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Baseball: Duel in San Antonio for Hawks and Irish

Ken Fowler | Friday, March 10, 2006

Even though Notre Dame sunk to 2-5 after consecutive shutout losses last weekend, Iowa coach Jack Dahm isn’t too happy about facing the Irish four times during the next eight days.

The third-year Hawkeyes head coach – and good friend of Irish head coach Paul Mainieri -said he was glad to be spending much of spring break around the Notre Dame baseball program but wished so much of that time wasn’t in head-to-head competition.

“We’re going down there because of my relationship with Coach Mainieri, but neither one of us wanted to play four times,” Dahm said in a telephone interview with The Observer Thursday. “It’s [difficult] when you’re playing a good friend … We’d much rather be playing other people than each other.”

Dahm said a schedule snafu caused the odd situation. Both Notre Dame and Iowa (5-1) were late entrants in this weekend’s Baseball Express Collegiate Classic (BECC) in San Antonio’s Wolff Stadium, which forced them to square off twice in that tournament. When a team dropped out of the March 16-18 Irish Classic – also at Wolff Stadium – Iowa and Notre Dame were forced to play each other twice in that tournament as well.

The Hawkeyes are off to their best start in over a decade, as Dahm has made strides in recruiting and pitching since coming to Iowa from Creighton. He said the key to Iowa’s improvement this year was to look at each game as its own entity, rather than looking at a big picture – especially when the team faces an opponent several times, like it will Notre Dame.

“That’s our goal as a program – not look too far ahead. We take it one game at a time and keep it as simple as possible,” he said. “We’re trying to get the program turned around. We’ve been down for a while.”

Southpaw Jeff Maitland will lead Iowa’s pitching rotation in its eight games over break. The senior is 1-0 with an ERA of 4.82 in his first full season after elbow surgery in 2004. In Maitland’s last appearance, he allowed only two hits in six shutout innings against Northwestern.

“Jeff doesn’t have overpowering stuff by any means, but he just knows how to pitch [and] work both sides of the plate,” Dahm said. “He just continues to get stronger each time out. He took some time off over the summer and got some arm strength back.”

Maitland will be followed by righties Austin Seard and David Conroy in the rotation. Seward is 1-1 with a 5.23 ERA, while Conroy has yet to earn a decision after starting two games but throwing only six innings with a 4.50 ERA.

Notre Dame cannot bank on a ninth-inning comeback in any of its games against the Hawkeyes. Iowa closer Tim Gudex has thrown five perfect innings this year, with only four batters even putting the ball in play against him. He has struck out 10 and induced one double play.

“Having Tim on the back side, for our ninth inning, gives our guys a lot of confidence,” Dahm said.”

At the plate, center fielder Nathan Price will lead off for Iowa. Price is batting .308 with five RBIs and three stolen bases. Utility infielder Travis Sweet bats in the No. 3 hole and has done a tremendous job scoring Price, hitting .600 with runners in scoring position this season.

“A lot of kids put a lot of pressure on themselves when it’s time to drive in runs, but he excels in that situation,” Dahm said. “He’s the guy that’s going to be able to drive in runs.”

But before the Irish face Iowa, they must square off against No. 15 Texas A&M in their first game of the BECC.

Notre Dame looks to snap a five-game losing streak at 7 p.m. tonight against the Aggies (13-3).

Texas A&M is coming off a 6-4 loss at home to Texas State Tuesday but took two of three games from No. 5 Florida last weekend in a series in Gainesville.

Utility infielder Jose Salazar is Texas A&M’s top hitter this year, batting .348 with an on-base percentage of .389. Catcher Josh Stinson provides the power for the Aggies with a .452 slugging percentage and 10 RBIs in 14 games played.

Junior Austin Creps and freshman Kyle Thebeau lead the Aggie pitching rotation, and while neither are expected to take the mound for Texas A&M, the Irish will nonetheless have their hands full at the plate.

Junior righty Kyle Nicholson carries a 3-0 record and 2.08 ERA into his start against Notre Dame. Nicholson has struck out 20 batters while surrendering just three walks in 21.2 innings.

If the past five games are any indication, the Irish may have trouble getting on the board against Nicholson. Notre Dame was shut out in its last two contests, an 8-0 drubbing at the hands of Minnesota March 4 and a 2-0 loss to Arizona in extra innings March 5. After the loss to Arizona, Mainieri attributed some of the team’s batting woes to an early-season funk typical of his Notre Dame teams.

“We’ve hit the ball hard, but it’s frustrating,” Mainieri said. “We’ve had some bad breaks go against us.”

One advantage for the Irish will be the return of catcher Sean Gaston. The junior missed the team’s loss to Arizona after hurting his arm in the Minnesota contest. He is expected to start for the Irish tonight.

Notre Dame’s two games against Iowa in the BECC will be at 11 a.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Monday. The Irish meet Illinois (3-3) at 7 p.m. Sunday in their other game in the BECC.

Notre Dame will stay in San Antonio to host the Irish Classic, with its two remaining games against Iowa (March 16 at noon and March 17 at 5:30 p.m.), and two more against Southern Illinois (11-4) on March 17 at 1:30 p.m. and March 18 at 1:30 p.m.