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Friday, April 12, 2024
The Observer

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Irish baseball fills vacancies, stares down challenging season

After a warm winter, Notre Dame opens play Friday at Rice

Last year, Notre Dame baseball experienced an important transition. With much of the 2022 College World Series team’s core still intact, the Irish took the field under a first-year head coach in Shawn Stiffler. While that group missed out on postseason glory, it set a new precedent for baseball in South Bend – one marked by blue-collar work ethic and day-to-day growth.

Now, the transition period is over, and Stiffler relishes the opportunity to bring that culture to Friday’s season opener at Rice.

“I’m as excited for this opening day as I’ve ever been. I cannot wait to go compete with this team,” he said. “We would lose because I’d be on the mound, but I would give anything to pitch for this team and play for them. These guys bring such joy and excitement every day, you can’t help but have juice when you’re around these guys.”

In a season of competitive maturation, Notre Dame posted a 30-24 record in 2023. The team held its own in the ACC, going 15-15 while winning at least one game in every conference series. While the Irish certainly hope to play meaningful baseball in mid-May once again, they also appreciate the ways in which this year is different.

“I just think we all feel a little bit more comfortable in our skin,” Stiffler said. “The players know what to expect on a daily basis from me, and I have a better idea of how their day flows, how their weeks flow and really how their semesters flow … We’re all echoing the same message all the time now, and I think that just leads to some more consistency on the field.”

Pitching: Dennies headlines group with vacant innings to fill

While Notre Dame had a solid earned run average of 4.61 last season, it must replace its two workhorses from last season, Aidan Tyrell and Blake Hely. The Irish must also navigate junior left-hander Jack Findlay’s absence due to Tommy John surgery recovery. To fill those voids, Stiffler expects the staff’s growth to take center stage.

“The first thing I see as our strength is the pitching staff — just that they’re a year older,” Stiffler mentioned. “I’m seeing more maturity out of the pitching staff, and I think we’ve raised our floor quite a bit throughout the entire roster, but especially on the pitching staff side … Guys understand their roles, they understand what we expect out of them and there’s more momentum.”

Jackson Dennies is one such pitcher. Last year, the senior right-hander shifted from the bullpen to the rotation and thrived, with his 3.11 ERA leading all Irish starting pitchers. As Notre Dame’s Saturday starter, Dennies detailed his offseason work to expand his arsenal.

“It’s really exciting when you get up there. You try to add a new pitch because the uncertainty in it is just immense,” Dennies said. “You start throwing the pitch, and [on] day one it looks terrible. But then on day 21, it’s looking a lot better than it was. And so just finding fun in that process to get out there every single day and challenge yourself to make it just a little bit better than the day before.”

Beyond Dennies, Stiffler noted four hurlers who could crack the rotation early on. According to him, senior right-hander Matt Bedford took major strides in the offseason and might get involved. Last year’s midweek starter David Lally Jr., a sophomore right-hander, might also take that next step. The transition could also come naturally to sophomore right-hander Caden Spivey, who posted a 4.11 ERA in 35 freshman innings.

The fourth name, Will Jacobsen, leads the group of graduate transfer arms. Jacobsen, a right-hander, came over from Harvard, where he played both ways and earned Second Team All-Ivy League honors last year.

“Having that experience, I know how hard hitting is, and I think that gives me confidence on the mound sometimes,” Jacobsen said. “But I also think it’s been really beneficial for me being able to focus on my pitching to help me try to take my development to the next level.”

The three remaining pickups — Bennett Flynn (Davidson), Nate Hardman (Evansville) and Tobey McDonough (Brown) — combined for over 120 innings last season. The Irish also recruited two enormous freshman right-handers — Jack Radel and Hagan Ward — to anchor down the bullpen.

Notre Dame still faces a major question: Who will they throw to? Vinny Martinez graduated, and Danny Neri departed for UCF, leaving the Irish with 12 returning catcher at-bats. They belong to junior Joey Spence and senior Tony Lindwedel. The Irish can also pick from three freshman backstops — Carson Tinney, Troy Reader and Davis Johnson. Stiffler mentioned that the position battle currently includes three players and will develop throughout the season.

