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Baseball: Offense or bust

Andrew Gastelum | Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Exactly halfway through the season, the Irish should be able to pinpoint which games they could have won — and they would be able to if it weren’t for their main culprit, inconsistency.

Hitting has been the main contributor to Notre Dame’s (11-14-1) struggles — the squad boasts only two hitters with batting averages above .300. Although the Irish bats are improving, hitting still remains their focus as the team has only scored more than five runs on three occasions this season.

But in a three-game series in Pittsburgh this past weekend, the Irish bats came alive, averaging five runs per game. The offensive improvement was highlighted by an 8-6 comeback victory Sunday, avoiding a sweep against the Panthers (15-10).

Trailing 6-2 in the seventh inning, the Irish posted a six-run outburst led by a three-run home run from freshman first baseman Trey Mancini. After finally seeing the timely hitting he has desired from his team, Irish coach Mik Aoki hopes it will catalyze a timely midseason run.

“Some of the things that had been missing finally came through,” Aoki said. “Throughout the course of the weekend at critical junctures, the quality of our at-bats was much better and carried a greater sense of urgency that we had been searching for this year.”

Meanwhile, Irish starting pitching has developed into a major strength for the team, led by seniors Brian Dupra (2-2) and Cole Johnson (2-4). The duo gave up only two runs this weekend in 13 innings of combined work. However, due to a lack of offense and a late-inning rally off of Notre Dame’s young relieving corps, neither pitcher earned a decision.

“It was a bit of a mixed bag this weekend because [Dupra and Johnson] pitched so well while [sophomore reliever Adam Norton and freshman right-hander Dan Slania] caught some bad luck,” Aoki said. “I don’t think they struggled, it was just more of Pittsburgh finding the holes in our defense that came back to get us.”

The Irish seem to have a preference for close games, as two runs or fewer have decided their last 10. This could be good news for a struggling Western Michigan squad, currently on a four-game slide. Since sweeping Akron in the final weekend of March, the Broncos (13-15) have only scored four runs in their four losses despite quality starts from their pitching staff — something that lures Aoki to draw comparisons to his own squad.

“We have to pitch this game really well because they are going to,” Aoki said. “This is a matchup of two relatively matching teams. Our strength is pitching, so is theirs, where our weakness thus far has been our hitting. They are the same way.”

The Broncos offense is led by their cleanup hitter, junior third baseman Ryan McMillin who is batting .299 with two home runs, 16 RBI and six stolen bases. But pitching is where the Broncos thrive, as each starter has an earned run average below three.

The Irish will face off against Western Michigan tonight at Frank Eck Stadium at 5:35 p.m.