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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer

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Irish baseball finds its stride, but there's still work to be done — now and going forward

Irish have turned season around after struggling to win early on

It didn't take long for it to be established that the 2024 season was not going to be an ordinary one for Notre Dame baseball. In the team’s second game of the season, the Irish scored six runs in the final two innings, completing a comeback win over Rice. The very next day, they rallied from 6-3 down by scoring five runs in the seventh and ninth innings for an even more improbable 13-10 victory, completing an opening weekend sweep.

For a while, though, the Irish hardly resembled a winning team, especially in ACC games. They surrendered at least 10 runs in 11 of their first 24 games. A nightmare 2-16 start to conference competition seemingly left them for dead, staring down the barrel of a lost season.

Yet, somehow, the Irish have managed to course-correct.

”I don't know if we ever felt like we weren't playing very well,” head coach Shawn Stiffler said, who is in his second season at Notre Dame. ”We just kind of run the bat on the bad side of some results. And we took the approach about a month ago that we're in — [when] we came out back out of the Chapel Hill series — and we felt like we could get jumpstarted here at home.”

The Irish have taken full advantage of that homestand, most notably winning seven of nine games in conference play, sweeping Boston College and picking up series wins over Pitt and Wake Forest. From a walk-off home run to a combined no-hitter, there's been a little bit of everything in this stretch for Notre Dame.

The Irish hitting and pitching have both had their highs and lows throughout the year. While the offense did start the year at a historic home run pace, neither unit has graded out particularly great on the whole (10th in the ACC in runs scored, eighth in runs against). But while the Irish may not be a championship-caliber team, their defense has been consistently stellar.

”It started with the middle of the field. I mean, I really thought that our triangle positions of shortstop, second base and center field could rival anyone's in the country, and so it started there ... That will always try to be the mainstay of our team. I have a pitching and defensive mindset first, and so we start every practice with defense,” Stiffler said.

Notre Dame doesn't just lead the ACC in fielding percentage — it leads the entire country. Part of that is having a pair of natural shortstops manning the corners in graduate student Simon Baumgardt (third base) and senior Connor Hincks (first base). Both players are good representatives of how this year's team came together. The Irish dipped heavily into the graduate transfer portal for experienced options. Baumgardt, team home run leader David Glancy and starting right fielder Tito Flores have been key cogs in the lineup. Four of the team’s most utilized relief pitchers came to the Irish from the transfer portal.

The Irish would also be lost if not for the development that many returning players have undergone, though. Senior pitcher Matt Bedford had started just two games in college before 2024 and has emerged as a reliable Friday starter. Stiffler admitted he wasn't sure Hincks, who has hit near .300 after earning just eight at-bats in the last two seasons combined, would ever be a starting-caliber player. Sophomore second baseman Estevan Moreno, a plus defender at second base, has developed more consistency at the plate with a lofty slugging percentage to prove it.

“I think there's a lot of people that have developed, which I'm very, very proud of our player development for that,” Stiffler said.

Still, barring an unprecedented run, the Irish will miss the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. That can be difficult to reconcile after the rapid ascent the team had under former head coach Link Jarrett, who led them to its first College World Series since 2002 two years ago before leaving for his alma mater, Florida State, right after. It was a challenge Stiffler was cognizant of when he left his 10-year perch leading VCU. And while ending the year on a high note would be nice, Stiffler knows there is a long way to go.

”We're not in a position to meet the standard appropriate from a results standpoint,” Stiffler said. ”And so I can't sit here and pretend like that's going to be a win.”

However, that doesn't make it a failure, either.

”When I stood in there the other day after the Pitt win, I had that feeling again, where I'm like, ‘I don't know if I could be any prouder of the team that I have with these guys,’” he recalled. “They could have quit at any point ... and so to put themselves in an opportunity to make the conference tournament from there against the people that are in this league, and where this league is kind of going from an NIL and portal standpoint, that is pretty impressive.”

This may not go down as an impressive season for Notre Dame baseball. But maybe it could be a building block to returning to where Stiffler believes the program belongs.