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Baseball: Irish gear up for 3-game series against Bearcats

Fran Tolan and Lorenzo Reyes | Monday, March 31, 2008

About a week and a half ago, Notre Dame (12-7-1, 3-0) seemed to hit rock bottom after blowing a seven-run lead in the last two innings to Texas Pan-American. Talk about a turnaround. Headed into their three-game series against Big East rival Cincinnati (10-9, 2-1), the Irish have won five in a row since the Broncos’ debacle.

“We’re much more confident now,” Notre Dame coach Dave Schrage said. “We’ve been pitching a lot better and our offense has been explosive. It also helps when you have Evan Sharpley batting as well as he is. He’s knocked six homeruns within the past couple of games and driven in a bunch of runs.”

After the sweep of Big East rival Georgetown, the junior was named the Big East player of the week for his offensive production, making him the first Irish player to gain the honor since Craig Cooper did so in April 2006.

With the win streak, Schrage said he can feel his younger players gaining confidence and starting to fit into their roles.

“Oh, they’re definitely maturing,” he said. “They’re developing as a group, and overall just playing with more confidence. A lot of them are starting to understand where they fit in on the team. Sometimes when you come in as a freshman, you’re not exactly sure what to expect, and since we play a lot of first-year kids, we had some early struggles.”

Notre Dame looks to stay undefeated in conference play against the Bearcats this weekend, while Cincinnati would love to gain some ground in the league standings.

Despite the Irish momentum, Schrage does not want to take the Bearcats lightly, mainly because of their own recent hot streak.

“They’re playing real well,” Schrage said. “They’re coming in as a talented bunch on a four-game streak of their own. Their pitching is much improved from last season. [Cincinnati] also has a veteran lineup that features some speed. They’re leadoff man, [senior] Tony Campana is the fastest guy in the league. They’ve got speed in the middle of the lineup, mixed in with some solid hitting.”

In the Irish five-game win streak, two factors have been constant – an offensive explosion, in addition to solid pitching performances. In the five contests, the Irish have outscored their opponents by a margin of 58-9.

At the heart of this offensive outburst have been a key number of players, including sophomore A.J. Pollock, who went 4-for-5 against Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the Irish 14-3 victory Wednesday. He registered three singles, a triple, a stolen base, and RBI as well as scoring five runs in the contest. The sophomore even flashed some leather earlier this week, coming up with a pair of impressive diving catches in right field. Pollock leads the team in both hits (29) and batting average (.454).

Pitching has also been strong for Notre Dame. Freshman Ryan Sharpley tossed five scoreless innings, including a no-hitter through four against the Panthers. In addition to picking up his first career victory, the freshman also drastically cut his ERA in half, from 5.40 to 2.70.

Taking the mound against Cincinnati in the series opener Friday will be junior right-hander, David Phelps, who had three straight solid starts. Despite struggling in his opener, the right-hander has come back and frustrated opposing batters, going deep into games. In 20 of his past 21 starts, Phelps has lasted at least five innings.

In the second game of the series, senior southpaw Wade Korpi will take the mound as he looks to improve on his 4-1 record. Korpi has allowed a team-high five home runs, although none have come over his past three starts.

To finish off the series, the Bearcats will face sophomore Eric Maust whose 1.93 ERA is the team-low amongst the Notre Dame starters. One of the more encouraging aspects of Maust’s pitching is that he has improved in each of his following starts.

Coach Schrage does not shy away from his beliefs that his starters’ play has been a major reasons for the hot streak.

“It’s definitely one of the main reasons behind the turnaround,” Schrage said. “Maust gave us eight innings and Korpi gave us seven last week, and that’s what we’ve been asking of them all season – the ability to go deeper into the games, and let [junior] Kyle Weiland close out the games. We’ve been able to do that as of late and its turned into wins.”