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May 18, 2014

Irish end disappointing '14 on upswing

NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- The last six games were more of what Mik Aoki and the Fighting Irish baseball team anticipated.

The first 47? Not so much.

But with Notre Dame's return to Eck Stadium for the last two series of the ACC season and victories in five of those six games (two vs. Clemson, three vs. Pittsburgh), the Irish (22-31, 9-21) could at least enter the off-season with some optimism that better times are ahead.

"I know it obviously wasn't what we had all hoped for or worked for, but we ended it well, and honestly, I think the second half of the season we played fairly well," Aoki said.

Notre Dame closed on the highest of notes Saturday when junior Ryan Bull - heretofore known as the Pittsburgh Panther giant killer - launched a solo home run on the first pitch of the bottom of the ninth to lift the Irish to a 5-4 victory and a series sweep.

Bull hit a walk-off home run against the Panthers as a freshman in 2012, a walk-off single last year in the Big East tournament to put Notre Dame in the finals, a game-winning RBI Friday night at the Eck, and Saturday's blast for his fourth game-winning hit against Pittsburgh in three seasons.

"I was just trying to hit something out, honestly," Bull said.
"If that kid were playing Pittsburgh 20 times a year, he might hit .700," Aoki said.

Joy was hard to come by for the better part of the 2014 season. As a first-year entry in the ACC, the conference that produced eight NCAA tournament teams a year ago proved a bit too much for the Irish in their inaugural season in the Atlantic Division.

The Irish lost 14 of their first 15 ACC games, including sweeps at the hands of North Carolina State, Duke, Wake Forest and Florida State. But over the second half of ACC play, the Irish were 8-7, winning two-of-three over Boston College, one-of-three at Miami, two-of-three versus perennial power Clemson, and all three against the Panthers (22-30, 11-19) who, like the Irish, struggled in their first season in the ACC.

"We've got some work to do, but I feel optimistic about where we're going and what we're building," Aoki said.

By winning their last three one-run games, the Irish finally began to reverse a trend that haunted them all season, losing 13 of their first 16 games decided by a single tally.

Bull's home run was Notre Dame's fourth in its last four games. In the first 49 games, the Irish managed just seven long balls and finished with a tough-to-compete-with .245 team batting average.

The pitching - led in part by near-certain early-round draft choice Pat Connaughton (3-5, 3.92 ERA) - fashioned a sparkling 3.05 earned run average under the direction of pitching coach Chuck Ristano. And while 76 errors and 59 unearned runs are both on the high side, the Irish turned an incredible 58 double plays.

The good news - despite the likely loss of Connaughton to the MLB draft and the departure of senior righthander Sean Fitzgerald (3-3, 2.29) and reliever Donnie Hissa (2-4, 2.66)  - is that every member of the every-day lineup is expected to return, including the team's top hitter, Blaise Lezynski (.296, 32 RBI), and shortstop Lane Richards, who missed the last few weeks of the season following Tommy John (elbow) surgery.

"Comfort will help, playing here will help, and having gone through the ACC one time is going to help," said Aoki, whose squad failed to qualify for the 10-team ACC tournament. "We've got to get better, the coaches have to coach it better and we've got to get better players."

The Irish received good news leading up to the Pittsburgh series when it was learned that catcher/captain Forrest Johnson was granted entry into Notre Dame's grad school and will return for a fifth year.

As a reminder of the general tenor of the 2014 season, however, junior righthander Scott Kerrigan - who was 3-1 with a 1.87 earned run average - suffered what was believed to be a torn ACL Sunday on a play at the plate.

"We're adding some people that we're pretty excited about in terms of our recruiting," Aoki said. "You hope that some guys that really struggled early on - like Ryan Bull - come back to being who they were.

"Thirteen one-run losses and five more that were two-run losses…It very easily could have gone the other way. But we'll take this, hopefully bottle up this feeling, bring it into next year and build from there."


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