It may be too early for a big picture proclamation, but after two weekends of the 2013 season the Notre Dame baseball team has already shown signs of putting itself "back" on the national scene. The Irish has a solid opening weekend by winning games against Florida Gulf Coast and Ohio State and losing only to a very good Mercer team in Florida.
Two things happened though last weekend that gave Mik Aoki's team instant national credibility. First, the Irish swept a three-game series at Tulane - the same Tulane team that brought back a more than solid nucleus from a 38-win team that just missed the NCAA Tournament in 2012. Second, that same Florida Gulf Coast team the Irish beat swept Florida - the same Florida team that has made three straight College World Series appearances - in Gainesville.
While FGCU's road sweep may seem more impressive, Notre Dame's had more than sound merit as well. Tulane head coach Rick Jones, who took his 2001 and 2005 teams to the CWS himself, had not been swept in a home non-conference series in 16 years prior to Aoki's club using their brooms last weekend in New Orleans.
Notre Dame's recent wins have pushed the Irish up in the national rankings as well. There are at least five weekly college baseball rankings, but the Collegebaseball360.com weekly composite rankings combines them and adds a strength of schedule factor for an overall accurate national rank. The Irish started the season at No. 50 in that composite and check-in at No. 20 there this week.
There are a lot of things to like about Aoki's 2013 squad, beginning with:
The dynamic third baseman was garnering preseason national acclaim after two good seasons in an Irish uniform and a big summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League. The junior is yet to disappoint so far in 2013. He hit a pair of mammoth home runs during opening weekend and added an eventual game-winner that set the tone in last weekend's series-opening at Tulane.
"Jags sort of just changes the game with one swing of the bat, which fortunately is something he has in his skill set," Aoki said of Jagielo after watching the game-winner last week. Eric just has power to all fields."
Jagielo's third home run of the season, which gave the Irish a 2-1 series-opening win last Friday night, cleared the left field wall with ease. The feat is even more impressive considering he is a left-handed batter. He just missed sending another one in nearly the same spot when he flew out to the warning track in his next at-bat.
Jones had no intention of challenging Jagielo the next day. The Tulane head coach intentionally walked the junior with a man on in Jagielo's first at-bat. Jagielo and Irish leadoff man Frank DeSico would both score first inning runs en-route to a 3-1 victory.
"The reputation, clearly, is preceding him," Aoki said after the first inning walk. "What he was able to do last year, what he was able to do in the Cape and what he was able to do the first weekend. You've got a guy hitting .500 with three jacks in six games right now."
Jagielo is batting .500 (10 for 20) with three home runs, 12 RBIs, a gaudy 1.050 slugging percentage and .571 on base percentage through six games. He has, so far, shown the ability to fight off nearly any pitch and has struckout just twice, walked four times and twice been hit by pitch.
The scariest thing about both Jagielo and Notre Dame's hot starts is the fact that, while he is hitting well, Trey Mancini has not been - well Trey Mancini yet. Jagielo's right-handed counterpart is batting .345 with a home run of his own and five RBIs. The first baseman bats clean-up, one spot behind Jagielo.
"At some point I know that Trey is going to start making some teams pay for doing that kind of stuff," Aoki predicted when asked if he is worried about other teams following Tulane's lead by taking the bat out of Jagielo's hands.
Mancini played in the Cape Cod League (Harwich) last summer as well. While Jagielo has 21 career home runs, Mancini has 22 of his own after belting nine as a freshman and putting-up a .317 batting average with 12 home runs, 45 RBIs and a .940 OPS last season.
A (Big) Bullpen
As impressive as the middle of the Irish lineup has been this season, the backend of the bullpen - and really the bullpen as a whole - has possibly been even more impressive. The pen is led by another Cape Cod veteran - 6'7, 275 pound junior Dan Slania.
The big man saved Notre Dame's first two games of the Tulane series despite not having his best stuff in the process. Slania got the last five outs in last Friday's 2-1 victory and then fired the final inning in Saturday's 3-1 win.
