There is a shortage of fingernails currently in the Notre Dame baseball dugout. The Irish have had a flare for the dramatic in the first month of the season and have shown they are right at home in cuticle-crunching, tight games.
Eight of the team’s first 14 games this year have been decided by one run. Four of those have been tied after nine innings. Notre Dame, ranked in all five of baseball’s major polls and as high as No. 17, has won three of those four extra innings games against top flight competition and is 5-3 overall in one-run battles.
The heroics have come from less than likely places. Sophomore Kevin DeFilippis, a reserve second baseman, had the most recent walk-off hit in the 11th inning in a 6-5 win over then-No. 10 Oklahoma Sunday afternoon. DeFilippis hit a double to left field on the first pitch of his first plate appearance of the year.
“We were getting our chances and we couldn’t really close on it. I went up there with an aggressive attitude and I got a pitch to hit,” DeFilippis said. “When all your teammates are running at you like that [to celebrate] it’s kind of a helpless feeling, but it’s a really good helpless feeling.”
DeFilippis picked up a handful of starts as a freshman at shortstop and third base. This season he flipped to the left side of the infield and is stationed behind senior Frank DeSico, who has started 109 of Notre Dame’s last 111 games. The experience DeFilippis got last year earned him enough trust to get the green light in a clutch spot on Sunday.
Situational hitting — the Irish got another pinch-hit single from sophomore Phil Mosey to help tie the Sooners in the ninth inning — and strong pitching have sprung Notre Dame (10-4) onto the national stage as one of the country’ top surprise teams this year. Along with the win over Oklahoma, the Irish have beat Tennessee and No. 25 Florida Gulf Coast in extra innings. Their one loss in extras came this past Friday while playing at UCLA, which is currently ranked as high as seventh in the country in some polls.
Third-year coach Mik Aoki has raised the talent level in South Bend since he arrived. Junior Eric Jagielo is currently considered a first- or second-round pick in the upcoming MLB Draft, and classmates Dan Slania and Trey Mancini are also likely to be cashing a professional paycheck as early as next spring. But this team’s early success is coming from its scrappy play as much as its strength.
“I think we’ve got a really good chemistry and a really good feeling about ourselves,” Aoki said. “These kids play for one another. They play hard; they hold each other accountable for a lot of things.”
Notre Dame has plenty of experience in close games from past years. One out of every three Irish games has been decided by a single run during Aoki’s first two seasons. The Irish pieced together a 20-17 record in those contests. This year’s group has posted a slightly higher winning percentage (.625) in close games against a tough non-conference schedule.
“It’s a team full of guys that are ready to compete,” DeFilippis said. “I think that’s really important for a program that’s trying to go places we haven’t gone in a long time.”
The Irish wrap up an eight-day West Coast road trip with a three-game series against No. 20 Cal Poly starting Thursday night. The next stop is in South Bend for the home opener and the start of conference play on March 22.
The challenge for Aoki and his staff now becomes managing expectations and keeping his team tethered to the ground. The coach said he'll be preaching a one-pitch-at-a-time attitude as the Irish gear up for their final run through the Big East.
“We just need to play who we are, not worry about who the opponent is,” he said. “If we can play at or close to our potential on a day-to-day basis all the things that we want, all the goals we set at the beginning of the year, are going to be within our grasp.”
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