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March 3, 2014

Ready or not, it's ACC time

Welcome to the Atlantic Coast Conference, Notre Dame.

Your first task? No. 6 North Carolina State (9-2), a College World Series participant in 2013 with the No. 1-rated pitcher on the board - lefthander Carlos Rodon - and another potential first-round draft choice in shortstop Trea Turner.

The Irish kick off spring break and their inaugural season in the ACC this weekend after three trips - to Boca Raton, Fla., San Antonio, and Cary, N.C. - resulted in a 5-6 record out of the gate.

"I think we've played well overall, outside of games two and three against (Florida International)," said fourth-year Irish head coach Mik Aoki. "The two games we lost in San Antonio against Santa Clara could have gone our way, and the two games we lost this past weekend against UCLA and Michigan could have gone the other way.

"Overall, we've played well. We've just got to figure out a way to seal the deal on some of these games."

The Irish lost two of three to Florida Atlantic, defeated Gonzaga and Incarnate Word while falling to Santa Clara twice in San Antonio, and then dropped close, low-scoring games to UCLA (2-1) and Michigan (4-2) before notching 6-3 and 4-3 victories over Youngstown State and Appalachian State to split the four-game trip to North Carolina.

The Irish are hitting .247 on the season with 33 hits and 34 strikeouts at the USA Baseball-Irish Classic in Cary. Notre Dame does not have a .300 hitter in the every-day lineup through 11 games and average one strikeout every four at-bats.

But the defense has tightened up - the Irish have turned 19 double plays in 11 games - and the starting pitching, led by senior Sean Fitzgerald and sophomore Nick McCarty, has been solid.

"Some of it is just trying to get some of the guys going," said Aoki of the slow start at the plate. "Outside of the FAU series, we've gotten three or four guys going at the same time, but not all the way through the lineup. Over the long haul, I don't have too many doubts that most of those guys will be better than we've been able to hit."

Sophomore Zak Kutsulis - whose 11th inning single Sunday gave the Irish a 4-3 victory over Appalachian State - is hitting .295 with six RBI while senior catcher/co-captain Forrest Johnson is hitting .296 with five RBI.

Sophomore shortstop Lane Richards entered last weekend hitting .190 before six hits in four games raised his season mark to .278 and extended his hitting streak to seven games. Designated hitter/first baseman Blaise Lezynski leads the team with seven RBI while sporting a .273 average and an eight-game hitting streak. Junior-college transfer Robert Youngdahl is tied for the team-lead in RBI with Lezynski.

Freshman second baseman Cavan Biggio, who started the season in the No. 2 hole, has moved to the third spot in the order. He's hitting .263 with a team-leading eight runs and 4-of-4 in the stolen base department.

"Cavan has been really good," Aoki said. "He struggled a little bit this weekend, which was true for most of our hitters. He continues to make improvement. He's hitting in the three-hole for a reason."

Notre Dame's 19 double plays are five more than any other ACC team so far this season.

"It's a weapon we need to be able to carry forward to a certain extent," Aoki said. "The fact we have all these double plays is a result of the kind of pitching staff we need to be in order to be successful. We're not the kind of staff that is going to punch out a lot of guys with true power stuff. The ball is going to be in play a lot. Hopefully we're putting it in play at people."

The up-the-middle tandem of Richards and Biggio bodes well for the present and future. Freshman third baseman Kyle Fialla, who had three hits in Notre Dame's 6-3 victory over Youngstown State, has helped stabilize the left side of the infield as well.

"He's played really well defensively," said Aoki of Fialla. "Two of those double plays were started by him and I'm not sure we have too many guys in our infield who would have been able to get those double plays done."

In addition to Fitzgerald (2-1, 1.93 ERA) and McCarty (0-2, 3.86), the Irish received a strong relief performance from sophomore lefthander Michael Hearne (1-0), who was outstanding out of the bullpen in 7 1/3 innings against the Penguins.

Now it's on the road to Raleigh to take on the Wolfpack (9-2), who currently sit No. 6 in the Baseball America poll and No. 8 in the USA Today poll. Head coach Elliot Avent, now in his 18th season in Raleigh, led the Wolfpack to a 50-16 record and a trip to the CWS last season.

"They're a good team and they've been a good team for as long as the ACC has been around," Aoki said. "This is the year this club has been built around. They're expecting big things and they're playing like a team with a ton of confidence. There aren't many chinks in that armor. We're going to have to play at a really high level."


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