer," said Aoki. "The sense of team, family, pulling for one another and playing for one another has really begun to incorporate itself on a daily basis in the program."
Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2010 Fighting Irish baseball squad:
The Irish will take the field in 2011 with an experienced and deep catching staff, which includes seniors Cameron McConnell and Matt Scioscia, sophomores Joe Hudson and Ricky Palmer, as well as freshman Forrest Johnson.
McConnell has also proven to show the propensity for clutch hits, as 20 of his 54 RBI over the last two seasons have either tied the game or given the Irish the lead. McConnell posted a .996 fielding percentage and only committed one error in 257 fielding chances in 2010. He registered 33 assists and 223 putouts. McConnell threw out 21.1% (12 of 57) of attempted base stealers. He had a superb year throwing out runners in 2009 as well. McConnell nabbed 26 base stealers, the most for a Notre Dame catcher since the Irish joined the BIG EAST in 1996 (catching stats not available for prior years) and tied for seventh in Division I. His caught-stealing percentage (36.1%, 26-of-72) was also the best for an Irish catcher since 2001, when Paul O'Toole threw out 40.7% (24-of-59).
Hudson played sparingly over the first two months of the season, but moved into the starting lineup in the month of May. Hudson played in 22 games and started 16, including each of the final six games of the year. He hit .264 with a home run and six RBI. In fact, Hudson batted a team-best .346 in 11 BIG EAST contests.
Hudson posted a .992 fielding percentage and only committed one error in 119 fielding chances. He registered 16 assists and 102 putouts. Hudson threw out 28.0% (7 of 25) of attempted base stealers.
McConnell and Hudson controlled the running game a year ago, combining to toss out 19 would-be base stealers. Moreover, the duo was extremely stingy with passed balls, yielding just four all season. In fact, the Irish have committed only four passed balls each of the last two seasons. A Notre Dame team has not completed a season with fewer passed balls since 1998.
Scioscia, who may also see time as the designated hitter, has made the most of his time at the plate each of the last two years. He has registered 27 RBI in just 120 at bats in 2009 and '10. Scioscia played in 28 games last season and started 10 (started eight times at designated hitter and twice at first base). He hit .288 with a pair of doubles and 12 RBI. Scioscia also proved to be Notre Dame's best pinch hitter in '10. He batted .429 (6-for-14) in pinch hit opportunities. Scioscia's six pinch hit base hits were twice as many as any other player on the Irish roster.
Palmer and Johnson will provide Notre Dame with significant depth at the position. Palmer, a walk-on who earned a spot on the Irish roster following a productive fall, joins the program after a successful career at Brother Rice H.S., in Orland Park, Ill. He batted .388 and .398 his final two seasons and helped Brother Rice to the 2008 IHSA State Championship game.
Johnson, the younger brother of senior RHP Cole Johnson, is an above average defensive catcher, but still needs to develop as a hitter. Johnson is a tough and hard-nosed player with his best baseball ahead of him.
Notre Dame returns two everyday infielders in sophomore Frank DeSico (47 starts in 2010) and senior Mick Doyle (49 starts in 2010) in 2011. The Irish also welcome back the services of senior Greg Sherry (31 starts), who split time at both third base and second base.
DeSico and Sherry will battle it out for the starting spot at second base. Regardless of who eventually wins the job, both will see plenty of action for Notre Dame this spring. DeSico and Sherry can also each play third base and even spell Doyle at shortstop.
DeSico appeared in 50 games and started 47 for the Irish in 2010. He batted .333 (63-for-189), which ranked second-best on the team, with 29 runs scored, six doubles, one home run and 25 RBI. DeSico, who recorded three four-hit games, was the first Notre Dame player to accomplish that feat since Craig Cooper in 2006. He did not commit an error in the last 32 games and closed the season with 155 consecutive chances without a defensive miscue.
Sherry appeared in 41 games and started 31 in 2010, including 28 at third base and three at second base. He batted .202 (21-for-104) with 12 runs scored, three doubles and six RBI. While Sherry did struggle a year ago, he provides a tremendous amount of experience. Sherry has started 129 games over his career, the most of any Irish player.
