By Megan Golden

NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- With nearly one month of his team’s
baseball practice behind him, University of Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki
is excited to start the season and see where his 2018 Irish stack up against the rest of
the country.

An Irish team that lost five pitchers to the Major League Baseball Draft
will rely heavily on its experience in the field and at the plate. Notre
Dame returns outfielder and right-hander Matt Vierling,shortstop Cole Daily
and second baseman Nick Podkul,all of whom are juniors playing up the middle of the field. 
Junior outfielder Eric Gilgenbach also returns and likely will start in right field.

“The positional end of things is our strength,” Aoki said. “You’ve got guys
that have played a fair number of games and have had success both here at
Notre Dame and elsewhere in the summer. That core group is right up the

The trio of Vierling, Daily and Podkul batted .288 with 43 doubles, seven
triples and 12 home runs in 2017. In order to start a balanced lineup each
day, Aoki will need to address a few question marks at first and third base
and at catcher.

“Positionally, I think we have the chance to be a pretty good offensive
team, and I think a really good defensive team, too,” Aoki said.

Notre Dame graduate student and left-handed pitcher Scott Tully will get
the nod on Friday night in the season-opener at No. 9 LSU.

Tully concluded last season with a 2-0 record and a 3.71 ERA, and opponents
hit just .203 off the southpaw in five starts (six appearances). Tully, who
is the longest-tenured player on the roster, will be followed in the
rotation by freshman Tommy Sheehan on Saturday.

“He’s a guy who has seen a little bit of everything. I think he’s matured a
lot,” Aoki said. “He’s a really, really intelligent kid, and he’s a guy who
knows baseball. He’s got a good baseball mind, and I think when he presents
that stuff to players in the right way, there’s a lot of really good
information for kids to take from him. On the mound, he is as competitive
of a kid as you’re ever going to want to find.

“I hope he is able to share some things with the younger or less
experienced guys about adjustments that need to be made academically,
athletically and socially. The way in which he goes about his business on a
day-to-day basis in school or on the baseball field or in the weight room,
he’s always done on a pretty high level. I think our kids being able to see
that is really helpful.”

Aoki said he expects the sophomore class, specifically right-handed pitchers
Anthony Holubecki, Jack Sheehan, Cameron Junker and Andrew Belcik,
to make an impact on the mound as well.

“Going into the year, I hope that someone like Tommy Sheehan or Scott
Tully  or both are able to establish themselves as really, really reliable Friday and
Saturday starters,” Aoki said. “If they do, one of the strengths of this
year’s team is we have a lot of really capable and quality arms. I can
envision a situation where guys have 20 to 25 appearances with 20 to 25
innings, and it’s on us to piece the back half of the game together. I
think that might be something we can tap into.”

Given the influx of inexperience, Aoki said Irish pitching coach Chuck
Ristano once again will help him develop the pitching staff as they adjust to the
collegiate level and speed of play.

“Chuck does a phenomenal job, and his track record (at Notre Dame) speaks
for itself,” Aoki said. “Given the numbers that our guys have been able to
produce and the number of kids getting to go on to play professional
baseball -- certainly those are talented kids who were able to cultivate
their talent and develop here -- Chuck does a really good job with that.”

*Gridiron to Diamond*Irish dual-sport athlete and freshman Cole Kmet
will begin his career on the baseball diamond this spring, following a debut football
season during which he played in all 13 of Notre Dame’s contests.

Kmet, who checks in at 6-foot-5.5, 256 pounds, is expected to be a dominant
two-way player for the Irish baseball team down the road in his career. In
the immediate future, however, Aoki said he believes Kmet is best suited
for a role in the bullpen.

“He’s a really good kid, and he is definitely going to help us,” Aoki said.
“Early on, he’s going to help us on the mound; long term, my guess is it’s
going to be more at the plate and as a position guy.”

Aoki explained that Kmet was in football mode from last June through
January and has practiced with the baseball team for just one month. As a
result, Kmet has not had the opportunity to get at-bats against live
pitching and, therefore, he has not had the chance to adjust to the speed
and movement on pitches at the college level.

“He’s got a lot of power,” Aoki added. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist
to figure out that it’s a unique athletic package -- a really big kid who’s
a really good athlete. I think he’ll make those adjustments.”

*Coming Up Next*Notre Dame opens the 2018 season at 8 p.m. ET Friday
against No. 9 LSU. The entire three-game series will be streamed live on
SEC Network+.