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Baseball: Squad to take on UIC on Tuesday

Jack Hefferon | Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Notre Dame jumped out to a perfect start in Big East play with its dramatic three-game sweep of Pittsburgh at home over the weekend. After a day off, the team will hit the road for a non-conference battle at Illinois-Chicago on Tuesday night, hoping to keep its momentum rolling.

The fans at Eck Stadium were treated to three exciting wins over Pittsburgh (10-11, 0-3 Big East), as the Irish (15-7, 3-0) won with a walk-off home run Friday, a leaping, game-saving catch Saturday and a clutch save to stop a ninth-inning Panther rally Sunday. The series sweep gave Notre Dame its best conference start since 2008, and Irish coach Mik Aoki said it supplied positive energy to build on, as well.

“I think this is a situation where we can build on it and hopefully move forward,” Aoki said after Sunday’s victory. “We get the chance to enjoy it for a couple of days before we’ve got to tee it up against UIC, and then that becomes the most important game of our lives.”

Tuesday’s matchup against UIC (9-12) will be the first of eight mid-week, out-of-conference games for Notre Dame this season, which are scheduled to get the teamwork between each weekend Big East series. And while these matchups may have no immediate relevance in the race for a conference championship, they are critical for Notre Dame’s postseason hopes on a national level.

“I think we have to get our program in a mindset where every one of these opportunities to play – conference or non-conference – is a chance to add to our résumé to put in front of a committee at the end of the year, to see whether or not we’re deserving of going to the NCAA tournament,” Aoki said. “In the event that we don’t win the Big East tournament, we’ve got to make sure we’re taking care of business.”

Though the non-conference schedule is important, it offers the Irish a chance to fine-tune their lineup and give some new faces a chance to become regulars.

One position battle Aoki has not yet set is shortstop, where freshmen Phil Mosey and Jason McMurray have received the majority of playing time this season. McMurray started most of the games early in the season, but Mosey got the nod to start all three games last weekend. Mosey has flashed some leather at the position and has been a strong double-play pivot in the Irish infield, he now finds his batting average under .100 after a hitless weekend against Pittsburgh.

“We’ll have to search a little bit [at shortstop],” Aoki said. “Phil did play good defense for us, and I thought his at bats later in the weekend were a little better than they were in the early part of the weekend. But that is certainly a place where we still have some question marks about what we’re looking for there.”

While UIC’s record may be under .500, the Flames will certainly pose a challenge for the Irish. UIC comes into its date with Notre Dame riding a four-game winning streak and has beaten the Irish in each of their last three yearly meetings. But after opening conference play in such strong fashion, the Irish self-belief is running high.

“We have a lot of confidence going into it,” Aoki said. “We’ll have to play well. We’re not at the point where we can just out-talent everybody. We have to work, and we have to come ready to play. UIC is always a good club in that Horizon League and they’re well coached. We’re going to be on the road, so we’re going to have to go in there and do a really good job of competing.”

The Irish and Flames will square off Tuesday night at Les Miller Field in Chicago, with first pitch scheduled for 7:05 pm.

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu