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Baseball: Irish, Huskies set to battle for control of Big East helm

Chris Khorey | Friday, April 28, 2006

With its school-record 23-game winning streak over after an 11-8 loss to Bowling Green Wednesday, Notre Dame will have to refocus this weekend as the team travels to Storrs, Conn. for a crucial three-game Big East series with second-place Connecticut.

The Irish (33-9, 14-1 Big East) have a one and a half game lead over the Huskies (27-13, 13-3 Big East) in the conference standings. With just three series left in the Big East regular season, this weekend’s set will go a long way toward deciding the conference champion.

“It’s pretty apparent that either Notre Dame or Connecticut is going to win the Big East regular season title,” Irish coach Paul Mainieri said. “If we want to call ourselves champions, we have to go to Connecticut and get the job done.”

Mainieri said the series represents a shift in Notre Dame’s schedule.

“This weekend we begin the third phase of our season,” he said. “The first phase was mostly tournaments at the beginning of the year. Then we played a bunch of games at home, which was the second phase of our schedule. Now we’re in the final stretch run. We have 10 of our next 14 games on the road.”

Mainieri stressed the importance of the last third of the schedule in anticipation of the NCAA tournament.

“What we’ve done so far has put us in position to have a very special season, but in order for us to finish the job, we have to get the job done over the next four weeks,” Mainieri said.

The Huskies come into the series winners of seven of their last 10 and on an eight-game Big East winning streak. They are batting .297 and have outscored their opponents 270-140 this season.

On the mound Connecticut’s ace, senior right-hander Nick Tucci, is 7-0 this season with a 2.15 ERA.

Notre Dame will counter on the mound with junior right-hander Jeff Samardzija (6-1, 3.81 ERA) in the first game of a doubleheader Saturday, senior right-hander Jeff Manship (5-1, 2.25 ERA) and sophomore left-hander Wade Korpi (5-1, 1.56 ERA).

Korpi, who usually starts in Tuesday non-conference games for the Irish, is expected to start Sunday in place of senior southpaw Tom Thornton, who was hit in the leg with a sharp grounder in his last start, Notre Dame’s 14-12 win over Rutgers last Sunday. Thornton had X-rays on Monday and an MRI Tuesday – both came back negative – but Mainieri said the senior is not at full strength.

Mainieri said he expects Thornton back on the mound next week.

After Connecticut, the Irish will play a non-conference game at home against Cleveland State May 2 and then will face Louisville in a three-game conference series beginning May 5 at Frank Eck Stadium.

After taking exam week off, Notre Dame will head to South Orange, N.J. for a three game conference set May 13-14 and will face Michigan in the teams’ annual match-up in Grand Rapids, Mich. the following Tuesday.

The Irish will wrap up their regular season in Plymouth Meeting, Penn. May 18-20 against Villanova and then head to the Big East tournament in Clearwater, Florida May 23-27.

The first two games of this weekend’s series in Storrs will be played in the doubleheader Saturday beginning at noon. Sunday’s contest begins at 11 a.m.