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Baseball: Home opener gives Connaughton first start

Brendan Bell | Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Transitioning from the hardwood to the baseball diamond, freshman right-handed pitcher Pat Connaughton will take the mound for the first time in his Notre Dame baseball career Tuesday against Eastern Michigan. It will also be the home opener for the Irish (10-7), after coming off a spring break trip where the team traveled to Baton Rouge, La., and San Antonio.

“We’re excited for him to get out there,” senior captain and shortstop Tommy Chase said. “I haven’t seen Pat throw, but he’s been in the bullpen once a week getting ready. He has a pitch count that is somewhat low because he hasn’t been throwing a whole lot, but hopefully he can get his feet wet, have some success and we can build off that. “

Notre Dame will be carrying momentum from its spring trip, where it compiled a 5-3 record. The Irish started the trip by splitting a two-game series against Michigan. In the first game on March 10, senior right-handed pitcher Will Hudgins threw a gem, going eight scoreless innings while striking out 11 batters. In the seventh inning, sophomore first baseman Trey Mancini blasted a two-run shot to left field, which was all the Irish needed to win. Notre Dame fell to Michigan (9-11on March 11, but rebounded with a 7-1 win against No. 11 LSU later in the day.

“I think it was a successful trip and the win against LSU was a big boost for our confidence,” Chase said. “It helped us know that we can compete with some of the best in the country. We have a great chance to do some special things. We realize our goal is to win the Big East and then go to Regionals.”

Hudgins continued his dominance on the mound in his next performance later in the week against Kansas on Friday, going 7.2 scoreless innings and improving his record to 3-1 for the year. Hudgins has now gone 17 innings without allowing a run.

“Will has been phenomenal and he deserves every bit of the success he’s having,” Chase said. ” He is such a great example and is a huge leader on and off the field. He is and will continue to be the backbone of the rotation because he has a great work ethic.”

After the win, Notre Dame reached the championship of the Irish Baseball Classic, but fell in back-to-back games against Indiana State. The first game went to ten innings before Indiana State (16-4) rallied to win 6-4 on Saturday. In the second matchup the Sycamores held the Irish to only one run in a 6-1 victory Sunday. Despite the final two games, there were many signs of great potential.

“We realized during the trip that we have a lot of work to do, but that we also have a great amount of talent,” Chase said. “Our entire staff looked strong and (sophomore right-hander) Sean Fitzgerald pitched really well against LSU.”

Now the team will look to maintain momentum when they come back to Frank Eck Stadium on Tuesday and face Eastern Michigan (6-12). The Irish have accumulated a 13-4-1 record in opening games at Frank Eck Stadium, and will look to add to the win column come Tuesday.

“We’re so excited to get back home especially as we have great weather to play in,” Chase said. “It is great to come in and establish our home field as a place to be reckoned with.”

Among the highlights of Tuesday’s game is the debut for freshman dual-sport athlete Pat Connaughton. With the NCAA basketball tournament over, the highly recruited pitcher is ready to get back on the mound. Connaughton is ranked No. 29 in the freshmen class by Baseball America, and the No. 4 prospect in the entire Big East conference.

“He has a ton of talent and a ton of upside and he will be an instrumental part of our team,” Chase said.

Between a home opener and a rookie sensation’s first start, there is a lot of excitement surrounding the upcoming game.
“It is always an honor to go out to the field, and its an incredible feeling being able to play at Notre Dame,” Chase said.

Notre Dame will face Eastern Michigan at Frank Eck Stadium Tuesday with first pitch at 5:35 p.m.

Contact Brendan Bell at bbell2@nd.edu