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June 1, 2012
Finding solace after getting bounced out of the semifinals of the Big East tournament is difficult, even amidst a rebuilding project. For the sixth straight season - and second under head coach Mik Aoki - Notre Dame is not one of the 64 teams participating in an NCAA tournament regional this weekend.
But when Aoki assesses where the Irish are today compared to a year ago, and where they are headed from here, he is confident that Notre Dame baseball is on an upswing, even if it’s not at a more rapid pace.
“Our overall talent is better. Our ceiling is higher than it was a year ago. The 2012 version is a far better team than the 2011 version,” said Aoki less than a week after getting bounced from the Big East tournament with a 2-2 mark.
After a 23-29-1 record in 2011 with an eighth place finish in the Big East (13-13), the Irish won 31 and lost 27 while moving up a notch into seventh place in the Big East with a 14-13 mark.
“Offensively, we made a lot of progress,” Aoki said. “We added 40-some odd points to our team batting average and our power numbers were better. Defensively, we weren’t as good as we were in 2011. Pitching-wise, maybe a slight downturn, but pretty steady in terms of the numbers.”
The Irish improved from a .239 team batting average in ’11 to a .277 mark in ’12 - a .038 improvement. Instead of just one .300 hitter among the regulars, as was the case the previous season, the Irish had six. After hitting just 18 home runs in 2011, the Irish doubled that with 36 in 2012.
The pitching numbers slipped a bit following the departure of the veteran three-man rotation in Cole Johnson, Brian Dupra and Todd Miller. But the team earned run average remained under four (3.92).
The biggest step back came defensively as the errors increased from 59 in 2011 to 89 in 2012. But that wasn’t a complete surprise as the inexperienced left side of the infield went through some growing pains.
“We need to defend the baseball better,” Aoki said. “If we commit the right 10 or 12 fewer errors, in spite of our lack of depth on the mound, we’re still a regional team. In the conference, that might have been the difference between seventh place and third place. Who knows, maybe even second or first place.”
Add it all up and the strides made in 2012 are about right for a rebuilding process.
“We’re much closer in terms of the mindset and culture as to where I want it to be,” Aoki said. “The one area where we need to continue to get better is the mid-week games. There’s a little bit of sense that mid-week games are not as important as conference games, and that’s something we need to beat out of this program.
“To get to where we all want this program to be, non-conference games are every bit as important. Some of those non-conference games, you could argue, are even more important than conference games if we want to truly be competitors at a national level.”
Once the Big East regular season commenced, the Irish played eight non-conference games, losing five to Western Michigan, Illinois-Chicago, Michigan State, Central Michigan and Butler.
“Our lack of depth from a pitching standpoint showed up there,” Aoki said. “We got exposed a little bit. If we have two more quality arms, I think we’re a regional team.”
Only six seniors graduated earlier this month. The most significant loss is No. 1 pitcher Will Hudgins (5-3, 2.06, 90 strikeouts in 96 1/3 IP), who didn’t start one game in 2011. Shortstop Tommy Chase - unless Notre Dame exercises a fifth-year option with him - also is gone after stabilizing a position fraught with inconsistency during the ’12 season.
The most significant loss, potentially, is that of junior catcher Joe Hudson, who led the Irish in hitting (.332) while slugging six home runs and knocking in 39 runs. More importantly, Hudson established himself as one of the best defensive backstops in the land over the last three seasons.
Next week’s Major League Baseball draft will determine whether Hudson’s collegiate career has come to a close.
“I would be surprised if we were to see him get drafted any lower than the seventh round, and honestly, if I were doing it, I would think of him as a fifth- or sixth-rounder,” Aoki said.
“The fifth round is a premium round. As long as somebody treats him fairly for the pick that he’s ultimately selected at, I would guess that he’d be gone. I certainly don’t begrudge him that. I would love to see him back. But I’d be surprised if he were taken in that range that he would be back.
“That’s a hard loss to face, but that’s a part of the deal. If we’re not losing guys like that on a regular basis, then quite frankly, I don’t think we’re doing our jobs right.”
The likely successor in the rotation to Hudgins is Sean Fitzgerald (7-3, 3.82) --? a junior next season -- who has excelled out of the bullpen, but has struggled as a starter. He would join senior-to-be Adam Norton (5-5, 4.32) and sophomore Pat Connaughton (4-4, 3.18) in the rotation if he can translate his bullpen success to the starting role.
Another possibility for the rotation is 6-foot-5, 275-pound junior-to-be Dan Slania, who was 3-0 with 13 saves, a 2.03 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 37 innings (31 appearances).
Finding a replacement for Hudson would be more difficult. There’s Forrest Johnson, a junior-to-be that has played in just one game in two seasons, or incoming freshman Ricky Sanchez from Florida. Other options include Alex Carter and Ricky Palmer. The Irish also have to solve the shortstop issue.
“The shortstop of the future is very much in the air,” Aoki said. “(Sophomore-to-be Jason) McMurray, at times, showed he could do it. But to be perfectly frank, there were some non-baseball related issues that that kid needs to work out before I anoint him as our shortstop of the future. If he does it, I think he’s talented enough. But he’s got to figure some things out and mature a little bit.”
Aoki will lean heavily on four established players in 2013: junior first baseman Trey Mancini (.317, 12 HRs, 45 RBI), junior third baseman Eric Jagielo (.310, 13 HRs, 43 RBI), senior centerfielder Charlie Markson (.303, 20 RBI, 19-of-25 SBs) and senior second baseman Frank DeSico (.303, 23 RBI, 13-of-16 SBs).
With the potential of returning the top five hitters in the lineup and the progress Aoki and his staff have made in two seasons, the 2013 season could prove to be a breakthrough year for a program that hasn’t made a trip to the NCAA tournament since Paul Mainieri’s final season with the Irish in 2006.
“Am I a tad disappointed in the way things ended up in terms of our overall record and our conference record? Yeah, but at the same time, I’m really proud of the way our team played the last three weeks of the season,” Aoki said.
“We were able to go into the Big East tournament, and we competed toe-to-toe with the top of the Big East. Our guys played and competed at a high level.”
Higher ground could be on the horizon.
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