The versatility of the trio of Doyle, DeSico and Sherry gives Aoki numerous options on any given day.
Notre Dame will look to a pair of talented freshmen in Trey Mancini and Eric Jagielo, as well as senior David Casey, to not only provide an offensive threat in the middle of the Notre Dame order, but also man the corner infield spots.
Casey was hindered with a multitude of ailments, including a wrist-injury that limited him for much of 2010. He played in 31 games and started 16 in 2010, but batted only .246 with 12 RBI and no extra-base hits.
As a sophomore, Casey showed a flair for the dramatic with his three home runs, all of which came in a two-week period in April. His first career home run came in Cincinnati on April 11 and not only cleared the scoreboard in right field, but also crashed halfway up the façade of Fifth Third Bank Arena, which sits some 30-40 feet behind the wall; his second career blast, a ninth-inning shot, gave the Irish a 7-6 lead at Louisville on April 24 (a game Louisville eventually won, 8-7); and his third deep fly (two days later) was a two-out, game-tying grand slam in the seventh inning that set the stage for Golden Tate's two-out, game-winning bomb in the ninth.
Mancini possesses a big, strong frame and can hit for average as well as drive the ball to all parts of the field. He has hit every year and at every level of his young career. Mancini must make the necessary adjustment to college pitchers working backwards (breaking ball in fast ball counts), but has the ability to be a very good player. He is also surprisingly agile for his size from a defensive standpoint at first base.
As a senior at Winter Haven High School in 2010, Mancini batted .480 with 23 runs scored, 10 doubles, six home runs and 31 RBI. He registered a .506 on-base percentage and .853 slugging percentage, and participated in the Florida Athletic Coaches Association Baseball All-Star Game.
Jagielo immediately caught the eyes of the new coaching staff this fall. He could be the everyday starter at third base, but might also see some time at first base. Jagielo even has the versatility to play in the outfield. He owns an extremely advanced approach at the plate and will find himself in the middle of the Irish order. Jagielo not only displays power potential, but can run and is a quality contact hitter that can swing from corner to corner of the outfield.
Jagielo, a first team all-state selection out of Downers Grove North H.S., was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 50th round of the 2010 MLB Draft. As a senior, he batted .585 with 16 home runs, 17 doubles, 47 RBI and 52 runs scored (all school records). Jagielo registered a .676 on-base percentage and 1.137 slugging percentage, and only struck out four times all season.
Senior Ty Adams could also challenge for significant playing time at first base or designated hitter. He has battled injuries the last two seasons, but appears healthy entering his final campaign in an Irish uniform.
Adams has played sparingly over the last three years, due in large part to elbow surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2009 season. He was heavily recruited to Boston College by Aoki and the coaching staff sees the potential that could develop him into an everyday player.
Junior Tommy Chase gives the Irish a viable option off the bench and will compete for playing time in the middle infield.
Chase missed the entire 2010 season following offseason knee surgery, but has worked extremely hard during the rehabilitation process and enters the spring fully healthy. He is widely respected and viewed as a leader by his teammates despite his limited playing time. According to Aoki, Chase is as committed to the program as any member of the team.
Reinhart might see the most potential playing time in 2011, but Rodgers has proved in the fall that with experience can develop into a solid college baseball player. Reinhart displayed a solid ability and approach at the plate, but needs to develop defensively. He has, though, improved his body physically as much as any other player in the program and owns a tremendous level of fitness.
The Irish must replace all three starters in the outfield this spring after the graduation of Ryan Connolly, Brayden Ashdown and Billy Boockford. In fact, 2011 will mark the second straight year with significant turnover in the outfield. Notre Dame entered 2010 without A.J. Pollock and Golden Tate.
Despite the noticeable overhaul, the Irish do have a trio of players that have started games in the outfield, including junior Alex Robinson, sophomore Charlie Markson, senior Matt Grosso and and senior Herman Petzold.
Robinson would qualify as the most experience member of the group. He has suited up for the Irish in 31 games, including nine starts. Robinson is a switch-hitter that can run very well and play all three outfield positions, but will most likely compete for playing time in right field.
