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February 26, 2013

Irish take fast start in stride

When third-year Irish head coach Mik Aoki looks at his 2013 team, it reminds him of Notre Dame’s 2012 football team.

“Brian Kelly was on point when he kept saying that his team was a work in progress,” said Aoki after the Irish claimed 2-1, 3-1 and 8-3 victories over Tulane in New Orleans to raise their record to 5-1.

“I talked to our kids and said, ‘Let’s just keep getting better and paying attention to the journey instead of the results. Try to put what’s in front of you as the most important thing, and we’ll worry about the next pitch after this pitch is done.’ If we do that, we’re going to be fine.”

All is well in Notre Dame baseball land these days. The Irish have committed just six errors in six games, including just one during the three-game sweep of Tulane. Despite allowing seven walks in Sunday’s victory, the staff has surrendered just 16 bases on balls in 55 innings pitched. The team batting average is an encouraging .306. Base-running issues from the first weekend were assuaged in New Orleans. Execution and clutch performances were in abundance.

Notre Dame’s strong start earned the Irish a No. 22 ranking from Perfect Game and a No. 23 spot in the Baseball America poll. It’s the first top 25 ranking from Baseball America since May of 2006.

“I thought we did a really good job in our situational hitting,” said Aoki of the Tulane trip. “We executed bunts. We scored runs with runners on third and less than two outs. We got some clutch two-out RBIs. We got some timely hitting. We did a really good job of going up there, grinding it out, and having good at bats at important parts of the game.

“Our bullpen was pretty good, and our defense was good all weekend long. There’s a lot to be happy about coming away from last weekend.”

The Irish managed just four hits in the series opener against the Green Wave. But Eric Jagielo’s two-run, opposite field home run in the top of the sixth - his third of the season and 21st of his career - was all junior righthander Sean Fitzgerald (1-0) needed to claim his first victory of the season.

Fitzgerald faced the minimum number of batters through six innings and retired 15 in a row at one point. Freshman righthander Nick McCarty pitched a scoreless inning in relief of Fitzgerald and junior closer Dan Slania worked his way out of a ninth-inning jam to claim the save.

The following day, senior righthander Adam Norton (2-0) allowed one run over five innings while scattering seven hits, and Slania came on to notch his second save (and 20th of his career) with strong middle relief performances from junior Donnie Hissa, freshman Zak Kutsulis and sophomore Cristian Torres. Jagielo and switch-hitting sophomore Ryan Bull knocked in runs for the Irish.

Already assured of winning the series, the Irish completed the sweep on Sunday despite freshman righthander David Hearne’s struggle with his command. Although Hearne allowed just one hit in 2 2/3 innings, he surrendered four hits and walked three.

Enter McCarty (2-0), who tossed four scoreless innings and retired nine hitters in a row to raise his streak for the season to 10 innings of shutout ball. Thirty of his 39 pitches against the Green Wave were strikes.

The Irish benefited from a tactical move by Aoki with his batting order. He flip-flopped No. 2 hitter Charlie Markson and No. 5 hitter Ryan Bull. Bull had four hits, including a solo home run, while clean-up hitter Trey Mancini had three hits, and Jagielo, freshman Zak Kutsulis and sophomore Mac Hudgins each had two.

“I really felt like we could run on those two pitchers, especially with a guy like Charlie,” Aoki said. “But I find myself sitting there thinking, ‘I’m not going to run with Jags at the plate and take the bat out of the hands of one of the two best offensive players on our team.’

“So let’s put a guy that’s proven that he’s going to make pitchers get him out. (Bull is) not apt to go outside of the strike zone. He’ll take a walk. He’s pretty patient and mature in terms of his plate discipline. Charlie in the five-hole has done a very good job in the past hitting with runners in scoring position.

“Most teams are going to make the determination that they’re not going to allow Jags or Mancini beat them. I want to be able to use Charlie’s skill set, and part of his skill set is that he can run.”

It’s no coincidence that the Irish pitching staff is on point again. As the Irish battled for respectability during Aoki’s first two years at Notre Dame, hitting and fielding sometimes were an adventure. The one constant has been the pitching staff, led by coach Chuck Ristano.

“Chuck is as good a pitching coach as there is in the country,” Aoki said. “For my money, he’s the best in the country, and I think the numbers would support it. The one thing that we have done with any sort of consistency since we’ve been here is pitch.

“The first year we couldn’t hit our way out of a wet paper bag, but we pitched and that kind of kept us in some things. Last year, we were better offensively with an entirely new starting three and we pitched well. This year, so far, in spite of the seven walks Sunday, we seem to be able to pitch it again.

“The one commonality has been Chuck. (The players) respect the hell out of him, they love the hell out of him, and he gets them to work.”

Jagielo enters this weekend’s trip to Cary, N.C., for the Irish Baseball Classic hitting .500 (10-of-20) with three home runs and 12 RBI. Bull’s big game Sunday lifted his average to .458 (11-of-24). Mancini is next at .346 (9-of-26). Kutsulis, at .357 (5-of-14) may be securing a spot in the every-day lineup.

“We’re a talented team,” said Aoki, whose squad takes on Massachusetts and Tennessee on Friday, March 1, followed by Virginia Tech Saturday and Rhode Island Sunday. “We’re a good team. We just need to keep getting better and play on a really consistent level at or close to our potential, and our potential is really high.

“There’s a lot of confidence in what we’re doing. I know things have gone well for us at this point. But I don’t get any sense from the guys not playing much that they’re sulking about their role. Everybody is putting the team first, and I think that stems from (the veterans).

“Our very best players -- the ones with the most to gain in terms of draft or All-American -- are the ones putting the team above everything else. Guys in a developmental role can’t sit there and pout because our best players are putting the team first and working as hard or harder than everybody else.”


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