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February 20, 2013

Confident ND heads to Big Easy

Third-year Irish baseball coach Mik Aoki was confident heading into the season-opening weekend of the 2013 season that his team’s veteran nature would shine through against Florida Gulf Coast, Ohio State and Mercer at the Snowbird Baseball Classic in Sarasota, Fla.

With leadoff hitter Frank DeSico, No. 3 hitter Eric Jagielo and No. 5 hitter Ryan Bull combining for a .571 batting average, and Jagielo teaming with cleanup hitter Trey Mancini for three home runs and 13 RBI, Aoki got the production he was looking for as the Irish took two out of three to finish second in the tournament.

Notre Dame (2-1) defeated Florida Gulf Coast, 6-5, in 10 innings, and then hammered Ohio State, 13-3, in Saturday’s doubleheader opener. The Irish then fell 5-4 on Sunday to Mercer, which won the Snowbird Classic with victories over Ohio State, St. John’s and the Irish.

“I thought overall, we played well,” Aoki said. “Obviously, you’d like to take three, especially after having taken the first two. But that Mercer game could have gone either way. They probably put one more good swing on the ball than we did. Both of us had ample chances to score a bunch more runs. Give them credit. But overall, I thought we played really well.”

In addition to hitting at a .324 clip for the tournament, including 13 hits against Florida Gulf Coast and 16 against the Buckeyes, the Irish also received strong pitching performances from their freshman hurlers.

Senior Adam Norton (1-0) tossed seven strong innings against Ohio State, allowing three earned runs while scattering 10 hits and striking out four without a walk. Freshman righthander Nick McCarty picked up the victory in relief of first-game starter Sean Fitzgerald. Both went five innings with McCarty tossing shutout ball while allowing just four hits with four strikeouts and no walks.

Aoki then came back with another freshman righthander, David Hearne, in the championship game against the Bears. Although Hearne was pinned with the loss, he struck out eight in five innings of work while allowing just two walks (one intentional). The Irish also received an encouraging start to the career of freshman righthander Zak Kutsulis, who took the mound in the second and third games, tossing a shutout inning with two strikeouts in his first appearance.

“Nick McCarty and David Hearne threw the ball extremely well,” Aoki said. “Kutsulis threw the ball really well in the first outing. I thought Norty was excellent, and Fitz was really good one time through the lineup. (Sophomore righthander) Cristian Torres did a really good job. I’ve seen (closer Dan) Slania sharper, but he pitched well.

“Overall, I thought our whole staff did pretty well. We’ll see over the next three weeks who separates themselves coming out of that bullpen.”

For the weekend, the Irish allowed their three opponents to hit .259 while compiling a 3.86 earned run average. Particularly encouraging were the 26 strikeouts to just six walks in 28 innings pitched.

It was the clutch nature of the veterans that allowed the Irish to overcome 4-0 and 5-3 deficits against Florida Gulf Coast. DeSico’s walk-off single in the 10th - the first of his career - won it for the Irish. Following a one-out single by centerfielder Charlie Markson, Jagielo’s two-run blast to dead centerfield sent the game into extra innings. Mancini’s solo home run chipped away at the early four-run deficit.

“Charlie struggled a little bit, but certainly Frank had a really good weekend, as did Trey, Jags and Bully,” Aoki said.

Markson hit just .182, but did score four runs and drew four walks. Jagielo (.545, 6-of-11), Bull (.500, 6-of-12) and DeSico (4.67, 7-of-15) are off to smoking starts.

Aoki also was pleased with the debut of several freshmen in the every-day lineup. Shortstop Lane Richards hit .364 (4-of-11) while handling 10 chances without an error. Outfielder James Nevant drew the 10th inning walk against Florida Gulf Coast that resulted in the game-winning run. Freshman Kyle Richardson pinch ran for Nevant, and Richards sacrificed him to second before DeSico’s game-winner. Kutsulis, who will play outfield for the Irish in addition to his work on the mound, had a hit in three at bats.

Junior catcher Forrest Johnson, making his collegiate starting debut, was solid behind the plate for the most part, although he did commit an error and was charged with a passed ball.

“ Forrest Johnson acquitted himself really well,” Aoki said. “Zak Kutsulis did really well. We had some guys come off the bench like (sophomore) Phil Mosey (who homered against Ohio State) that did well.

“Lane Richards did great in his first collegiate action. He swung the bat well. He probably had three or four other balls that he hit right on the screws that ended up at the leftfielder. Lane is a really steady personality and a really steady player, and he played that way this weekend.”

Aoki said the bulk of his correctional work leading into the trip to New Orleans would be base-running oriented.

“I didn’t think that we ran the bases particularly well,” Aoki said. “I thought our reads were pretty poor. We were a little too aggressive when we should have been conservative and vice versa. When I compiled my list of things to work on, 80 percent of it was base-running things, and to be honest with you, that’s a difficult thing to replicate indoors.”

All in all, Aoki was pleased with the effort, performance and mindset of his squad during the opening weekend of action.

“A good example on our maturity was the Florida Gulf Coast game,” Aoki said. “Nobody panicked after we went down 4-0. We had opportunities to score a bunch more runs, and we didn’t. We clawed back into it, and then Jags gets the big home run to tie it.

“There was a quiet confidence in what we were doing and it paid off. Some of that comes from believing in themselves more than they did a year ago. They believe in the work they’ve put in over the last five or six months. If we can hold the line and not let one or two results affect how we play, we’re going to be in good shape.”

The challenge increases this weekend against Tulane, which won three out of four to start its 2013 campaign. The Green Wave pitching staff allowed just nine runs (six earned) in its first four games while compiling a 1.54 earned run average against Sam Houston State, Texas State, Missouri State and Southeastern Louisiana (although the Tulane offense is hitting just .219).

“These next three weeks are going to be as challenging a stretch as you can probably put together,” said Aoki, whose Irish head to Cary, N.C., to take on Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Rhode Island, and then southern California to play UCLA, USC, Oklahoma, UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly over spring break.

“Tulane went 2-1 and pitched the heck out of it in a pretty tough tournament. UCLA had some good results. Cal Poly has won four in a row. USC had some good results. Tennessee and Virginia Tech went undefeated over the weekend. URI went down and played Florida State pretty tough. So we’ve got our hands full the next three weeks.

“As I told the team, it wasn’t that the first weekend didn’t matter. But we were going to be the same team regardless whether we went 3-0 or 0-3. Had we gone 3-0, it’s not like that’s our ticket to Omaha, and if we had gone 0-3, the season wouldn’t be over. Now, it’s on to the next challenge.”

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