In 2010, Robinson appeared in 19 games and started eight in centerfield. He batted .176 (6-for-34) with nine runs scored, two doubles and one RBI.
Markson will likely patrol centerfield and hit high in the Irish batting order. Markson was a definite bright spot this past fall as Aoki felt he was the most improved Notre Dame player. Drafted in the 44th round of the 2009 MLB Draft, Markson possesses a solid set of projectable tools and was heavily recruited by the Irish staff at Boston College.
Grosso is the final returning outfielder with starting experience, albeit limited. He has played in 36 games over the last three years and started 15 contests. Grosso has displayed a considerable hitting ability in each of the past two fall seasons, but with it must come a more positive mental approach.
Petzold, who spent the previous four years as an infielder, has seen limited action in his career, but his transition to the outfield this past fall has opened up an opportunity to see the field more often. He has had very good success in an extremely competitive summer league (two-time Coastal Plains League all-star) and Aoki hopes it translates in his final go-around with the Irish.
Due to Notre Dame's lack of experienced outfielders, the Irish coaching staff moved sophomore Adam Norton to the outfield.
Norton appeared in 37 games and started 31 as a rookie in 2010. He batted .261 (30-for-115) with 15 runs scored, nine doubles, one triple, one home run and 15 RBI a year ago. All 31 of Norton's starts came in the infield, including 26 at third base and five at shortstop, but Aoki felt Norton displayed plenty of athleticism to make the transition.
Rodgers, freshman Bret Basilone and Adams could also challenge Robinson, Markson, Norton, Grosso and Petzold for playing time in the outfield.
Without a doubt, the biggest question mark for the Irish this spring will be the pitching staff.
Senior RHP Brian Dupra, who turned down a professional contract as an 11th-round selection by the Detroit Tigers in the 2010 MLB Draft, returns to head up the weekend rotation for the second straight year. Fellow senior RHP Cole Johnson, a 2009 second-team all-BIG EAST selection, returns and appears fully healthy following an injury plagued 2010 campaign.
Dupra made 15 appearances on the mound in 2010, 14 of which were starts, and served as Notre Dame's top weekend starter. His 14 starts were tied for the most on the staff. Dupra went 4-5 with a 6.21 earned run average in 82.2 innings of work with 53 strikeouts and only 22 walks. He went at least six innings in nine of his 14 starts and registered six quality starts (at least six innings and three earned runs or less), including four in consecutive outings against Stetson (March 7), Gonzaga (March 13), Michigan State (March 20) and USF (March 26).
Dupra tossed a season-high 8.2 innings against No. 11 Louisville to close the 2010 campaign. He was one out away from a complete game as the Irish clung to a 3-2 lead, but allowed a three-run home run as the Cardinals rallied for a 6-3 lead. Dupra had retired 11 consecutive Louisville batters entering the ninth inning and limited the potent Cardinals to just three hits and two earned runs over the first 8.1 innings (also registered a remarkable 14 ground ball outs).
Johnson opened 2010 as Notre Dame's top weekend starter before a shoulder injury sidelined him for six weeks. He went 3-3 with a 7.76 earned run average in 31.1 innings of work with 19 strikeouts and 11 walks.
Johnson more resembles the pitcher of 2009 when he went 7-3 with a 4.47 ERA, allowing just 87 hits in 94.2 innings while holding the opposition to a .249 clip. In one stretch, Johnson completed an amazing run in which he tossed at least 9.0 innings in three consecutive starts, even working into the tenth inning (9.2 IP) at Cincinnati. (No Notre Dame pitcher had pitched more than 9.0 innings in a game since Aaron Heilman worked 10.0 innings on April 15, 2000 against West Virginia.) He worked at least 6.0 innings in all but three of his 14 starts.
Miller possesses the most experience of the candidates. He enters his senior season with a 4.28 career ERA and 3-3 record, plus 41 strikeouts, 17 walks and 69 hits allowed (.271 opponent batting average) in 37 appearances (two starts) and 67.1 innings. Miller has served the Irish pitching staff in just about every role possible. He has been a starter, short reliever, long reliever and even closer over the last three years.
