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Baseball: Pittsburgh pitcher poses challenge

Vicky Jacobsen | Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Irish will begin conference play this weekend with a three-game home stand against Pittsburgh.

The Panthers (10-8) won two of their three games against the Irish (12-7) during last year’s series and Irish coach Mik Aoki hopes to repay the favor this weekend.

“I’m excited to open at home and excited to play a team that we lost a series to last year, and see if we can’t bounce back and win it,” Aoki said.

Aoki said Notre Dame’s biggest hurdle would come in the form of Pittsburgh senior left-hander Matt Iannazzo, who has the most wins of any pitcher in school history and is expected to start Friday.

“Their Friday guy [Iannazzo] has been in the league for a long time, has had success in the league, so for us we’re going to need to battle pretty hard in that game,” Aoki said. “I think Hudge [senior right-hander Will Hudgins] is going to need to pitch well to compete with that kid.”

After Hudgins pitches in the opening game of the series, the Irish will send junior right-hander Adam Norton to the mound Saturday and hand the ball to sophomore righty Sean Fitzgerald on Sunday.

Aoki also said freshman right-hander Pat Connaughton might pitch in a game this weekend. Connaughton, also a member of the Notre Dame basketball team, rejoined the baseball team and pitched 1.2 innings Tuesday against Eastern Michigan (6-13), just days after the Irish basketball team was eliminated from the NCAA tournament.

“I think as the situations dictate, for sure, we want to get him in there,” Aoki said. “But for this weekend we’ll use him out of the bullpen, and then depending on what his usage is this weekend then it might be that he gets another start on Tuesday depending on what kind of usage we have for him this weekend.”

Although the Big East coaches’ pre-season poll predicted an eighth-place finish for the Panthers – a drop from last season, when they finished third in the conference – Aoki said Pittsburgh’s starters will provide a challenge for the Irish.

“They’ve got some guys from a pitching staff standpoint who have put up some decent numbers,” Aoki said. “They’re not quite as prolific with the bat as they were a year ago, but I still think they’re doing a pretty good job competing there, so I think it’ll be a good test for us.”

Aoki said that the series against Pitt will be a good indicator of how well Notre Dame has adjusted throughout the season.

“I don’t think we have totally answered every part of our lineup and everything else, but we’ve learned a lot more about our team going into it,” Aoki said. “We’ve got a little two-game win streak going into it, and I’m excited to open at home.”

Irish junior second baseman Frank DeSico said he and his teammates are eager for the raised stakes of conference play.

“We’re always excited to start conference play,” DeSico said. “We don’t want to take any game any differently, any midweek game any differently from any conference game, but there’s that extra spark, that extra motivation that goes along with conference play. I think we’re all gearing up for it and ready to go, and we’re happy that it’s home.”

Hudgins will throw out the first pitch of Friday’s game against Pittsburgh at 5:35 p.m. at Eck Stadium. Saturday’s game will begin at 2:05 p.m., and series finale will start at 1:05 p.m. on Sunday.

 

Contact Vicky Jacobsen at vjacobse@nd.edu