So here we are. The end of the grind of a long college baseball season. What started in February under feet upon feet of snow will come to a halt when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, under the direction of former BC head coach Mik Aoki, come to Chestnut Hill to take on Mike Gambino's Eagles.
Perhaps it's fitting that the playoff race is still very much alive for these two rivals. Two old Big East foes under the direction of coaches who know each other well. Both Gambino and Aoki started as assistants under Pete Hughes. When Hughes left for Virginia Tech, Aoki took over the program, and Gambino went with him. When Aoki left for Notre Dame, Gambino returned, the former player taking over his alma mater.
The fortunes of the coaches are very different. Aoki's led a renaissance of Notre Dame baseball this year, a 30-plus win team earmarked for the NCAA Tournament and potentially a top four slot in the conference ACC bracket. Boston College is fighting for their playoff lives, the victims of a self-imposed rough couple of weekends, having only an outside shot at making it to a level they haven't made since Gambino took over for Aoki.
Under that premise, Gambino has never been able to get out from under the shadow of his predecessor, and he's been, for lack of a better term, under fire. Even as the season winds down, the lack of a postseason berth is something very hard for the BC faithful to swallow, especially as Aoki, the man who led BC to the national spotlight, shines in South Bend.
But I don't buy it. Gambino's struggled over the past few years, but he has a very different style from Aoki. It requires a very different type of player. BC's showed improvements over the past two seasons, and this year, they were on the bubble of the national tournament before the ceiling fell in. There will be time for that analysis, but there's no doubting they're closer and closer to relevance.
As a result, this weekend isn't about a coach taking on a guy he knows well, the guy he desperately wants to beat. This is the renewal of a great rivalry, with underlying postseason implications, between guys who know each other's tendencies. It will be a solid chess match, a great weekend of baseball. And, if nothing else, it will serve as a testament to Pete Frates, especially given how Aoki lent Notre Dame's support as much as possible.
So here we are. The final weekend of the season. It's potentially the last time we'll see some of BC's best, guys like Chris Shaw. So sit back and enjoy the ride, and, with a little bit of baseball blessing from the gods above, the Eagles will find themselves playing in Durham.
Record: 33-18 (15-12 ACC)
Last Time Out: Swept North Carolina (10-5, 3-1, 8-7)
Around The Horn
Let's get one thing straight: the Irish are not a good hitting team. They have only one—count 'em, one—.300 hitter: Robert Youngdahl.
That said, this is a team that does a very good job at getting production from its entire lineup. Despite hitting .248 as a roster, nearly every Irish hitter has driven in at least 20 runs. Youngdahl is the most obvious threat, leading the way with 34 RBI, followed by Ryan Lidge's 32 RBI. After that, everyone falls between 22-28 among every day players.
Some other names for you: Lidge is hitting .285, second best on the team and just a hair above Kyle Fiala's .278. Cavan Biggio is hitting .269, but he's the resident masher, leading the team in homers with eight.
Zak Kutsulis, Lane Richards, and Ryan Bull are all better than average to good on any given game.
That's going to pose an issue for the Eagles. BC's pitching hasn't been poor as of late; one could argue they lost those games in a row because the hitting finally went on power outage. By and large, they haven't been rocked by anybody. But they're facing a team that wins games despite not being overpowering, the polar opposite of Wake Forest, who relied exclusively on the hitting to beat everyone (also why they're out of the playoffs).
So what are we looking at? Well, we're going to need to expect BC's pitching to not make a mistake because the mistakes are where Notre Dame excels. Just being good might not be good enough to win games, especially when you can't rely on your offense to be able to do a whole heck of a lot against a very good ND pitching staff.
If there's one thing BC is going to need to be wary of, it'll be the battle of wits on the base paths. Mik Aoki is known for small ball and a love of the sacrifice bunt. His team has 32 sacrifice hits on the year, half of which are sac flies. Despite hitting under .250, Notre Dame's scored 268 runs while allowing just 185.
On The Bump
If BC wants to win, they'll need to follow a simple formula at the dish and make the most of their opportunities. The Irish have a team ERA of 3.03, nearly a full run and a half better than their opponents. They have a solid starting pitching rotation bolstered by a lights-out bullpen that has ungodly stuff when called upon.