Infield: Irish carry potential up the middle with experience on the corners

During Notre Dame’s season-opening press conference, no name came up more often than Jack Penney. Among position players, the junior will be the headliner as he transitions from third base to shortstop. Last year, Penney produced a .900 OPS, clubbing 10 home runs and swiping eight bags. He then spent the summer back home in the Cape Cod League, where he started playing short after the All-Star Break.

“The biggest adjustment of starting to go play short again was the footwork part of it,” Penney said. “Third base is the hot corner for a reason — balls get on you quickly, sometimes you don’t have to move your feet to have as much momentum towards first base as you would have on any given shortstop ball that you get … It’s a range position compared to the third base at short, and I just wanna move as much as possible and not get stagnant and find myself waiting for the ball.”

Penney also cited his work with assistant coach Logan Robbins as vital to his improvement. He now feels “stronger without having to swing as hard” thanks to posture and extension tweaks.

Next to him in the middle infield, versatile sophomore Estevan Moreno will once again man second base. Moreno flashed potential at the plate in 2023, slugging three home runs against Virginia and driving in 24 runs. But he also chased more than he would have liked, collecting a team-high 65 strikeouts.

Stiffler’s portal acquisitions ensure that Moreno will remain Notre Dame’s youngest infield starter in 2024. Josh Hahn, a 65-game starter at UCLA, will bring professionalism to first base. Last year, he improved his slash line drastically to .326/.379/.395 after posting a .186/.319/.322 in 2022. Across from him, Tulane transfer Simon Baumgardt has third base covered. His first game in an Irish uniform will correspond with his 150th in college baseball. In 2023, Baumgardt belted 13 home runs for a Green Wave team that won the AAC and reached the NCAA tournament.

Outfield: Grad transfers Glancy, Flores shore up corner spots 

A year ago, Notre Dame’s outfield didn’t hold up the way it was meant to. Jack Zyska disappeared as a veteran option in left due to a shoulder problem. In right, Brooks Coetzee dealt with a hand injury and had a down year power-wise. As a result, the Irish encountered a need for slugging and defense in the next wave of outfielders.

Enter David Glancy and Tito Flores. Glancy, an exit velocity machine, led St. John’s in homers during both 2022 and 2023. In that timeframe, he drove in 80 runs, rendering him a prime candidate for Notre Dame’s corner outfield spots.

Flores, on the other hand, plays with a more defined focus on defense. The 166-game veteran at Michigan crossed enemy lines in the offseason, bringing multi-year postseason experience to South Bend. Flores finished last season on a 20-game on-base streak and recognizes the focus necessary to continue his success in the ACC.

“Understanding that winning is the most important part — understanding where the ball goes and what I can do for the team to put us in position to win,” Flores referenced as elements of his game. “That’s a key format I take pride in — knowing the game, knowing situations when runners are gonna go, opportunities for the defense to take runs away, putting guys in the right spot.” 

Two other graduate acquisitions, Nathan Manning (California) and Broghan O’Connor (Washington University) have entered the fold as well.

Looking in-house, Notre Dame returns starting senior T.J. Williams, an outstanding defender in center field. Junior DM Jefferson, the 2023 team’s leader in stolen bases (10), earned high acclaim from Stiffler and will have opportunities in left and center. Finally, senior Brady Gumpf carries a sneaky power stroke and will factor into the corners as well.

Projected to finish sixth in the ACC Coastal Division, Notre Dame embraces the grind the new season presents. A look at the Irish in-conference schedule ups the ante for that matter. No. 10 Clemson visits South Bend from April 5-7 with No. 1 Wake Forest to follow from April 26-28. Trips to No. 13 NC State (March 28-30) and No. 15 North Carolina (April 12-14) beckon as well. But if any teams is up for the challenge, it’s Stiffler’s.

“One thing we talk about a lot here is to expect that hard is coming,” Stiffler discussed. “I’m a huge believer in addressing that you’re gonna [go] 0-for-10 at some point, and you’re going to give up five runs in the first inning of a start. And so we just talk about that, how we can handle that and how we can adapt to that.”

Notre Dame begins its season with a three-game series at Rice this weekend (7:30 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday). Visits to FIU and Tennessee Tech will follow before the home opener at Frank Eck Stadium on March 5 vs. Purdue.

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