Notre Dame baseball: Irish eye opportunities

Curt Rallo
South Bend Tribune

It's year of transition, and a year of challenge for the Notre Dame baseball team.

It's also a year of opportunity, as Irish head coach Mik Aoki sees it.

Notre Dame opens its season Saturday in Boca Raton, Fla., against a Florida Atlantic team that was one out away last postseason from knocking off ACC champ and the tournament's No. 1 overall seed, North Carolina, to reach the NCAA Super Regional.

Notre Dame moved from the mediocre Big East to the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference. The Irish will also look to replace four draft picks, including three in the first eight rounds. And the Irish will be playing home games at several different venues while new synthetic FieldTurf is installed at Frank Eck Stadium.

"It's certainly a year of transition," Aoki said. "The move to the ACC ... long-term, it's a great move for Notre Dame, and in particular, it's a great thing for our baseball program. With all due respect to the Big East -- and there are some great teams in the Big East -- but at the conference level, they didn't really put the emphasis on baseball that the ACC does."

Notre Dame finished 34-24 last season, including a 10-14 Big East record. The Irish suffered through a mid-season slump but finished strong. Notre Dame won six of its last nine, and was 15-9 in its last 24 games, and finished runner-up in the Big East Tournament.

Non-conference opponents this season for the Irish include defending national champion UCLA. Notre Dame opens the ACC slate at North Carolina State, another 2013 CWS participant, on March 7. The first Irish game in South Bend is March 21 at the Class A minor-league South Bend Silver Hawks' Four Winds Field, an ACC game at Virginia Tech.

Personnel losses include third baseman Eric Jagielo (.388), a first-round pick by the Yankees; pitcher Dan Slania, (3-1, 1.21 ERA, 13 saves) a fifth-round pick by the Giants; first baseman Trey Mancini (.389), an eighth-round pick by the Orioles' and center fielder Charlie Markson (.209), a 38th-round pick by the Brewers.

"I'm not sure that filling the holes we have will get done all that easily," Aoki said. "We have some holes to fill left by some really elite-level players.

"I think our lineup, one through nine, we have the opportunity to be a little deeper and have a little more length to it. We'll just have to play a little different style of offense, and try to generate a little pressure on the opposing teams. I think that will be exciting."

Notre Dame's top prospect this season is currently wearing a basketball uniform. Pat Connaughton, a 6-foot-5 junior right-handed pitcher, was 4-4 with a 3.18 ERA in 2013. He will join the Irish as soon as Notre Dame's basketball season ends.

"Pat is the guy who the scouts are going to be excited about," Aoki said. "He's the guy, when it's all said and done, will be probably drafted in the sixth or seventh round. He may even have a chance to pitch himself into the top three rounds."

Switch-hitting Ryan Bull (OF/1B), shortstop Lane Richards, and Kansas State transfer Robert Youngdahl (LHP/OF) are expected to lead the Irish offense.

"I think our roster, one through 35, is far deeper and far more talented than it's ever been," Aoki said. "Almost every guy on the team has a quality that will help us win a game at some point. That's exciting. It's a good group of kids. We've got some guys who are going to get opportunities."

Sean Fitzgerald, Nick McCarty and Scott Kerrigan will start out as the Irish ACC rotation, and Christian Torres is penciled in as the closer.