Brandon Bielak established himself as the resident workhorse early, hitting 75 innings this year through 13 starts. His 4-2 record and 3.50 ERA isn't indicative of the yeoman's effort he's going to constantly give, and he's able to eat innings despite walking 31 batters. He's struck out 50.
Nick McCarty is 6-3 on the year, having started 11 of his 13 appearances. He's thrown 65 innings, making him a very good asset. Behind him is a number of guys who have under ten starts apiece but are extremely capable. I mean, when you're 7-0 and have a 2.30 ERA, including a complete game, a shutout, and a save, it's pretty easy to call you an asset, right, Ryan Smoyer?
Like I mentioned, though, the bullpen is elite from top to bottom. Notre Dame has a couple of guys with poor stats, especially Evy Ruibal, who has a 5.08 ERA and an 0-3 record with 18 appearances. But they counter that with Brad Bass's 3-0 record, 1.33 ERA/in 16 appearances.
Sean Guenther is the first option for us to look for out of the pen, with 24 appearances and a 2.66 ERA to go along with a 1-2 record.
Again, Notre Dame has very good pitching. I think that proves the point and shows just how tough it's going to be on the Eagles this weekend.
There is a side note that I'm going to throw in there for this weekend: this may be the last audition for Chris Shaw before the Major League Baseball Draft. For the second time in two years, BC is going into the draft with the possibility of losing its top chip at the poker table. After being selected out of high school, Shaw is draft-eligible this year upon completion of his junior year. Raw power is something scouts drool over, and he's been rumored anywhere from within the tenth round all the way up into the first.
Having dealt with his injuries this year, Shaw has something to prove this weekend in terms of shaking off the rust. For us, it could be the last chance to see a treasured hitter on the diamond. For him, he has to go all out. That's usually a good combination waiting to happen.
I alluded to it earlier today in the ACC playoff preview, but we're worried about only two teams this weekend: Virginia and Wake Forest. Virginia needs to be swept, and Wake Forest needs to lose two out of three games. If that happens, and BC is able by some act of God to sweep Notre Dame, the Eagles are going to the ACC Tournament.
Normally, I'd call that a crapshoot and say it's not going to happen, but Wake Forest just looked awful against NC State. This is a rivalry weekend for BC, plus it's Senior Day. I don't know. We'll see.
Music To Listen To As You're Praying For All Of That Stuff I Just Talked About To Happen
Vince Gil - Give Me One More Last Chance. I think this one speaks for itself. All we're asking out of the baseball gods is one more last chance. I'm sorry, but BC has played well enough to deserve a shot at the ACC Tournament.
In my opinion, this has been the most entertaining and deserving season of baseball at Boston College in years. I'm not ready for it all to end quite so soon.
Fun Fact Of The Week
Notre Dame has been better away from Frank Eck Stadium than they were at home. The Fighting Irish played 25 games (to be 28 upon completion of this weekend) on the road; as of Thursday, they're 18-7, a winning percentage of .720. At home, they're only 15-11, or .576. They went 7-1 on neutral ground this year.
I get that baseball is not remotely close to the top sport at Boston College. It's a non-revenue sport, and attendance is miniscule compared to the "baseball factories." I'm not blind to the fact that New England college baseball is barely a blip when compared to Miami, Texas, and California.
This year, more than ever, that was put to the test, especially with the rescheduling of games and relocation of home series. Playing a home series in Delaware might be a completely new one for me, and the New England Baseball Complex is the greatest place this side of the diamond carved out of the cornfields in Iowa ("Is this heaven? No. It's Northborough").
This team rallied through some really galvanizing moments, and they should be proud of it. For one year, the calls for Mike Gambino to be axed as baseball coach are either misled or misinformed. The team improved, and they knocked on the door all year long. Unfortunately, it's one thing to knock and it's another thing to break the damn thing in.
Regardless of results this weekend, the Eagles are not going to go to Durham. I would love to be wrong, but it's just too tall an order, and the season is running out of steam. Notre Dame takes two of three, and the Eagles finish out of the running.