Tough Notre Dame baseball season ends with a blast

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In a season in which there were plenty of moments worth forgetting, Ryan Bull enabled the Notre Dame baseball team to close out the 2014 season in memorable fashion.

Bull blasted a first-pitch, walk-off homer to open the bottom of the ninth inning Saturday, lifting Notre Dame to a 5-4 victory over Pittsburgh.

Notre Dame finished the season 22-31, and closed out their first ACC campaign with a 9-21 record. The Irish missed out on making the ACC Tournament (the top 10 in the 15-team league advance). Notre Dame showed life in the last part of the season. In the final two ACC series, the Irish took two out of three against No. 24 Clemson, and won three in a row against Pitt for their first ACC sweep.

A 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior, Bull continued his mastery of Pitt with his fourth game-winning hit against the Panthers. The Irish first baseman hit a walk-off homer against Pittsburgh as a freshman, he hit a walk-off single against Pitt last year in the Big East Tournament to put Notre Dame in the final, he drove in the game-winning RBI against Pitt on Friday and then hit the walk-off homer on Saturday.

Bull pounced on the first pitch from Pitt reliever Luke Curtis.

“I got a fastball down the middle first pitch, and I took a hack at it, and it happened to go over the fence,” Bull said.

Bull’s homer was a strong finish to a rough season. He hit .319 with two homers and 38 runs batted in last season, but this season hit .212 with three homers and 10 RBIs.

“It’s been a tumultuous year for the team as a whole,” Bull said. “It was great to finish on a high note and get some momentum going into summer ball and eventually next year.”

Notre Dame faced early adversity. Irish starting pitcher Scott Kerrigan suffered a knee injury racing to cover home plate on a pitch that skipped away from catcher Forrest Johnson. Irish coach Mik Aoki said Kerrigan suffered a possible torn ACL.

Trailing 3-1 in the fifth inning, Blaise Lezynski smacked a three-run double to give the Irish a 4-3 lead.

“A ball that gets that high up off the ground, the ricochets off the fence like that — he murdered that thing,” Aoki said of Lezynski’s crucial hit. “That was huge.”

Pitt tied the score in the ninth on a sacrifice fly, but then Bull made sure there were smiles after the Irish finale.

Aoki said he had no explanation for the way Bull has owned Pitt.

“If that kid were playing Pittsburgh 20 times a year, he might hit .700,” Aoki said. “I don’t know what it is about him and Pittsburgh.”

Good-bye seniors

Notre Dame loses only two seniors, Donnie Hissa, a relief pitcher who picked up the victory on Saturday, and Sean Fitzgerald, a starting pitcher. Senior catcher Forrest Johnson has been approved to return for a fifth season.

“Obviously, we all wish we were going on to play post-season, we wish there were more games, but you can’t write a better way to end it than a walk-off at home with all the families here,” Hissa said of senior day for the Irish. “It was a perfect way to end it.”

Aoki has seen his veterans emerge as leaders.

“There’s no way, two years ago, or maybe even one year ago, that Donnie could have gone out there and done what he did this weekend, come in and get two saves and a win,” Aoki said. “He bounces right back after the tough sacrifice fly to get the next guy and give us an opportunity. That wasn’t in his DNA two years ago.”

Aoki expects both Hissa and Fitzgerald to be selected in the Major League Baseball Draft.

“Fitz has been a big mainstay of everything that we’ve done here the last four years, and it hasn’t been all roses for him,” Aoki said. “Twice, he’s been pulled out of the starting rotation.”

Draft impact

Notre Dame will likely lose one more player from its roster. Junior Pat Connaughton, a 6-5, 214-pound right-handed pitcher is expected to be drafted in one of the higher rounds of the MLB Draft. Connaughton, who also plays basketball for the Irish, was 3-5 with a 3.92 earned-run average. He lit up the radar gun at 97 miles an hour on Thursday night.

“Conventional wisdom says that (Connaughton will) get drafted in the top three or four rounds,” Aoki said. “But, again, conventional wisdom and Pat Connaughton have never sort of collided in the same sentence.”

Connaughton is expected to negotiate to play one more season of basketball for the Irish.

Looking ahead

Notre Dame’s season could not have been more challenging. The severe winter pushed back the installation of FieldTurf at Eck Stadium, forcing the Irish to play 17 home games in venues ranging from Gary to Westfield to Kalamazoo. Notre Dame played only its last six home games at Eck Stadium. Notre Dame lost 13 one-run games, and another five losses were by two runs.

“Obviously, it wasn’t what we had all hoped for and all worked for,” Aoki said of the 2014 season. “We finished the second half of the season strong, so what we take from this, hopefully, maybe we bottle up this feeling, bring it into next year and build from there.”

Aoki thinks the comfort of playing at Eck Stadium and having one season of experience playing in the ACC will be a big help next season. The Irish are expected to return the entire lineup of position players.

Pittsburgh012000001 — 4 14 0
Notre Dame001030001 — 5 7 1

None out when winning run scored.

Joseph Harvey, Jon Danielczyk (5), Luke Curtis (9; L, 1-2); Scott Kerrigan, Nick McCarty (2), Ryan Smoyer (3), Jim Orwick (7), Donnie Hissa (7; W, 2-4).

2B: Cavan Biggio (ND), Blaise Lezynski (ND), Ryan Bull (ND).

3B: Boo Vazquez (P), Robert Youngdahl (ND).

HR: Bull (ND).

T – 2:55. A – 419.

Notre Dame pitcher Scott Kerrigan is helped off the field after suffering an apparent knee injury while covering home plate during Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)
Pittsburgh’s Boo Vazquez slides safely into home as the ball bounces away from Notre Dame catcher Forrest Johnson during their game Saturday at Eck Stadium. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)