Pat Connaughton just doesn't know how to sit still. Most Notre Dame fans know the sophomore as a three-point shooting guard on the Fighting Irish basketball team, but his skills go beyond the hardwoods. Connaughton is also in his second season as a fire-balling pitcher with the Notre Dame baseball team.
"We lose in the NCAA Tournament down there to Xavier and baseball's rolling," Irish basketball coach Mike Brey recalled recently of Connaughton's quick transition from the court to the diamond as a freshman. "I remember getting on the bus with him the day after the game and saying 'Now Pat, take some time and maybe even take a week and get some rest. I think it was two days or three days after that game he was on the mound."
Connaughton's multi-sport transition came even quicker this season. After the basketball team's 25-win season came to an end with an NCAA Tournament loss to Iowa State in Dayton, OH on March 22 he was with the baseball team working in a bullpen session the next day while the Irish were playing Seton Hall in downtown South Bend at Coveleski Stadium.
Connaughton made his first start of the season three days later when the Irish beat Kent State 8-1 at the U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, IN. He fired 2.0 no-hit innings against the 2012 College World Series team, but made a quick exit due to a pitch count.
"For all the work that we do there are times when he has five or six days off where he can't be doing any pitching stuff," Irish pitching coach Chuck Ristano began of Connaughton's nearly seamless transition between sports. "That's a long time for a kid who's got a long, deliberate delivery to keep that intact. But man, once he crosses the lines the kid just competes. No matter what he looks like in the bullpen you know you're going to get his best effort. It's just one of those attributes that you can't teach."
"The conditioning from basketball helps a ton," Connaughton said of going from basketball to baseball. "The stamina and everything that's involved in it - it's one thing that translates very well over to baseball. Running directly helps your arm. It helps the blood flow and with lactic acid and all the recovery stuff you need for your arm."
Connaughton's second start of the season came four days later, and it was not quite as easy as the first. He was charged with the loss after allowing two runs on three hits in 3.1 innings in a 10-5 loss to perennial Big East power Louisville. That start came at the back end of a three-game sweep of the Irish by the Cardinals.
Connaughton has since moved to the front of the weekend pitching rotation in conference play. Being known as a team's Friday starter in conference play is a place of high distinction in college baseball.
"It's an honor to be there, especially with the great pitchers we have on this team," Connaughton said. "I still have to prove myself, because I want to have the starts that a Friday guy should and really just be a guy this team can rely on."
When Connaughton joined the weekend starting rotation it bumped Sean Fitzgerald to the bullpen (he has since moved back into the rotation). Moves like that for a start player might easily ruffle some feathers, but that has not happened in the Irish clubhouse.
"I'm here to compete and win ball games for these guys," Connaughton said of his rapport with his baseball teammates. "You would think that a kid randomly strolling in after basketball season coming in and starting to pitch that you might get some dirty looks, but I've never gotten that here. They have my back one hundred percent and I want to have theirs with all the outings I throw."
"From a personality standpoint Pat is just a really easy kid to get along with," Irish baseball coach Mik Aoki said of Connaughton's ability to easily blend with his baseball teammates. "That first game he was with us was just like he hadn't missed anything since the last time he had been with us at the beginning of October."
Connaughton averaged 8.9 points while hitting nearly 38% of his 154 three-point attempts during the basketball season. He was also named the team's Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts at the other end of the floor.
Aoki and Ristano gladly take the tradeoff of sharing the sophomore with the basketball team, but the nearly five-month gap from fall baseball workouts in October to Connaughton rejoining baseball in March does take its toll on the mechanics of the 6-foot-5 pitcher.
"Pitching delivery, particularly for a big guy, is all about being able to repeat it," Ristano explained. "If you can't repeat your pitching delivery you might be able to throw strikes, but you just can't put the ball where you want to."
"The pitching delivery is just one of those things that's a constant process where the less you work on it the more potential there is for it to get out of whack and for a guy who is big and has long levers it's even more important that he's able to repeat it."
Connaughton currently sports a 3.32 ERA through five starts since rejoining the team, but he is still looking to fine tune his mechanics. The sophomore has 10 strikeouts with 14 walks through 19.0 innings on the mound.
"When you're not as sharp with your mechanics, using your lower body and using your front half that's when you put more stress on your arm," he said. "(Then) you try to just throw it more like I used to do back in high school."
"I grew up as a thrower - a kid that could throw hard," he continued. "Pitching was something I was always able to do just because of my ability to throw hard. I think as time has gone on I've become more of a pitcher instead of a thrower. That's something coach Ristano has been working on with me here, because at this level you've gotta learn how to pitch. If you're just using your arm you're not getting everything out of your body that you can."
Mechanics come and go, but Connaughton has something inside him that cannot be taught - competitive fire. It is the same thing former Irish coaches Charlie Weis and Paul Mainieri loved about current Chicago Cub pitcher Jeff Samardzija when he was working in his dual role with the ND football and baseball teams from 2003-2006.
"I don't know how a guy can legitimately take the basketball shorts off and put the baseball uniform on and be as good as he is," Ristano said of Connaughton. "I think it honestly all starts with just his willingness to compete relentlessly. He can roll out of bed and not have pitched for two months and if you put him on the mound at the very least you know he's gonna compete."
Ristano pointed to a performance at last year's Big East Tournament as a prime example of Connaughton's competitive nature. He was tagged for seven runs on six hits before leaving without getting an out in the first inning in a 12-2 loss to St. John's, but came back three days later and allowed just a run in 6.2 innings against the same team in an eventual 2-1 loss (St. John's would win the Big East Tournament and advanced as far as a Super Regional before falling to eventual national champion Arizona).
"He's got that 'it' factor," Aoki added. "That quiet confidence that 'Ok, maybe I did just walk the friggin' bases loaded, but I'm gonna go get two punch outs and a ground ball and I'm gonna get out of this thing'. His greatest asset is just his ability to make the big pitch."
Connaughton (1-2) earned his first win of the season in last Saturday's 9-6 decision over visiting Quinnipiac. He allowed two earned runs on seven hits in the decision before giving way to four Irish relievers. The win snapped a six-game losing streak for the Irish and helped spark a weekend sweep of the Bobcats. He will be on the mound this weekend when the Irish (23-16, 4-8 Big East) host a crucial conference series with Connecticut.
Irish Baseball Bits
- Fellow Irish starting pitcher Adam Norton (8-1) is tied for 6th in the nation in wins this season.
- Irish third baseman Eric Jagielo's .400 batting average ranks 23rd in the most recent NCAA national rankings. His .681 slugging percentage ranks 17th.
- Closer Dan Slania is tied for 24th in the national rankings with nine saves. He was named to the national Stopper of the Year watch list this week. Slania is 3-1 with a 0.29 ERA in 16 appearances and 31.0 innings this season.