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Notre Dame Baseball

Shawn Stiffler Notebook | Notre Dame Season Preview

February 13, 2024

Notre Dame baseball coach Shawn Stiffler spoke ahead of this weekend's opening series at Rice. 

On opening the season:
”It's here. Game week. We deserve to go play somebody else. I'm very, very excited about this group and where the guys are right now, physically and really mentally. They're a very connected group, which I'm really, really excited about.  They're just they're passionate to go play and we're ready to go play.

“Biggest thing that's really the difference right now has been the weather.  We've had opportunities to be outside and get reps and get intersquads in, get live reads - no excuses from that standpoint. This has been a really, really special early spring for us to prepare ourselves.

“The guys have responded by bringing it every day and working extremely hard. They're ready to kick it off. I'm really ready to kick it off. I think we all feel way more comfortable with each other than we did a year ago.  It's time for some Irish baseball and we're ready to go play.” 

On how the program is more his program in year two:
”I just think we all feel a little bit more comfortable in our skin. The players know what to expect on a daily basis from me. I know I have a better idea of how their day flows, how their weeks flow, and really how the semesters flow. I can anticipate some obstacles that may be coming their way ahead of time and they can anticipate probably days when they know I want to get after it a little bit harder or what their week's going to look like as they prepare.

“I just think it’s that. The way we're communicating and the verbiage that we're using is being picked up much quicker. Even the staff was new to each other, so we know kind of how each other like to work from a workflow standpoint in the office and out of the office.

“I just think we're all echoing the same message all the time now. I think that just leads to some more consistency.” 

On strengths and concerns entering opening day: 
”I think the first thing that I see as our strength is the pitching staff is just a year older. A lot of those guys are a year older - just more mature. I'm seeing more maturity out of the pitching staff and I think we've raised our floor quite a bit throughout the entire roster, but especially on the pitching staff side. I really feel like we've raised our floor and guys are starting to reach some more high-end potential, which I'm really, really excited about. I think there's moving into about 12 guys that I really, really trust from that standpoint. 

“Now, we have to see somebody else in a different uniform. I just felt like last year,  from a pitching staff standpoint, it was almost like the movie Groundhog Day sometimes, or I guess it was more like 50 First Dates sometimes. I didn't know what we were getting day-to-day. Some days it was really, really special, and then the next day it was like, ‘Does anyone remember what happened yesterday?’

“We couldn't really build necessarily. I feel like I'm seeing that now, where guys understand their roles and they understand what we expect out of them and there's more momentum. I see the momentum in our practices, too. That's something that's been really cool to see.

“From there, I think we're going to play strong defense up the middle of the field again.  You have Estevan Moreno returning at second base. He's going to move and probably play a couple positions this year. But, Jack Penney, he's moving to shortstop, but I think people are going to see that that's going to be a pretty easy transition for him - at least from what I've seen in practice.

“I consider T. J. Williams maybe the best defensive centerfielder in college baseball; I really do. I think he's that special defensively.

“From a question mark standpoint, probably the elephant in the room is the catching position. Right now I would tell you that it's, I'm confident in the three to four players that are bidding for that role. It's probably down to three main players right now, but no one has really emerged to come up and say, ‘This is my position.’ That's going to probably have to get played out through the season. We just don't have anybody that's really coming back in that position that has played a significant role in college baseball there, and so it's going to be new whoever that person is. I have faith in all of them. They all bring different attributes to the position.  They're all extremely capable, but that that job hasn't been resolved yet.” 

On potential weekend starting rotation against Rice:
”I wouldn't say we've settled on all of them. I think we're down to four or five guys that we feel confident could start and we're just trying to communicate with them and feel where they're at like kind of where they're at with recovery this week.

“I think the big mainstay for us would be Jackson Dennies. He's going to go on Saturday for us. We've kind of prepped him through the year to do that. I think that you could look at someone like Caden Spivey, who played a pivotal role for us last year and he has taken another step, so I look at him to breach that rotation.

“Matt Bedford has done an unbelievable job since coming back and I think we've all expected at some point for him to kind of emerge and it looks like he's preparing himself to do that. Transfer Will Jacobson, who came here from Harvard, has done nothing but been spectacular since he's walked on campus. I think he could definitely play a role in that rotation.

“I don't want to say outside looking in, but right there as well is David Lally Jr. Him and Spivey are kind of those two sophomores that were freshmen last year that we tried to get innings to. With David last year, we tried to protect a lot of his innings and help him grow and I think he's done that. I think he's ready to explode on the scene as well.

“So, those five guys are going to play very pivotal roles. I think you're gonna see three of those three of those five in that rotation this weekend.” 

On the messaging to the team:
”I just think we talk about getting consistently better every day - just one percent. One thing we talk about a lot here is to expect that hard is coming. I'm a huge believer in addressing that you're going to go for 0-for-10 at some point and you're going to give up five runs in the first inning of a start. We just talk about that and how we can handle that and how we can adapt to that.

“The message has always been just way more on showing up and putting your emphasis in how you prepare, how you practice, how you take your BP and handling those ups and downs day-to-day so that we can stay in the moment and the practice continues to flow.

“I think that's just been in year two of consistently saying that, right? We just gotta get better today. Just be a little bit better today. Each of you gotta get a little bit better today. Now, we're looking up a year later and you look at those mantras of Caden Spivey and now he's significantly better in a year. I'm hoping, especially for our young players, he didn't start out like this, he got a little bit better, a little bit better, a little bit better.

“I'm seeing that in our positional players. Guys that are emerging, whether it's Estevan, whether it's Jack Penney whether it's a guy like Connor Hinicks, who's now been in the program with us for two years. Just the difference in where they are physically and how they go about their work. We're just going to consistently preach about getting better each day and hopefully, that puts us in a good position at the end of the year.” 

On if he talks about goals for this team:
”No, I don't really talk about goals as far as, ‘Hey, we got to be at Omaha.’ I talk more about metrics. There's certain things that you have to do. We have a big meeting tonight. There's certain things that in this league, teams that move into the postseason, here's what they look like and here's what those numbers look like. And teams have moved beyond that, here's what those numbers look like.

“So I think we talk about what those numbers look like. Yeah, you want to win the regular season in the ACC, or you want to win 40 games, but there's a lot of paths to the NCAA regionals and to Omaha, and it's about playing your best baseball at that point.

“I just really feel like if we can just concentrate on understanding clearly what the metrics of a really good baseball team look like so that you can sit there and measure yourself.  Then from there, if we can concentrate on being better every day.”

On transfer portal additions:
”I'll start on the positional player side. Tito Flores, David Glancy and Josh Hahn, all of which I think are going to play huge factors on opening day for us. Simon Baumgardt, as well. All four of those guys are going to play huge factors for us this season. I really feel like we hit a home run on all of our transfers. I really feel like those four, we really hit home runs in what we were looking for.

“This is a program based on development. We were not renting players. We wanted guys who felt like they still had another step to take in their development and wanted to come here to push themselves to do that.

“All these guys felt that way. They made that decision because of that. I knew they were great people coming in. I thought they were going to be great people. But when you lose some of the leadership that we lost like Zack Prajzner, Brooks Coetzee, Carter Putz,  that's not easy to fill and those guys have come in and I feel like, I don't want to say replace them, you can never replace those guys, but they've jumped into those roles right away.

“Glancy and Flores, Hahn and Simon are huge leaders. They are grinder guys in the cage and here's guys in their fifth and sixth year of college baseball and they are in the cages first every day. So those guys have been a real inspiration for me and I think that's  gone down through our team and allowed our other leaders who are here, whether it's TJ Williams, Jack Penney, they've let those guys, they've been another wing of support for those guys, so those guys don't have to shoulder every bit of leadership. They've been able to share it. I can't say enough about those guys, their skill set on the field, but their leadership off (the field). 

“Flip the baseball around to the pitching side.  Will Jacobson, Bennett Flynn, Nate Hartman. They bring joy and they are characters every day. They are a funny, funny group, but they're blue-collar guys who just love getting out. They bring no ego. They're looking to get better and they've been fantastic since they walked on campus.

“I am thrilled with our transfers. Are there bigger names out there? I'm sure. I didn't see our name in winning the transfer portal contest that everybody releases on social media, but in my mind, we did exactly what we needed to do in the portal. They're fabulous people.” 

On the emergence of Connor Hincks allowing Estevan Moreno to move around in the infield: 
”He just brings a lot of versatility to us. He is the example of showing up every day and just doing the plan that the coaching staff put in. He just does it religiously every day and it's paying off for him, so  his ability to come in and play some second base for us allows us to maybe move Moreno to the left side a little bit and move some players around.

“He also can play some first base for us late in the game if there's a matchup there with a tough lefty or something like that that we need to pinch hit, he can go into the game there. The DH role is obviously wide open for him as well. He just adds a ton of versatility to us. I'm excited about him and really, really proud of him.” 

On his first interactions with SS Jack Penney last year:
”It starts with how intense he is about getting better, his work every day and how serious he takes his craft. I think you also see that from him in the classroom as well. So just a guy who shows up, you have to be really, really ready yourself when Jack Penney walks into the room because you know that he's ready. I love players like that because you're getting from them the same juice that you hope you're giving them. From day one, just his approach to wanting to get better.

“Then you see him work and you see his athletic ability. Probably the best hands and feet I've ever coached. The game is played at a slower pace for Jack than it is for the rest of the world. Just watching his feet and his hands work, sometimes I'm just in amazement at how he can read hops and go get the baseball.

“That translates to obviously his offensive ability and now I get a chance to see him in year two. He’s taking on a new role, switching positions, being the guy right now where he's kind of emerged and that leadership has come in. I just am so proud of him in those roles. He can go hit .350 this year and I'll be more proud of him for what I've seen so far this year - just such a blue-collar mentality that he brings every day. 

“I think Zack Prajzner is an unbelievable shortstop. I think as good of one in college baseball, I think people are going to see right here that we probably haven't missed a beat with Jack and I'm excited for him to really come on the scene.”

On the value of having a guy like Jack Penney for the rest of the team:
”Oh, you can't, you can't replace that, right? I think he and the rest of these transfers lead in that mentality.  It just allows these young guys to look up and say, ’OK, I have to go at this pace or I'm going to be left behind.’

“It's just invaluable, his work ethic and what he does and his even keel. Jack has the ability to slow his heartbeat down. He has the ability to get into the dugout and take some deep breaths. He really does a good job with his mental awareness and his mental approach. You see other guys say, ‘OK, this stuff I'm reading about hearing about this stuff works - staying in the moment, controlling your breaths.’ 

"I just think that like to have a guy like that that you can turn to and emulateis huge. He keeps a real calming presence and I appreciate that about him.” 

On the outfield:
”I thought last year our outfield defense was maybe the weakest part of our defensive team. I feel like it might be our strength and our outfield depth might be our strength this year.

“I told you about how I think about TJ Williams and his ability to play center field, but then you flip over to Tito Flores, who's taking most of the reps in right field for us. He's transferring in from Michigan. He's an A-plus defender and he's going to hit in the middle of our lineup somewhere. He's kind of a do-it-all offensively. If you told me to hit him lead off tomorrow, I probably could. If you told me to hit him four or five hole, I probably could. He can handle the bat. He can take walks and he's hit for power since he's been here as well. Excited about him.

“You flip over to the other side and there's really three players that we need to talk about. David Glancy transferred from St. John's. David has been nothing short of spectacular since he's been here. A lot of exit velocity off the bat. I mean it's a loud bat. He hit two home runs the other day in intersquad, but also has the ability to get on base and steal a base within two pitches.  Just a very dynamic player who has experience at St. John's, but also in the Cape for a couple years as well.

“We're not talking enough about DM Jefferson. I am not talking enough about him and I'm certain that people don't know enough about him, but DM has emerged into that skill set that I think we've all seen him have and he's starting to show up every day now. He's had a couple intersquads where he's hit a pitch over the net and then on the next day be drag bunting and run  3.7 down the line. When you can lengthen and shorten the field like that it's pretty hard to defend. He has gotten better defensively. He has worked hard at his base running. He's another steal threat, so he's right there in that DH, left field, even center field talk as well.

“Brady Gumpf is another guy who played some for us last year and showed his ability to slug and that has continued. He's on the barrel much more consistently this year than he was a year ago. He can defend. Just gives us more options off the bench and I don't even want to say off the bench because If you told me to just start them tomorrow, I'd be like, yeah, I feel totally confident in that. So those five guys have made it really tough on me to figure out how I'm going to rotate them.” 

On the corners: 
”Josh Hahn will start for us at first base. Transferred in from UCLA. I expect him to hit somewhere in the middle of that lineup, three, four, five. Drives in runs and has mature approach at the plate. He’s a mature player coming from a program that has a pedigree of history of winning at UCLA. He takes a real mature approach to it.

“Simon Baumgardt is over at third base and he will move over to second a little bit as well. He'll play some DH. But double-digit home runs last year for Tulane. Probably our highest-ranked transfer if you read the rankings. Simon has middle of the lineup power potential, and he gives us more of a threat and another mature player.” 

On impressions of freshmen pitchers Jack Radel and Hagan Ward:
”I'll start with Jack Radel because from the moment he's walked on campus he has just absolutely been spectacular, in my opinion. Mature, easy to coach, ridiculously athletic and gifted. The qualities of the fastball are top of the charts.

“He's going to pitch in the mid-90s and he is developing a slider. It's something that he's worked hard on, but it's now, in my opinion, at times a plus pitch. Shows command and has a really, really slow heartbeat in what he's doing.

“Hagan Ward just keeps getting better every moment. What a presence. He's 6-foot-9 and so when he walks on the mound, everyone pays attention. But it's just the development between him and Coach (Seth) Voltz of the off-speed pitches and how that's playing. He understands his metrics now and his analytics. He's going to travel the first weekend and he's going to really help and anchor our bullpen.” 

On the health of LHP Jack Findlay:
”Jack Findlay is still in his throwing progressions and rehabbing and that is going terrific. He looks great. He has a great mindset to him. I think one of the benefits sometimes of going through a rehabilitation like this is the other parts of your body that you get to concentrate on and work on.

“He's done a great job adding strength in the right places, adding mobility in the right places. I'm so proud of how he's handled it. Jack will be ready when Jack's ready. He's under the care of our doctors right now and we're hoping to have him back towards the back end of the season.

“All that will be based on when Jack is ready and we're certainly not going to rush that. Jack has a bright future. I hope it's sooner than later, obviously, but again, on the flip side of that is we got to take care of Jack. He's doing everything he can to get back as soon as possible.

“He and the doctors will evaluate that and I can assure you when he is ready to pitch, I'll be standing here with open arms for him.” 

On Findlay potentially returning at the end of April or the end of May: 
”I think of both of those, but I think that's just going to be determined by the doctors. Having gone through these surgeries, I just think they affect everybody differently, right? I've seen guys come back in 10 months. I've seen guys come back in two years and then Jack's case for me, just from a timing standpoint, this being his draft year, I just think we have to continue to evaluate where he's at not necessarily what the throw program says he's at, right?

“We have to evaluate how he feels and where he's at. I haven't really put a timeframe on that back end nor have the doctors. We're going to ride out that throwing program and when we feel like he's at a place that benefits both him and Notre Dame, then I think he’ll get re-evaluated from there.” 

On excitement level for opening day:
”I am as excited for this opening day as I've ever been. I cannot wait to go compete with this team. I was telling my wife yesterday, I would give anything to pitch for this team and play for them.

“These guys bring such joy and excitement every day. You can't not help but have juice when you're around these guys. Just talking now, the hair in the back of my neck is standing up.

“Different seasons affect you differently, but in this one right now, I have nothing but tremendous joy and hope to get this season kicked off for these guys because they deserve to go play somebody else for sure.” 

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