Notre Dame baseball's Jake Shepski struggles to explain breakout

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In the midst of the game of his lifetime, even Jake Shepski wasn’t 100 percent sure.

Was this a dream?

“I remember thinking, ‘If I wake up in the hotel bed right now, I’m going to be pretty (angry),’” Shepski said.

Nope. The Notre Dame baseball team’s 6-foot-1, 183-pound switch-hitting designated hitter was wide awake last Thursday at Virginia Tech. Two home runs righthanded. A homer, triple and double hitting lefty. Nine RBIs. Seventeen total bases.

Some guys can take a half season to put up numbers like that. Shepski did it in a 16-4 Irish victory.

“(Teammates) were joking, ‘Oh, you’re going to get drug tested next week,’” Shepski said, teasing like baseball players tease.

This was something totally out of context. It’s not like Shepski has been a slugger for the 12-10 (4-5 in the ACC) Irish. Actually, he’s only played in nine games this season, starting five (three of those were last weekend). His three homers, which gave him the team lead, were his first three of the season. They were five of the nine hits he has this season (.360 batting average), and nine of his 10 RBIs.

This comes after a freshman season in which he had sporadic playing time while hitting .228.

“He stayed patient (after last season) and kept working at it,” said Irish coach Mik Aoki. “In those particular instances (last Thursday), he went to the plate with a really good plan on each of them.

“They talk about luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Not to say that any of that is lucky, but you’ve got to have some good fortune with it.”

“Baseball is a game of adversity,” Shepski said. “Through high school (St. Rita of Cascia in Lockport, Ill.), I never had to deal with not playing. From being a guy who’s playing every day, hitting third (while playing shortstop), looked on as a guy who’s going to help them win that day, to a guy that’s sitting the bench more than playing, you have to stay positive.

“You have to remember what you’re here for; to help your teammates. You have to be ready when you’re called upon, and do the very best you can. If you don’t stay positive, you’re not going to do your job.”

This was that one nine-inning opportunity when all the tumblers fell into place.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a nine-RBI day, with three jacks – two of them righthanded, one lefthanded, and the triple and double, too,” said Aoki. “That was a pretty good day for Jake.”

“(After the first two homers) I was walking up to the plate with a butt-load of confidence,” Shepski said. “I was trying to get that good pitch; seeing the ball really well – it was (as big as) a beach ball.

“It was funny, when I went up for my third at-bat, they switched to the righty pitcher. I haven’t gotten a ton of playing time in my two years. (The Hokies) probably thought I was just a righty hitter. I switched over lefty and did a lot of the same things. They were probably thinking, ‘What the hell?’

“(Rounding the bases the third time) I felt like I had a lot less emotion. Whatever. Everything’s going my way. That was the first time I ever hit a home run on each side in the same game.”

Didn’t take long for the magic to wear off. In Notre Dame’s Friday and Saturday victories in Blacksburg, Shepski was a combined 1-for-9.

He’ll be back at it later this week. The Irish start a stretch of 13 straight home games Thursday against Oregon, then Friday-Sunday against Wake Forest. They entertain Michigan next Tuesday, then face Miami next weekend.

Aoki said he may even use Shepski on the mound a bit in the upcoming action.

Whatever the case, Shepski has to guard against sinking into the oblivion that a slump can cause. Peaks can have valleys, you know.

“Even the best baseball players get in slumps,” Shepski said. “A lot of it is about mentality. Letting it affect you makes it worse than it needs to be. Having that compete factor; the unwavering confidence; helps you out of that kind of adversity.

“(A game like last Thursday is) something everyone dreams about. Hitting a home run is one thing. Hitting three in an ACC game is another. By the third one, I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’”

Remember what it felt like. Don’t push too hard to do it again.

Let it happen. And, make sure you’re awake.

Notre Dame sophomore designated hitter Jake Shepski hit three home runs with nine runs batted in against Virginia Tech on March 24, 2016. (Photo provided)