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Gastelum: These Irish might just stick around (April 4)

Andrew Gastelum | Tuesday, April 3, 2012

We see it all too often. That young, inexperienced baseball club coming off a disappointing year starts the season hot, catching everyone by surprise before cooling off and missing the postseason.

But this team is not the Indians.

There really is no legacy, or anyone on the roster who has ever tasted the postseason in the NCAA tournament.

So this is no Yankees team either.

There are no stars, just the occasional stud. The coach isn’t a high-profile controversial figure, just a humble, driven family man.

We have yet to see a Jeff Samardzija or a Craig Counsell emerge, but there is no pressure for this young team. The canvas is still blank, and Irish coach Mik Aoki is Bob Ross, minus the afro. He gets to paint what he wants, because it is just his second year with a program trying to recapture what once was.

And, to be honest, he certainly has the inspiration for this masterpiece.

Junior catcher Joe Hudson wasn’t supposed to be the guy to lead this offense, let alone do anything outside of gunning down base-stealers from behind the dish. It seems as though Hudson has pulled a line from one of the greatest sports movies of all time, “Field of Dreams”: “Build it and they will come,” with the ‘it’ being his batting average and ‘they’ being major league scouts. The catcher has gone from a management consulting major to a star who could have the chance to consult with managers about his stance in the minor leagues next year. If he keeps it going at this rate (.402 batting average, 24 RBIs), he could easily go in the first 10 rounds of the MLB Draft and be on his way to the Show.

Sure, he has been a revelation for an offense that left men on base last season like it was the ‘cool’ thing to do. But you don’t build a team around Hudson. You let him lead by example and supplement the young guns, the guys who will form this new identity of Irish baseball.

The new wave includes the sophomore duo of Eric Jagielo and Trey Mancini, who hold down the infield corners. Last season, Mancini singlehandedly led the Irish offense (if you could even call it an offense) and was the sole bright spot in the lineup. Jagielo, meanwhile, leads the Irish with six home runs this year to accompany his position change to the hot corner.

Then there are the promising freshmen. One has a legacy in his last name, the other has a legacy in another sport.

Outfielder Conor Biggio has shown he inherited the ice in his veins from his pops, future hall of famer Craig Biggio. Biggio is one of the few freshmen who broke into the Irish lineup, and already has a few clutch hits to his name.

Then there is right-handed pitcher Pat Connaughton, who recently joined the team after breaking into the starting lineup for Mike Brey across the way at the Joyce Center. The six-foot-five forward has shown his passion for America’s Pastime by starting a game on the mound less than four days after losing to Xavier in the NCAA tournament. His end: the strikeout, his means: an overpowering fastball.

Aoki tells a story of how Connaughton, after scoring a career-high 23 points to upset No. 15 Marquette on the hardwood, came across the parking lot to Frank Eck Stadium to throw a bullpen session. And man-oh-man, can this guy throw.

These are Mik’s boys, his masterpiece.

And if he had to compare them to one major league team, Aoki would probably hope for last year’s Cardinals. They came out of nowhere, against all odds, and did something with their season.

Paintings take time, masterpieces need talent. He’s got both.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agastel1@nd.edu