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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Irish baseball finds stride in first year under Stiffler

Max Petrosky/The Observer
The Irish baseball team celebrates a 2-1 win over Western Michigan at Frank Eck Stadium on April 19.

Following up a team’s best season in 20 years is never easy. Last year, Notre Dame baseball climbed to a summit it could have only dreamed about just a few years ago and one it came so agonizingly close to reaching the season prior: the College World Series. The 2022 team became the third in program history to reach college baseball’s biggest stage, one that is a challenge to return to even for the sport’s blue bloods.

Add on the departure of the coach who orchestrated Notre Dame’s emergence from the sport’s doldrums in his three years in South Bend in Link Jarrett, and Notre Dame’s grip on success on the diamond was even more tenuous. And when they got off to a pedestrian 8-8 start, it was easy to wonder if the Irish were one-hit wonders.

But things have picked up a bit for the Irish over the last few months. The team, particularly at the plate, has found its stride in Shawn Stiffler’s debut season. And the former Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) head coach is enjoying the ride.

“[Notre Dame is] obviously a special place full of special people,” Stiffler said. “I’m happy with the progress the team has made throughout the year. We’ve played better month to month, probably week to week at times as well. We’ve been very, very competitive, you know, and I think it took us a little bit of time to get our footing underneath us. But ... I’m very happy we’re in a strong place right now in the middle of the conference season and winding down the stretch here, we play well down the stretch, you know, we should be in a decent position to make the conference tournament and kind of go from there.”

The Irish have gotten major contributions from faces more new and old. About half of last year’s starting lineup are still going strong for the Irish in 2023. Graduate student infielder Carter Putz continues to be one of the team’s biggest power threats. Graduate student infielder Zack Prajzner has taken a step forward at the plate while providing great defense at shortstop.

Sophomore infielder Jack Penney has built off a promising freshman season, already belting 10 home runs. And graduate student outfielder Brooks Coetzee III continues to play an outstanding right field and get on base at an excellent clip. Graduate students Aidan Tyrell and Will Mercer have also stepped into the rotation nicely to help the Irish compensate for the loss of star sophomore Jack Findlay to injury.

Notre Dame has also seen plenty of development from its young players, as well. Stiffler specifically pointed out the emergence of junior outfielder TJ Williams and sophomore outfielder DM Jefferson as keys for why the Irish offense has dramatically improved during the second half of the regular season. Freshman infielder Estevan Moreno delivered a memorable three-homer performance to help defeat a top-10 opponent in Virginia. On the mound, junior Jackson Dennies has taken on a larger role. And freshman Caden Spivey, one of Notre Dame’s most exciting recruits, already looks worthy of the hype with a very solid 3.14 ERA in 28.2 innings of work.

Graduate transfers have also played a key role in Notre Dame’s season on both sides of the ball. On the pitching side, Davidson import Blake Hely leads the Irish in games started. And former Stanford Cardinal Vinny Martinez has had one of the most dramatic mid-season turnarounds in program history. After beginning the year 3-31, Martinez currently leads the Irish with a .304 average and 10 home runs. Martinez’s .642 slugging percentage is the only mark a Notre Dame regular has that is above .500.

“[He] has been a really, really good spark over the last 20 games for us especially at home out of that DH and backup catcher role, he’s done a great job for us," said Stiffler.

The Irish have had some big moments already this year. The Irish have notched wins over some elite teams like Virginia, Louisville and Wake Forest. But there is more difficult competition ahead of them. The Irish have two weekend series and two midweek games left. After that, it’s on to the ACC, and, in all likelihood, NCAA Tournaments. Notre Dame may be a different team than it was last year. But their belief another deep run is in store is as strong as ever.

“I think the first thing is just staying within ourselves,” said Putz when asked about what it will take for the Irish to return to Omaha.

"I think it’s tough, especially late in the season. We have the pieces on this team to, you know, to make a run for sure and to, and to go to Omaha again, but we just have to stay within ourselves and rely on each other and not try and do it all by ourselves.”