A few months ago it seemed almost inevitable that the Notre Dame baseball team would be playing its first NCAA Tournament game in head coach Mik Aoki’s tenure Friday afternoon. Instead, the Irish landed a few spots outside of the tournament bubble and will be watching this weekend’s opening round from home.
Senior Adam Norton is one of several key losses for Notre Dame heading into the 2014 season.
A 10-14 record in the Big East during the regular season weighed down a lofty résumé of beating ranked teams and an impressive RPI rating. Notre Dame (34-24 overall) came within a game of clinching an automatic bid to the national tournament, but lost to eighth-seeded UConn in the Big East championship game last Sunday. That game was the final blow to a postseason opportunity that might not come knocking for a few more years.
“I think there is a little bit of [a window closing],” head coach Mik Aoki said. “We missed something that we were kind of building toward a little bit. I think the jury is out on next year.”
Notre Dame’s top pitcher, lead-off hitter and center fielder — Adam Norton, Frank DeSico and Charlie Markson, respectively — graduated two weeks ago. The biggest hits to the roster may not come until next week during the Major League Baseball Draft. Three of the team’s most powerful juniors are candidates for juicy enough offers to skip their final season with the Irish.
Reigning Big East Player of the Year Eric Jagielo is projected as a top-30 pick. The Irish third baseman hit .388 this season with nine home runs and 53 RBI. He is also a semifinalist for the prestigious Golden Spikes Award. If Jagielo is selected as high in the draft as expected, it’s improbable that he would be back next season.
Question marks still surround first baseman Trey Mancini and closer Dan Slania, both of whom were all-conference picks this year. Slania ended the year with a 1.21 ERA coming out the bullpen. Mancini posted numbers almost identical to Jagielo: .389 average, seven home runs and 54 RBI. That one-two combo in the middle of the Notre Dame batting order would dramatically change the make-up of the Irish offense.
“That changes things,” Aoki said. “The other part though is that it gives you an opportunity to see if guys in your program currently are going to develop and, not necessarily replace them and fill their shoes completely, but do a good job and fill their shoes in their own way.”
Whether or not those players are ready to step into a new pair of shoes remains to be seen. Aoki said next season could be “interesting,” a year made more interesting by the team’s jump to the more talented Atlantic Coast Conference. He did not write off the 2014 season, but said he expects that by the 2015 season he’ll have restocked enough talent and pitching depth to be back in the discussion for a trip to the NCAA Tournament — which would be Notre Dame’s first since 2006.
It’s hard not to think the 2013 team let a golden opportunity slip through its fingers. The Irish started the year with 12-5 preconference record with résumé-building victories against Virginia Tech, USC and Oklahoma. They won eight of 15 games against teams in the top 50 of the RPI. Notre Dame itself was ranked 32nd in RPI, the highest-ranked team not to get an invite to the NCAA Tournament.
“I can’t say that I was surprised; disappointed obviously,” Aoki said. “I think we had a case to make, but I don’t think it was a really compelling case when you think about going 10-14 in our conference.”
A losing record in the Big East ultimately sank Notre Dame’s chances. Aoki said he and his staff have tried to determine what went wrong in the second half of the season, but the season’s autopsy hasn’t produced any easy results.
“We’ve all done that stuff. I can’t sit here and put a real conclusive out there for you,” he said. “I think when talking to some of the guys they might have set that a little bit of complacency set in maybe a little bit of overconfidence set in. Maybe I should have jumped on them sooner. It will definitely be one of those things that will be give a ton of thought.”
Notre Dame pitchers Pat Connaughton and Sean Fitzgerald were both selected to play in the Cape Cod League this summer. Aoki said Connaughton will participate until the middle of summer when he’ll return to South Bend for summer school and to prepare for the basketball season.