"It's huge," Slania said afterward. "Especially for us to come back after the week last week where we had two wins and then a tough loss on Sunday (to Mercer) to come back and win like this. It's big for us."
Slania is part of a bullpen that has allowed just three earned runs in 24.0 innings this season (a 1.12 ERA). Two of those runs came in last Sunday's 8-3 series finale after freshman starter David Hearne exited after just 2.2 innings.
Freshman Nick McCarty has been nearly lights-out himself to begin his career. The Westfield, Ind native is 2-0 and is yet to allow a run through 10.0 innings through three appearances.
"Really pitching's pitching," McCarty said after 4.0 shutout innings to end last weekend's series. "I hit my spots. I throw my curveball hard. It really shouldn't matter what team you're facing. I just do what (pitching coach Chuck) Ristano tells me to do and throw strikes and they'll get themselves out."
McCarty allowed just a single and a walk in those four frames against Tulane, but it was not even his most impressive outing to date. His 5.0 shutout innings in Notre Dame's 6-5 extra inning win over Florida Gulf Coast gets that distinction.
The starting rotation has been good as well, but it will be even more tested with four games this weekend and a spring break trip to California on the horizon. Friday starter Sean Fitzgerald (1-0) has faced both FGCU and Tulane in consecutive weeks. He retired 15 consecutive Tulane batters after a leadoff infield single last weekend.
Saturday starter Adam Norton (2-0) is a throwback. The bearded senior throws a mid to upper 80s fastball, but he mixes in an assortment of pitches that includes a change-up and curveball that does enough to keep opposing batters off balance. Tulane had the tying run in scoring position five times against Norton in last week's 3-1 win, but he pitched out of trouble every time.
The most encouraging thing for the Irish is they will face their entire touch non-conference slate, which still includes games against UCLA (2010 and 2011 CWS) and Oklahoma (2010 CWS) without, arguably, their best starter - Pat Connaughton.
The two-sport standout will not join the Irish until the basketball team's season concludes. Connaughton is the basketball team's third-leading scorer at 8.5 points a game and has hit more three-pointers (40) than any other Irish player this season. He also brings a lethal three-pitch repertoire to the mound.
"When he's on his game it's three plus pitches that he's got," Aoki said of Connaughton. "But I think more than anything else he has that sort of 'it' factor - that quiet confidence that 'maybe I did just walk the bases loaded, but I'm gonna go get two punch outs and a ground ball and I'm gonna get out of this thing'."
Connaughton was 4-4 with a 3.18 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 45.1 innings as a freshman last year. Aoki expects him to go to the front of the starting rotation once he rejoins the team after basketball, which will make for an even deeper starting rotation after the rest of the starters have faced that tough non-league competition.
Aoki saw the first turnover in his coaching staff this year after his first two seasons on campus saw the same faces. Joe Hastings left to join the staff at Big South power Coastal Carolina, which led to Ristano's promotion from volunteer assistant to full-time pitching coach. It also brought a familiar face back into the Irish fold.
Former Irish infielder Eddie Smith was a walk-on with the Irish in 2005 and 2006 after spending his first two seasons at a Washington junior college. Those '05 and '06 teams he was a part of are the last Notre Dame teams to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, making Regional trips to Florida and Kentucky.
Smith began his coaching career by spending five years as the volunteer assistant on former Notre Dame assistant Brian O'Connor's staff at Virginia. He was the Cavalier's first base coach for their 2009 and 2011 College World Series squads.
"Eddie has participated in five NCAA Tournaments, including a pair of trips to Omaha," Aoki said of Smith shortly after his hire. "Our players will make immediate and drastic improvements under his tutelage."
Smith worked as a full-time assistant at Santa Clara in 2012 before coming back to his alma mater during the off season.
The Fighting Irish will have more chances to make national statements this weekend when they and USA Baseball host the Irish Classic at the USA Baseball complex in Cary, NC. Notre Dame will face UMass, Tennessee, No. 31 Virginia Tech, and Rhode Island.