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Irish Carry Confidence, Strong Pitching Into Postseason Play After Surprising Regular Season
Notre Dame has already exceeded expectations simply by advancing to the NCAA Regional round; the Irish were picked to finish sixth out of seven teams in the Atlantic Division in the January preseason ACC coaches poll. While it’s safe to say that the league’s managers were completely wrong about Notre Dame, which finished the 2015 regular season 35-19 (17-13 ACC), Mik Aoki’s team won’t be satisfied simply by performing well in the regular season.
While not a complete surprise, it is somewhat odd to see a team that is fairly one-dimensional team experience the success that the Irish have this year. Notre Dame ranks in the bottom half in nearly every ACC offensive category there is, but the flip side of that statistic is that the Irish are one of the best pitching teams in the conference. From the top of the rotation to the end of the bullpen, the team has solid arms. The Irish do the intangibles well and aren’t afraid to play small ball as evidenced by the team’s 32 sacrifice bunts this season, proving that Notre Dame has a knack for pushing timely runs across the plate to support the strong starting pitching.
There isn’t a single player on the Irish roster that possesses a batting average above .300, but five Notre Dame starters have sub-four ERAs. The key question for Notre Dame to be decided this postseason is whether or not the pitching can continue to shut down opposing offenses. The team is inevitably going to run up against an offensive juggernaut like No. 6 national seed Illinois, the top seed in Notre Dame’s regional, at some point on the road to Omaha and it will be key for ND’s starters to hold that team to minimal offensive outputs. When opponents score five runs or less, the Irish hold a 31-9 record. If Notre Dame is to earn a spot in Omaha it will be on the strength of Ryan Smoyer and the starting rotation, because the Irish simply aren’t going to outscore many opponents.
Here are two reasons why Notre Dame will continue to prove doubters wrong and earn a spot in the school’s third College World Series:
The Irish rank third in the ACC with a team ERA of 3.05, but the starting rotation might need to be even better than that if Aoki’s team is to escape the Champaign regional that houses Illinois, the Big Ten’s team leader in home runs. Notre Dame’s pitching staff has been arguably the ACC’s best top-to-bottom rotation since the beginning of the season, as the group is led by sophomore Ryan Smoyer, who sports a 2.13 ERA to go along with an unblemished 9-0 record.
Starters Scott Kerrigan, Brandon Bielak, and Nick McCarty all have ERAs under 4.0, while the latter two have five and six wins, respectively. Notre Dame’s pitching is solid enough to give them a chance at advancing deep into the tournament, but the club’s overall lack of offense could be the downfall. Illinois, the six overall national seed with a record of 47-8, ranks first in the Big Ten in team ERA (2.46), so the Irish will need to overachieve at the plate to have a chance to advance past the Illini.
Notre Dame Has Something To Prove
There is something especially dangerous about a team with nothing to lose and, as a team picked to finish next-to-last in its own conference division, Notre Dame fits that bill perfectly. The team isn’t flashy and they don’t obliterate the competition by scoring runs in bunches like conference foe Miami, for example, but instead the Irish win by playing small ball to win low-scoring affairs. When Mik Aoki’s club is at its best, the team is led by dominant starting pitching. In an April 10-12 sweep of perennial ACC power Florida State, the Irish scored just 11 runs in three games, but allowed a miniscule four runs in the impressive three-game stretch. Notre Dame will undoubtedly be flying under the radar this postseason, a familiar spot that the Irish have enjoyed extended success in this year. Other teams will receive more coverage and more accolades, but the Irish will simply stick to what they do best. Don’t be surprised to see Notre Dame continue its improbable run with a trip deep into the postseason.
Second-seeded Notre Dame (36-21) will face third-seeded Wright State (41-15) Friday at 1 p.m. in the Champaign Regional. Illinois, the No. 6 national seed, is the host team and will face the Ohio Bobcats (36-19) in Friday’s late game at 8 p.m.