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Baseball: Aoki, team hope to maintain strong start

Andrew Gastelum | Thursday, March 1, 2012

Off to their best start since 2004, the burgeoning Irish bats will face their biggest test of the young season on the road against a first-rate Texas State pitching staff.

The Cougars (5-3) come into the series on a three-game winning streak, including a 1-0 win over No. 18 TCU on Tuesday. The shutout over the Horned Frogs (2-5) marked the fourth straight game where a Cougar starter did not give up an earned run, while also adding to the 23 consecutive scoreless innings streak compiled by the Texas State rotation.

“They are a good team. They have made the NCAA tournament a number of years in the row and have been contenders,” Irish coach Mik Aoki said. “They are well-coached and a phenomenal pitching staff with some good power arms. They have been able to win games on the strength of their pitching. It’ll give us a barometer for where we are and what we need to do to get better.”

The Texas State offense also poses a threat to the young Irish pitching staff, which lost all of last year’s starting rotation to graduation Although the young pitchers have held up well through the first six games, Aoki said the bullpen and middle relief is what concerns him most.

“The one place where I would especially like to see improvement is our relief pitching,” Aoki said. “We need to [get] some solid innings from the bullpen in the latter stages of the game. The one glaring spot is our middle relief to setup [relieving]. If we can figure out that bullpen and the roles they are comfortable in, we can improve even more.”

Meanwhile, Notre Dame (5-1) finds itself on a three-game winning streak of its own, fresh off a three-game sweep of Hofstra in North Carolina where the Irish totaled 21 runs. Senior first baseman Casey Kalenkosky leads the Cougars into the showdown with Notre Dame in the midst of a seven-game hitting streak Irish sophomore first baseman Trey Mancini has built on his breakout freshman year with an even bigger start to his sophomore season. In the last 25 years, only former Irish first baseman Tim Hutson has more RBIs (13) to kick off the season than Mancini’s 12. Coupled with Mancini’s hot start, the emergence of junior catcher Joe Hudson — who is batting .591 with two home runs and nine RBIs — has given the Irish offense the boost it so often lacked last season.

“Trey has been great,” Aoki said. “Even when he hasn’t made good contact he gets on base. He is a really good hitter and doesn’t give away many at-bats and pitchers have to make really good pitches to get him out.

“I’m also really pleased with Hudson and performing at a level that is on-par with how he good has been defensively.”

Despite losing a core group of veteran players from last year’s squad, Aoki said he is not shocked by the fast start, given the rare mix of chemistry and focus the young team has shown thus far.

“As our practices went on I started to feel like our team had a chance to be really good,” Aoki said. “There are some concerns regardless of the 5-1 start, but it is a team that has really jelled and the chemistry and mindset has been really good. It’s fun to go to practice and coach. I don’t have to coach the expectations or the approach or the effort. At the end of the day, I’m not surprised we are 5-1. I love the way our kids have approached it and do a really good job of competing.”

Notre Dame will head south to take on Texas State in a three-game series, with tonight’s opener slated for 7:30 p.m. in San Marcos, Texas.