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Baseball: Irish take on Cincy in key conference series

Chris Khorey | Thursday, April 5, 2007

Notre Dame has won each of its last two non-conference games, but the Irish have to look all the way back to March 23 to find their last Big East victory.

Sitting at 1-4 in conference and 13-14 overall, the Irish travel to Marge Schott Stadium in Cincinnati for a three-game series with the Bearcats today, Friday and Saturday that coach Dave Schrage called a “must-win.”

“The next couple of weekends, we have to make hay in the league,” Schrage said.

Notre Dame finds itself in 11th place in the 12-team league, a long way down for a squad that won the conference a season ago and had its eyes set on another title.

“We’re the defending Big East champions,” sophomore pitcher Kyle Weiland said. “We need to start playing like it.”

Looking at the big picture, Schrage said the Irish can only afford to lose a few more contests for the rest of the conference slate. Notre Dame has 19 Big East games remaining.

“We need to play with a sense of urgency from here on out,” he said. “If we’re going to win the league, we can’t afford to lose more than six or seven games [total].”

One of the reasons the Irish have struggled in their inability to drive in base runners. Notre Dame has averaged 9.6 runners left on base over its last eight games.

But moving runners up hasn’t been the problem while trying to push across a run. Against Oakland Tuesday, the Irish converted 5-of-5 sacrifice bunt opportunities.

Schrage said the issue isn’t in moving runners from first base into scoring position; it’s driving them in once they get there.

“We’ve been playing for a run an inning with this team,” he said. “We’re doing a good job of bunting people over, but I’d like to see us get that one more hit to break things open.”

Cincinnati comes into the weekend series half a game ahead of Notre Dame in the league standings at 2-4 and 15-13 overall. The Bearcats have won a game in each of their two Big East series, which were against Georgetown and Pittsburgh. The series with the Irish will be their first at home this season.

The Bearcats are led offensively by outfielder Tony Campana, third baseman Josh Harrison and first baseman Neall French – each of whom is batting over .300.

The weather in Cincinnati is expected to be cold and windy, which is not conducive to high-quality baseball.

Weiland said players, especially relief pitchers, need to take special precautions to stay loose while on the bench in cold weather.

“We need to keep our jackets and make sure we run to the foul pole between innings,” he said. “We just need to make sure we stay warm and loose – but there isn’t a whole lot you can do in 30-degree weather.”

Irish senior Dan Kapala will start Thursday’s game, and sophomore David Phelps will begin Friday’s contest on the hill.

Because of the possibility of cancellations, Schrage has not named a starter for Saturday’s contest, instead planning to use regular starter Wade Korpi out of the bullpen in the first two games.

If all three games are played, Schrage said he will make a decision Friday as to who will start Saturday.