Notre Dame shows it can compete with college baseball's elite

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Dealing with the peaks can be as tricky as the valleys.

But it definitely beats the alternative.

Even keel, “steady as she goes,” is the sort of Notre Dame baseball program Mik Aoki hopes to have established in his previous four years at the Irish helm.

But, c’mon, take a day to be giddy about sweeping seventh-ranked Florida State last weekend.

Tuesday was just like any other work day at Eck Stadium. Defensive drills were the same. Batting practice. Everybody’s on their own schedule.

The background music’s upbeat. Couple guys are booting a football around. Winning streaks sure can be a lot of fun to be around.

Especially considering where this Notre Dame team has come from.

Just a year ago, the Irish were nomads until late in the season, hopping on a bus every time a home game was supposed to be played to find an available field, as the artificial playing surface was put into place. While struggling to a 22-31 record (9-21 in the Atlantic Coast Conference), Notre Dame was stumbling its way through the meat grinder that is the league schedule.

Now at 24-10, 9-9 in the ACC, the Irish have battled themselves into college baseball’s version of a pennant race. Ten teams qualify for the ACC Tournament. Louisville (16-2) and Florida State (11-7) lead the Atlantic Division. Notre Dame, Wake Forest and Clemson are all in at 9-9. In the Coastal Division, Miami’s (14-4) on top, followed by defending champion Georgia Tech and North Carolina at 9-9.

Since being swept by Virginia and Louisville, the sweep of the Seminoles has put the Irish back in the hunt.

“My message has been: (Beating Florida State) doesn’t fundamentally change who and what we are, the same way the (series) losses to Virginia and Louisville didn’t,” Aoki said. “We have to keep plugging along.

“We put ourselves into a fairly decent position. It put us into the mix in terms of getting to the ACC Tournament at the end of the year, which is something we weren’t able to accomplish last year. From a national perspective, it puts us into the mix of getting into the NCAA Tournament (with an RPI that is ranked No. 21).”

The frustration from a year ago doesn’t seem all that far away.

“Our attitude going into everything this year is a lot better (than last year),” Aoki said. “More than anything else, the lesson that we learned from last year is to show up, be ready to play, enjoy the time we have with one another, and play hard.

“We’ve shown up for 34 games now, ready to play; engaged; excited about playing 34 times. In this sport, that’s pretty hard to do.”

Wednesday’s home game with Toledo (6:05 p.m.) is a tune-up for another knock-down, drag-out ACC home game against North Carolina State over the weekend.

Irish players just shrug their shoulders at the challenge ahead. Been there, done that. Sweep Florida State? Bring on anybody, baby.

“We know we’re talent,” said Ryan Smoyer, the right-handed ace of the pitching staff. “We’re a loose bunch. If we just keep playing our brand (of baseball), we’ll be fine.”

Smoyer, 5-0, has 20 strikeouts, eight walks and a 2.52 ERA over 35.2 innings. As the Friday starter, it’s his job to set the tone for the weekend. Against the Seminoles, the 6-foot-4, 207-pound sophomore went seven innings with six strikeouts and five hits in the 5-2 win.

“It’s more ‘tone’ than it is pressure,” Smoyer said of his mission. “I go out there thinking, ‘Throw strikes; get us in a position to win.’ Start the weekend with the attitude, ‘we’re going to come out here and compete.’”

Catcher Ryan Lidge (cousin to former Irish pitcher Brad Lidge) leads Notre Dame with a .319 batting average. He has eight doubles and 23 RBIs. Lidge was 5-of-8 with four RBIs in the Florida State series.

“Now it’s like, we don’t have to prove we can play with (the elite teams),” said the 6-2, 207-pound sophomore. “We always knew we could. People won’t question us anymore.”

Sean Guenther had questions. The 5-11, 185-pound freshman left-handed pitcher had never been a reliever before in his life. Suddenly, he’s the Irish closer against one of the best teams in the country.

He responded with saves in each of the first two games.

“Our defense is so good, I know I don’t have to be perfect,” Guenther said. “This is my first time relieving. No matter when you come into the game, you’re going to be facing a good hitter. Doesn’t matter what uniform the (batter) has on, you’ve gotta come in and battle.”

“You aren’t necessarily playing (against a team like Florida State), you’re playing against the game,” Lidge said. “We’re not the bottom-feeders of the ACC anymore. We want to be at the top. If someone throws a hard punch, we’re going to throw a hard punch back.”

And the Seminoles have the black eye to prove it.

Notre Dame's Ryan Bull, left, Kyle Fiala, center, and Cavan Biggio enjoy a moment during a weekend series sweep over Florida State. (Photo provided/KEVIN HAGGENJOS)

Team Conf. All
Atlantic Division   
Louisville  16-2 27-8
Florida State  11-7  26-12 
Notre Dame  9-9  24-10 
Wake Forest  9-9  22-16 
Clemson  9-9  18-18 
North Carolina St.  8-9  20-14 
Boston College 6-11  16-8
Coastal Division   
Miami  14-4  28-9 
Georgia Tech  9-9 24-12 
North Carolina  9-9  22-14
Virginia  7-11  21-14
Virginia Tech  7-11 17-20
Pittsburgh  6-12  14-20 
Duke  5-13  22-15