As the first signs of spring begin to show up seemingly everywhere except South Bend, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Baseball team prepare to begin their 2018 season. Head coach Mike Aoki returns for his eighth season on the bench as the Irish begin their fifth baseball season as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Notre Dame will be looking to improve on a 2017 campaign that saw them finish 7th in the ACC Atlantic Division with a record of 26-32 (10-20 ACC).
With Franck Eck Stadium still thawing out from the winter, the Irish will spend much of their early season away from home. Notre Dame begins the season with a weekend series in Baton Rouge, LA against the #9 LSU Tigers starting February 16. Following the opener, Notre Dame will play back-to-back early season tournaments. The Alamo Irish Classic in San Antonio, TX will see the Irish face off against Saint Louis, Incarnate Word, and Purdue. Following that is the Kissimmee Irish Classic in Kissimmee, FL with matchups against Youngstown St, Seton Hall, and Seattle University.
The Irish finally open their home season on March 21 against Northern Illinois followed by their first weekend series at home against Wake Forest. They close the season in Louisville, KY with a May 17-19 weekend series against the Louisville Cardinals, followed by the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
The Irish will play 20 games against 2017 NCAA tournament teams and 9 games against 2017 College World Series teams. Also included in the team’s schedule is their annual Strikeout ALS game against Boston College on April 28 at home, a game against Indiana at Victory Field in Indianapolis (home of the MiLB Indianapolis Indians), and an exhibition game against the South Bend Cubs, and a record 38 Irish baseball games will be broadcast across multiple platforms!
Players to Watch
The Irish lost a few players to graduation and the MLB Draft last year, mainly on the mound, where 5 players including 3 starting pitchers have left the team. The Irish will be counting on a veteran offense/defense, especially up the middle, and a young exciting pitching staff. With that in mind, here are a few players to watch this season that can help decide their fate.
Matt Vierling, JR. OF/RHP
Vierling has garnered some preseason accolades already for the Irish, which we’ve covered here, so I won’t go too far into it. As a junior and the starting CF, however, Vierling will play a main role on this team. The Irish will be looking for Vierling to improve on his 2017 season that saw him hit .330/.398/.549 and earn Third Team All-ACC honors as he positions himself for the MLB Draft.
Nick Podkul, JR. INF
Podkul is another member of the veteran Irish offense returning for his junior year. Podkul started all 58 games for the Irish a season ago, spending most of his time at 2B and is expected to do the same this year, forming a strong and experienced defensive spine with Vierling behind him. The infielder hit .285/.386/.439 in a sophomore season that saw him finish second on the team in slugging percentage and third in average. Podkul, along with Vierling, was named All-ACC Honorable Mention by College Baseball Daily.
Scott Tully, GS LHP
Tully, the longest tenured player on the Irish roster, made 5 starts for the Irish last year, finishing 2-0 with a 3.71 ERA after recovering from 2016 Tommy John Surgery. Tully was named Notre Dame’s Friday night starter for their season opening series against LSU and will look to lead the young pitching staff as a veteran presence. Tully will be looking to return to his pre-surgery form from 2015, when he led the team with 63 strikeouts.
Tommy Sheehan, FR. LHP/INF
Sheehan will follow Tully in the rotation and get the start Saturday against the Tigers. Sheehan was ranked the No. 13 prospect out of the state of New Jersey last year by Perfect Game and will be looking to make a name for himself on the mound early in his career in South Bend.
Joe Boyle, FR. RHP
The No. 2 prospect in Kentucky according to Perfect Game, Boyle is another new addition to the young pitching staff for the Irish. As a high school senior in 2017, Boyle was named a Rawlings Perfect Game All-American and an Under Armour All-American and was recently named the No. 2 ranked college freshman according to Perfect Game. If Boyle can establish himself alongside Tully, Sheehan, and the rest of the arms, Notre Dame will have a strong and deep pitching staff, despite is inexperience.
Cole Kmet, FR. LHP/INF
Kmet should be recognizable to Notre Dame football fans as the next in a long line of dual-sport athletes to take to the diamond for the Irish. Kmet has spent much of his time to date with the football team, so his baseball duties a freshman will most likely be limited to relief appearances on the mound. However, given his raw athleticism, size, and power, Kmet is a name to keep an eye on in the future as he should be able to contribute significantly to the baseball team both on the mound and at the plate.
The Irish finished last in their division last year with a 26-32 (10-20 ACC) record and many pre-season predictions have them in the same position in 2018. Their real struggles came within the conference as they actually finished with a winning record in non-conference games.
The ACC is a tough and deep conference when it comes to baseball, with several perennial title contenders and a few more teams that can surprise in any given year, so Notre Dame’s conference struggles are not exactly a surprise. While there is no guarantee that the Irish will improve upon last year they are certainly a team that is talented enough to make some noise.
With expected development from the veteran offense, the key to the Irish season may come down to how quickly the young pitching staff can mature. There is a lot of talent on the staff but nobody has yet handled the amount of responsibility they will be expected to this year. If they struggle, especially early, expect the Irish to be right back where they were last year. If they can translate that talent into success, this is a team that can be playing into late May and possibly even June. Get ready Irish fans, baseball season is here!