Miller made nine appearances on the mound in 2010, including one start, but predominantly served as one of Notre Dame's top relievers before a shoulder injury sidelined him for seven weeks of the season. He went 2-0 with a 3.65 earned run average in 12.1 innings of work.
In 2009, Miller led the staff with five saves - all of which extended beyond one inning of work - and he ranked sixth in the BIG EAST in saves.
Norton made eight appearances on the mound last season, including a pair of starts. He went 1-0 with a 5.23 earned run average in 20.2 innings of work as a rookie. Norton did not issue a walk over his first three career appearances on the mound and fanned 10 over the same span, including a career-best six against Oakland (his first career start).
Veerkamp saw limited action as a freshman in 2010. He made three appearances (two starts) and posted an 0-2 record with a 9.00 ERA. Veerkamp allowed eight hits in 7.0 innings of work last year. He must step into an expanded role this spring, whether it is starting on the weekend or midweek. Veerkamp must trust his stuff and be comfortable pitching to contact.
McIver is the lone southpaw amongst the group contending for the spot in the weekend rotation. He ultimately projects into a front of the line BIG EAST weekend starter, but must possess more confidence in his breaking stuff. McIver is an athletic left-handed pitcher with a fastball that touches 90 mph, a really good changeup and better than average breaking ball.
Unfortunately, the Tommy John injury bug did not stop with Sabatino. Two other junior left-handers underwent the surgical procedure this offseason and will be out of action in 2011. Joe Spano and Ryan Richter, both of whom figured to be key contributors out of the Irish bullpen, will not pitch again for Notre Dame until the spring of 2012.
Fellow junior and fellow southpaw Dustin Ispas will also enter the season on the "unavailable to pitch" list. He did not pitch this fall and has been limited for much of the winter. Ispas was plagued with a similar ailment in 2010, which only allowed him to make one appearance.
With Spano, Richter and Ispas all out for the foreseeable future, the fate of the Irish bullpen falls squarely on the shoulders of junior RHP Will Hudgins, freshman RHP Sean Fitzgerald and freshman RHP Dan Slania.
Hudgins probably has the inside track on the closer role in 2011. He possesses a very good competitiveness nature and wants to be on the mound in critical situations. Hudgins has 4.76 career ERA and 6-1 record, plus 32 strikeouts, 26 walks and 55 hits allowed (.252 opponent batting average) in 45 appearances (no starts) and 58.2 innings of work.
Hudgins made 26 appearances out of the Irish bullpen in 2010. He went 4-1 with a 5.56 earned run average in 34.0 innings of work and allowed 32 hits as his opponents batted .250 against him. Hudgins ranked first in relief appearances, second in games finished and fifth in strikeouts. He did not allow a run in 12 of 26 appearances and collected four holds (at Seton Hall on April 17; vs. Cincinnati on Apr. 23; vs. Cincinnati on Apr. 24; at Villanova on May 16). Hudgins inherited 19 base runners upon entering the game and only allowed two to score. In fact, he retired 18 of the 26 first batters he faced last season.
Slania is a competitive, big, athletic and hard-throwing right-handed pitcher. He possesses a very bright future in college baseball and projects into a front of the line BIG EAST weekend starter, but with the lack of depth and healthy arms, will start this spring in the bullpen.
Fitzgerald was a two-time Liberty District Pitcher of the Year and three-time MVP at McLean H.S. in McLean, Va. He posted a career ERA of 1.69 with a record of 28-9. The school record holder for career victories, Fitzgerald registered a career 1.02 WHIP and 4.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 219.1 innings pitched.
Spizzirri enters the spring as the only southpaw out of the bullpen. He made his career debut in 2010 with six appearances out of the Irish bullpen. Spizzirri went 0-0 with a 5.19 ERA and allowed nine hits in 8.2 innings of work.
Hissa was a multi-versatile athlete at Maple Northwestern H.S. in Iron River, Wis. He earned letters in baseball, football and basketball over his scholastic career. Hissa struck out 91 in 58.0 innings of work as a senior on the mound.
