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Batter up!

BIll Brink | Friday, February 20, 2009

Notre Dame can escape the snow this weekend when it heads to Florida to play Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue in the inaugural Big East/Big Ten Challenge.

The Irish, who were 33-21-1 last season, send righty Brian Dupra to the mound in the first game, against the Buckeyes, tonight at 7:30. Dupra was 3-3 with a 5.44 ERA last season. Notre Dame faces the Illini Saturday and the Boilermakers Sunday.

The tournament, which features eight Big East teams and 10 Big Ten squads, starts a 15-game stretch away from home for the Irish. Their first home game comes on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17 against Ball State.

Senior Jeremy Barnes is expected to switch to shortstop this season after starting at second base for three years. He hit .307 with eight home runs and 50 RBIs last year and was named a second-team all-Big East player.

Two Irish football players will also help lead the baseball team this season. Senior Evan Sharpley led the team in home runs with 13 last year, and he is expected to start at first base. Sophomore Golden Tate started only nine games last year but is expected to start in left field.

Junior outfielder A.J. Pollock was named to the preseason honor roll by Baseball America. Pollock started all 55 games last season and hit .352 with four home runs and 42 RBIs.

Sophomore catcher Matt Scioscia, son of former major leaguer and current manager of the L.A. Angels of Anaheim Mike Scioscia, is expected to split time this spring with sophomore Cam McConnell. Both will have to fill the gap left by Sean Gaston, the fifth-year senior and tri-captain who graduated this spring. Gaston batted .301 and committed just nine errors in his four-year playing career.

Baseball America also predicted that Notre Dame would make the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed and finish second in the Big East. The Big East coaches picked the Irish to finish third in the conference. Notre Dame went 16-10 in the Big East last season. The Irish lost three straight games to South Florida to end the regular season, then lost another to USF and one to West Virginia to exit the tournament.

Notre Dame lost six players to the MLB draft last year: Kyle Weiland, David Phelps, Wade Korpi, Brent Graffy, Sam Elam and Brett Lilley.

Eight freshmen joined the Irish this season, five of them pitchers. Dustin Ipsas, a right-hander from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., went 3-0 with two saves and an 0.77 ERA in conference action in high school. Steve Sabatino, a lefty from Lockport, Ill., had a 1.79 ERA his junior season at Lockport Township High School. He had 57 strikeouts in 47 innings, an average of 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings, and also hit .327.