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May 15, 2013

Irish eye late-season run

KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- It’s something to build on.

After collecting just nine hits in two games - 4-1 and 2-1 losses at St. John’s - the Irish (30-21, 9-12) scored seven runs in the top of the ninth to claim a 16-7 victory over the Red Storm, and tallied seven more runs in the fourth inning two days later at Western Michigan en route to a 13-10 victory.

The eight runs allowed in the bottom of the ninth to the Broncos after building an 11-run lead is another story.

“I think we played well today,” said Irish head coach Mik Aoki following Notre Dame’s 15-hit attack on the heels of an 18-hit barrage at St. John’s. “That last inning obviously got away from us a little bit. But I thought we played well and swung the bats well.”

It’s been a rocky journey since the Irish won 19 of their first 28 games by beating Tulane three times, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, USC, Oklahoma and Cal Poly twice to rank among the nation’s top five in RPI. Notre Dame has gone 11-12 in its last 23 games with a 3-9 mark against the top four teams in the Big East.

With an RPI that has dropped to No. 41, Notre Dame’s margin for error is slim as the Irish head to 10th-place Cincinnati for a three-game series, and then journey to Clearwater, Fla., for the Big East tournament where the Irish should be no worse than a No. 7 seed in the eight-team clash and possibly as high as No. 6. At the very least, the Irish will qualify in the No. 8 spot.

“Obviously all of the pundits have us out of the NCAA tournament at this point,” said Aoki after the Irish reached the 30-victory plateau for just the fourth time in the last seven seasons. “But that’s two in a row.”

As long as the Irish can ride the arms of its starting rotation and the bats of first baseman Trey Mancini and third baseman Eric Jagielo, they’ve got a fighting chance. The starting rotation of Adam Norton, Pat Connaughton and Sean Fitzgerald are a combined 16-8 with a 2.91 earned run average, led by Norton’s 9-3 record and 2.00 ERA, and Connaughton’s 2.29 ERA.

Meanwhile, Mancini remains in another stratosphere. With his three hits and three RBI Tuesday - including his sixth home run of the season - the junior from Winter Haven, Fla., has a 19-game hitting streak. He’s hitting an off-the-chart .551 (43-for-78) in the last 18 games. Mancini has had multi-hit games in 13 of the last 14 and has raised his season average to .399.

Mancini now has 51 RBI to go along with Jagielo’s eight home runs, 44 RBI and .385 batting average.

“The first half of the season, he was sort of pressing and trying to do a little bit too much with the bat,” said Aoki of Mancini. “He gets in trouble when he starts thinking he needs to hit a ball over the fence to produce for us. For a kid who is as talented as that, he can fall into that trap.

“He had almost become the forgotten guy because he was hurt last summer and Eric had gotten all that attention and had gotten off to a really hot start. But you almost come to expect it from Trey because he’s that good, he’s really that good. Honestly, I hope the pro scouts don’t see it. His pitch recognition, when his mind is right, (prompts) everybody to operate at a whole different level.”

Now it’s up to someone other than Mancini and Jagielo to help carry the Irish into the post-season.

“Just play defense and do the little things,” said senior second baseman and captain Frank DeSico following a three-hit performance Tuesday. “We’re not a team that can just throw our gloves out there. We have to go out and play hard-nosed baseball because that’s the way the game needs to be played.”

Sometimes, that requires playing small ball, which the Irish did to perfection in the fourth inning Tuesday when four bunts - all of which resulted in base runners and Western Michigan’s failure to record an out - led to a seven-run outburst.

“We have to get back to playing small ball,” DeSico said. “We got away from that towards the middle of the season. Expectations got a little bit higher and I think we put too much pressure on ourselves and got away from who we are.”

The Irish aren’t a team that’s going to pound out 15 or18 hits in a game very often. Mancini, Jagielo and sophomore Ryan Bull (.335, 36 RBI) are the only Irish regulars hitting above .300 on a team that’s hitting .276. But they could be getting hot at the right time.

“Hitting is such a fickle thing,” Aoki said. “It kind of comes and goes. The key for us is you look to Mancini and Jagielo and you’re going to get some sort of production out of them. Bull, too, to a lesser extent.

“You look at six other spots in the lineup and we need three of them to be giving us some output and production. When we have that, we’re good. When we don’t have that, it’s like the first two games against St. John’s. Hopefully, we pitch it and defend it, which we’ve done pretty well all year long.”

Aoki is encouraging his squad to embrace the opportunity that lies ahead.

“I want to emphasize really being competitive every day,” Aoki said. “I didn’t think we were very competitive in game one against St. John’s. One thing went against us and the fight sort of left the dog. I just want to see us compete at a higher level and at a more sustained level from the first pitch to the last.”

Aoki remains confident his team can make the run necessary to get them back into the NCAA tournament talk.

“If we can sweep Cincinnati on the road and go undefeated in the tournament into the championship game, that puts us at eight in a row and eight of our last 10,” Aoki said.

“That would put us back into the conversation, and if we win the tournament, we don’t have to worry about getting into the thing.”

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