May 13, 2014
By: Sean Tenaglia ‘16
To the casual observer, the University of Notre Dame baseball team’s 2014 campaign has looked like a struggle. Sure, there have been ups and downs, but the Irish have been competing to the final out in a majority of their games. As of May 12, the Irish had 13 one-run losses, and an additional five losses decided by two runs. Senior starting pitcher and co-captain Sean Fitzgerald believes these close battles present both challenges and opportunities.
“Getting guys to bounce back after these one-run losses has been a struggle,” Fitzgerald says. “Especially when we lose the first game of a series like that (Miami game), it’s hard to get guys to bounce back for the remaining two games.
“As a senior, it’s most rewarding to see our freshmen doing well, especially in tight spots. It’s tough having these one-run losses, but when you see your younger guys stepping up in these games, it’s definitely a rewarding experience.”
Despite a deceptive 3-3 record, Fitzgerald was dominant on the mound as the workhorse of the Irish rotation before an injury sidelined him before the Northeastern series. Fitzgerald recorded eight quality starts, including two complete games, in 10 appearances. He posted a 2.29 ERA and held opponents to a .204 batting average, good for 10th and seventh, respectively, in the ACC. Unfortunately, due to the young team’s offensive struggles, Fitzgerald did not receive the run-support needed to close out wins against some of the nation’s elite teams.
“It’s definitely been tough losing close games, but at the end of the day everyone is struggling along with me,” Fitzgerald says. “The fact that I had quality starts and kept my team in position to win is all that matters to me.”
As one of three seniors on a very young team, Fitzgerald has been forced to take on a much stronger leadership role in the clubhouse. Voted a team captain this past fall, he has embraced his new position throughout the season.
“It was a big responsibility with such a young team,” he says. “Being one of only three seniors this year, I really needed to take ownership for some of the younger guys and how they were adapting to the new system of college baseball. I’ve just been trying to keep the guys in line and make sure they are getting the most out of their performances.”
Fitzgerald’s co-captain, senior catcher Forrest Johnson, is also his battery mate out on the diamond. Fitzgerald sees their relationship as beneficial, both on and off the field.
“It’s definitely important to know that the guy on the other end of the pitch has your back, especially during games,” Fitzgerald says. “Forrest and I grew into this role together, and I think it shows in our performance on the field too.”
For Sean Fitzgerald, attending Notre Dame always seemed like a foregone conclusion.
“I knew I was going to come here when I was 5 years old,” Fitzgerald says. “My dad went here, so he kind of bred me into the system, watching football every year and waking up to the Notre Dame fight song. He pretty much instilled that in me at a young age.
“I grew up loving Notre Dame and I always wanted to play baseball at the collegiate level, so this was the place I wanted to play at. When it came down to it, I had three choices, and Notre Dame was at the top of my list.”
When he arrived in South Bend in 2010, Fitzgerald was in for a couple unexpected twists. His transitions both to the campus and to the baseball team were not as smooth as he had anticipated just a few months earlier.
“Well, first of all, I expected it to be a little warmer,” the McLean, Va., native says. “I had never been to Notre Dame when it was really cold, so having a bad winter my freshman year was quite the shock.
“Also, during the recruiting process, the coaches kind of cater to you because they want you to come to the school. I guess I expected that to continue to be the case, but the first day of practice was a big wake-up call. The coaches kind of got on me, and I realized how much responsibility I had to bear myself.”
During his freshman season, Fitzgerald also had to embrace a role that was entirely new to him – coming out of the bullpen as a relief pitcher. He made 23 appearances and struck out 25 batters while converting 5 saves.
Fitzgerald finally got his chance to start during his sophomore campaign, but struggled out of the gate on the mound. Looking back on his time spent at Notre Dame, the Irish captain actually recalls a tough outing against Texas State as one of his fondest memories.
“In that game, I gave up eight hits and three runs in three innings, which was a shock to me because it had never happened to me before in my life,” Fitzgerald says. “It was a really humbling experience and forced me to try to get back on track.
“With baseball, you never know what’s going to happen, so that was definitely a tough experience that helped me overcome some of my shortcomings.”
In fact, Fitzgerald rebounded the next week with what was, at the time, the best start of his career. Against No. 11 LSU, Fitzgerald tossed a gem. Over eight innings, he allowed just one run and struck out four batters en route to an 11-1 victory over the heavily favored Tigers. Fitzgerald’s dominant performance stands out as yet another fond memory of his time with the Irish.
“I’d probably say that the LSU game was the highlight of my early career because I was still a backup starter at the time,” he says. “I don’t think many people thought we had a chance in that game, so being able to pull off the win was definitely a big confidence boost for me.”
In 2013 Fitzgerald was a key member of the Irish rotation, serving as a solid No. 2 starter behind workhorse Adam Norton. Fitzgerald said he learned a lot last season from the first-team All-BIG EAST starter.
“His consistency was amazing,” Fitzgerald said of Norton. “He wasn’t a guy who threw too hard, but he just goes out there and picks his spots. He keeps hitters off balance, and that’s something I’ve worked on this year.”
This season Fitzgerald stepped right into the position that Norton vacated when he graduated last May. Although his record may not look as glamorous as Norton’s from last season, Fitzgerald has been just as dominant on the mound. He attributes his success on the mound to increased confidence in his work ethic on and off the field.
“There were always some shortcomings earlier in my career, but this year I’ve been able to become steadier and trust the process I go through each week,” he says. “I’ve really just had to trust my preparation to perform at the highest level possible.”
In five days, Sean Fitzgerald will graduate from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in finance. While hopeful to hear his named called in the MLB Draft this June, Fitzgerald is thankful for the alternative options that his education will provide him.
“The MLB Draft is always a lingering thought, but I won’t find out how that will work out until June,” he says. “My backup plan is to find an entry-level finance job somewhere. It’s kind of a period in my life where I need to take caution to two paths, and see how it plays out from here, but I’m excited for what’s to come.”
As he nears the end of his Notre Dame career, Fitzgerald has reflected on the aspects he will miss most about the school. Ultimately, being away from his teammates, the people he has spent the most time with over the past four years, will be the biggest challenge.
“I’m really going to miss the locker room,” Fitzgerald says, “and just hanging out with the same group of guys every day. It’s kind of the place where you don’t need to worry about school or any other problems. The same guys are with you when you are doing well and when you are doing poorly. College is all about fostering strong relationships, and I built my strongest relationships in the locker room.“
Sean Fitzgerald’s performance on the field and in the locker room this spring has been more than anyone could ask for, and major league teams would be crazy to not give him a shot to continue his high performance at the next level. One thing is for certain – the Irish will sorely miss him when he takes off his Notre Dame jersey for the final time.