The Notre Dame baseball team's 2011 schedule will include early-season trips to Florida, Washington, South Carolina and Texas along with BIG EAST road series at Pittsburgh, St. John's, Rutgers and Louisville. The slate also features the third annual BIG EAST-Big Ten Baseball Challenge, hosted by the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Sports Commission.
Notre Dame's five BIG EAST home series will include games versus Georgetown, Connecticut, West Virginia, Seton Hall and USF. The Irish will also host Michigan State and play a home-and-home series with Michigan, while the midweek games at Frank Eck Stadium will feature some of Notre Dame's traditional non-conference rivals, most notably UIC, Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Toledo.
In all, Notre Dame will play 11 games (St. John's, Coastal Carolina, Connecticut, Louisville and Kent State) against teams that reached the 2010 NCAA Tournament. The Irish will open the 2011 season in the Dunedin/St. Petersburg area for the third annual BIG EAST-Big Ten Baseball Challenge on Feb. 18-20. Notre Dame plays at 4:00 p.m. on Friday against Michigan State at Dunedin Stadium, 4:00 p.m. on Saturday against Purdue at Al Lang/Progressive Energy Park and 10:00 a.m. on Sunday against Penn State at the Naimoli Complex.
The Irish head out to the Great Northwest for a three-game series with Seattle University on Feb. 25-27. All three games were to be played in Safeco Field, home of MLB's Seattle Mariners, but a scheduling conflict has moved the series with the Redhawks to Bannerwood Park. First-pitch for the games in the series are scheduled for 4:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m. and noon (PT).
Notre Dame then travels to Rock Hill, S.C. for the Winthrop Invitational on March 4-6. The Irish play at noon (ET) against Manhattan and at 4:00 p.m. (ET) against the host Eagles on Friday. Notre Dame and Winthrop meet again at 4:00 p.m. (ET) on Saturday before the Irish conclude the weekend at 11:00 a.m. (ET) on Sunday against the Jaspers.
Notre Dame returns to South Carolina (Conway) to open its Spring Break trip at the Caravelle Resort Classic hosted by Coastal Carolina on March 12-13. The Irish open the weekend with back-to-back games at 11:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. (ET) on Saturday against UAB and the host Chanticleers. Notre Dame then faces Kent State at 11:00 a.m. (ET) on Sunday.
The Irish will then head to the Southwest for a mid-week contest at 6:00 p.m. (CT) on March 15 against UT-San Antonio before concluding the Spring Break schedule in the familiar surroundings of San Antonio (March 17-20) at Wolff Stadium. The Irish will face Iowa at 4:00 p.m. and noon (CT), respectively, on Thursday and Friday, and Gonzaga at noon and 11:00 a.m. (CT) on Saturday and 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 Cincinnati or Villanova in the 2011 regular season). All but two of the series involving Notre Dame will be three-day series, with a pair of nine-inning doubleheaders scheduled for the opening day of the two-day series at St. John's (April 21-23) and at Rutgers (May 7-8).
In addition to those games mentioned above, dates for Notre Dame's other BIG EAST road series include April 1-3 at Pittsburgh and May 19-21 at Louisville. The BIG EAST home series are March 25-27 vs. Georgetown, April 8-10 vs. Connecticut, April 15-17 vs. West Virginia, April 29-May 1 vs. Seton Hall and May 13-15 vs. USF.
Notre Dame will make at least three national television appearances this spring. The Irish series opener against West Virginia, which originally was scheduled at 5:35 p.m. (ET) on Friday, April 15, will now take place at 7:00 p.m. (ET) and air on ESPNU.
Notre Dame will travel to league foe Louisville to close the regular season and each of the final two games of the series will be featured on CBS College Sports. The first contest will air at 7:00 p.m. (ET) on Friday, May 20 (originally scheduled for 6:00 p.m. [ET]), while the next meeting with the Cardinals will be broadcast at 1:00 p.m. (ET) on Saturday, May 21.
The BIG EAST Tournament again will be played under an eight-team format from May 25-28, 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 28.
The 2011 NCAA Regionals are scheduled for June 3-6, with the Super Regionals set for June 10-13. The College World Series will take place June 18-29 at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.