May 1, 2015
In the 50 games Kyle Fiala played last season as a freshman for the University of Notre Dame baseball team, the third baseman from Carmel, Indiana, smacked six extra-base hits, all doubles.
These days those numbers comprise a week of production, not a season, for Fiala.
Fiala, a 6-foot-0, 178-pound right-handed hitter, is turning hard work and dedication to his craft into All-America potential. The sophomore slugger has been on a power surge that has given an electrifying jolt to the Irish offense.
In his past eight games, Fiala has seven extra-base hits, topping his 50-game extra-base hit production of last season. He's hitting .429 (15 of 35) in those eight games, with four doubles, two triples and a home run.
Fiala has boosted his batting average from .268 last season with 11 RBI--to .272 with 20 RBI in 45 games this season. He also has an active 34-game on-base streak that ranks him right up there with any Irish player since 2007.
"I think he's just staying within himself and concentrating and focusing on making hard contact," Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki said of Fiala's increased production. "He's been great. Even when his average was down a little bit early in the year, I felt like his at-bats were good and he was competing with two strikes. I felt like we were getting productive outs of those at-bats."
Irish hitting coach Jesse Woods said Fiala's steady approach at the plate has paid dividends.
"Kyle is a player and a person who is extremely consistent," Woods said. "You don't see him come out of himself and try to do too much or try to invent something out there. He plays the game the same way, with the same approach, really steady. He's a good player. When you combine those things, you combine the right approach to the game, both defensively and offensively, along with talent, good things will happen."
For Fiala, being a student of the game helped those good things happen, with an assist going to the resources Notre Dame offers its student-athletes to help them elevate their games.
Fiala analyzes his at-bats thanks to an app that allow him to access video on his iPhone, iPad or laptop. Utilizing video technology, Fiala talked over his swing analysis with Irish volunteer assistant coach Adam Pavkovich about two weeks ago. They focused on Fiala's hands being too tense and not being out in the hitting zone.
"The one big change I made was loosening up my hands when I'm at the plate," Fiala said. "Sometimes I feel like they get all tensed up when I'm loading. It's tough because it's not something you can fix in batting practice. I don't do it when I'm in batting practice. I'm loose in batting practice, and then I go out in games, sometimes, and I'm all tensed up. I'm loosening up my hands, and it's helped these past couple of weeks.
"I think I have good enough hands that I can still get my hands out there. I can still battle with velocity. Sometimes it shows up when you face a guy with velocity. Sometimes my hands lag behind. I think Coach Pavs (Pavkovich) and I knew what the issue was, and we worked on finding a way to fix that. I guess that came with loosening up my hands and getting my hands out in the zone. That helped quite a bit."
That change has Fiala's numbers skyrocketing.
"The way I feel at the plate, it's awesome," Fiala said. "It's a big change. I feel so loose at the plate. I don't feel like I'm tense. I'm open-minded. Nothing with my mind has changed at the plate. It's just staying loose with it and putting good swings on balls, not doing too much with it. The hits have come."
Aoki loves the fierce competitiveness, talent and work ethic Fiala bring to the game. As Fiala has matured as a hitter, he's becoming more disciplined at the plate. Aoki said Fiala has exceptional hand-eye coordination, but that a big difference for him has involved being more patient and taking command of his swings.
"He was hitting, sometimes, on the pitcher's terms, rather than his own terms last year," Aoki said. "This year one of the big things, without any question, is that his plate discipline is a lot better. More often you see him balanced as he's making contact with the ball.
"The final piece is that he competes his rear end off when he gets those two-strike counts. He fouls off balls. He makes pitchers make two or three, sometimes four or five pitches beyond what they're used to. At some point, he's able to drive those balls when the pitcher makes a mistake. I think a lot of it is plate discipline, exceptional hand-eye coordination and a compete factor that is phenomenal."
Fiala isn't just focusing on his production at the plate. Last season Fiala committed 19 errors in his first year playing third base after a high school career as a shortstop. This season Fiala only has eight errors.
According to Fiala, taking advantage of Notre Dame's resources, beyond the technology, has helped him develop into a more complete player who is carving out a brilliant future in the sport.
"The coaching staff has a huge impact daily, and my teammates do, too," Fiala said. "I'm with them daily. They give little tips. They talk about all the things that go on with baseball.
"Craig Cheek, with lifting and conditioning, is a big help. We talk about eating right, getting good food in you. We're also doing a lot with mental conditioning this year, and I think it's helped our baseball team a lot. I think it's been a big key to this season. The list goes on and on. This place is so awesome that way. They want to develop you, they want to get you to that next level--and they'll do anything it takes to get you to that next level."
Woods said the next level is well within Fiala's reach.
"I hope and, certainly, we think he's just scratching the surface on how good he can be," Woods said of Fiala's potential. "I think what you're starting to see now is he is starting to hit balls in the gap and hit balls with more power. The runs are coming a little bit more now. He will stay on that trajectory. The sky is the limit for him. I think his game, offensively and defensively, just continues to get better. That really speaks to the type of person and player that he is. He works hard. He puts in the time. He puts in his preparation. When you do that and you have talent to go with that, good things are going to happen."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent