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May 22, 2012
Notre Dame baseball coach Mik Aoki was thinking about the big picture when he named a rotation for the Big East tournament.
Rather than go with No. 1 pitcher Will Hudgins or No. 2 pitcher Adam Norton in the opener, Aoki has tabbed freshman righthander Pat Connaughton to begin the Big East tournament against St. John’s (33-21) at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla., Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET.
“That puts Hudge in game No. 2, which, I think you can make the argument, is the most important game of the year,” said Aoki Monday from Clearwater.
“It’s either staving off elimination or getting us into the championship of our pool where somebody would have to beat us twice. I would like our chances with Norty being No. 3.”
Connaughton is not your typical No. 3 pitcher. The 6-foot-5, 205-pounder has just a 4-3 record. But he sports an impressive 1.86 earned run average in 10 games (eight starts) for the Irish. Connaughton has struck out 36 hitters in 38 2/3 innings.
“If you look at Pat’s body of work, it’s pretty good,” Aoki said. “The won-lost record could be a heckuva lot better. But even in conference, he’s been pretty darn good and I thought he did a pretty good job of matching up against St. John’s last time.”
Connaughton was tagged with the loss against St. John’s on April 29, completing a three-game sweep of the Irish at Frank Eck Stadium. But Connaughton allowed just two earned runs in 5 2/3 innings against the Red Storm, which claimed a 3-1 victory following a pair of 6-4 wins in an April 27 doubleheader.
“Throughout that whole series at home, one more timely hit in each of those games and it very easily could have been us sweeping that series,” Aoki said. “So I think we’re in a place where the kids are looking forward to competing against a good team. It’s a really good test for us.”
St. John’s, the No. 2 seed, finished tied with Louisville in Big East play with an 18-9 mark. Notre Dame (29-24, 14-13), the No. 7 seed, never could get on a roll after sweeping Pittsburgh to open conference play. The Irish never won more than three conference games in a row.
One of the keys to victory will be stopping the Red Storm running game, which accounted for 83 stolen bases on 107 attempts during the 2012 regular season. Shortstop Matt Wessinger leads the way with 32 stolen bases in 34 attempts, followed by leftfielder Jeremy Baltz (16-of-20). Yet the Red Storm managed just two stolen bases in four attempts in the three-game series against Irish catcher Joe Hudson, who is considered one of the finest defensive backstops in the country.
Notre Dame will counter offensively with Hudson (.340, 6 HRs, 36 RBI), third baseman Eric Jagielo (.316, 11 HRs, 41 RBI) and first baseman Trey Mancini (.307, 12 HR, 44 RBI) while Baltz (.340, 7 HR, 48 RBI) and Wessinger (.338, 6 HR, 44 RBI) represent the bulk of the Red Storm’s power and run production.
St. John’s will match up against Connaughton with junior righthander Matt Carasiti (4-5, 3.97), who got a no-decision against the Irish in April.
“We’re going up against a quality arm and a quality team,” Aoki said. “It’s a team that swept us at home and they beat us twice last year. So they’ve run off five in a row against us, and maybe the odds are that we can squeak one in. It would be nice to get it on this one.
“I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times. If we play well, I like our chances. If we don’t, then we won’t win anyway because more often than not, when we don’t play well, we don’t win.”
The Irish will play the winner/loser of Game 1 - No. 3 Seton Hall vs. No. 6 Rutgers - Thursday in the double-elimination tournament.
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