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Baseball: Improved ND closing strong

Matt Gamber | Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Irish coach Dave Schrage thinks his team is playing its best baseball of the season as it prepares for the Big East tournament, which is set to begin Tuesday in Tampa, Fla.

Notre Dame (30-20, 13-11 Big East) has won five of its last six games before its final conference series of the season begins today, at St. John’s in Jamaica, N.Y. And in that stretch, the Irish took two of three from South Florida, the Big East’s top team that had lost just two conference games all season before visiting Notre Dame.

“We played really well and showed a lot of heart in all three games, coming from behind,” Schrage said. “I liked how we came together and played, and we got a great spark from our seniors.”

No senior has given his team more sparks than shortstop and captain Jeremy Barnes, who is one of two players – along with junior center fielder A.J. Pollock – to start every game for the Irish this season. Barnes led Notre Dame in batting average (.358), home runs (10), RBIs (57) and total bases (122) heading into the weekend, and he trailed Pollock by just one for the team lead in hits.

While Barnes has had the most eye-popping statistics of any of his classmates, Schrage said the constant presence of all five of his seniors – Barnes, co-captain Ryan Connolly, Sam Elam, Eddy Mendiola and Evan Sharpley – has been invaluable on a team with several young, up-and-coming stars.

“They have meant a lot to us from a leadership standpoint,” Schrage said. “Barnes and Connolly couldn’t have been better captains, and they have all been great in the clubhouse and meant a lot to the program. We’re certainly going to miss them.”

The Irish will certainly have an opportunity to make some waves and extend their season in the conference tournament. If Notre Dame takes two of three from St. John’s this weekend, the Irish will earn the No. 4 seed in the Big East bracket after getting off to a fairly slow start.

But Notre Dame has played more consistent ball of late, and Schrage said his team has shown it can play with anybody.

“What’s strange about this season is we’ve won two of three from all the teams at the top of the league,” Schrage said. “We’ve got a lot of confidence, and I like how we’re playing right now.”

A strong showing against the Red Storm would go a long way in preparing the Irish for what lies ahead in the Big East tournament, Schrage said.

“We want some momentum going into the tournament,” he said. “You want to be playing your best baseball at the end of the season.”

With solid starting pitching from Cole Johnson, Brian Dupra and Eric Maust, and a balanced lineup that starts with speedy outfielders Pollock and Golden Tate, Schrage said his squad may have the right pieces to make a late-season run.

“In the league tournament, it’s the team that plays the best for four days. That’s baseball,” Schrage said. “You’ve got to get hot, get good pitching and get some timely hits. We’re going to be playing great competition, but whoever we play, our kids are going to feel like we can beat them.”