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Hefferon: Season leaves plenty of time for turnaround

Jack Hefferon | Friday, April 20, 2012

The end is only the beginning.

The Irish currently sit at 19-16, with a 6-6 record in the Big East, putting them smack in the middle of the conference standings. They opened up the season on a tear, but since then the young team has cooled, losing six of their last eight and nine of their last 13. As they enter the heart of Big East play against Georgetown this weekend, the next few weeks should tell us if this team will continue their slow decline, or hang around to make some noise in the postseason.

Hanging around.

That’s something Notre Dame has excelled at over the course of the season. Of their last eight games, six have been decided by two runs or less. And with so many tight games, the Irish have been as good or as bad as they play in the closing innings.

Consider their Holy Thursday doubleheader at Seton Hall. Senior Will Hudgins and junior Adam Norton both took no-hitters deep into the game, but it wasn’t enough in the end. Notre Dame blew ninth- and tenth-inning leads in the opener, narrowly missing out on potential game-ending catches and double plays to lose in the extras. That game also saw Notre Dame walk six, leave 14 on base and commit an atrocious seven errors.

In the second game, a late error allowed the Pirates to tie things back up and force extras, where the Irish lost in the eleventh inning. That sweep sparked a five-game losing streak, during the course of which the Irish repeatedly couldn’t find a way to win late in the game.

Through struggling to get on base in the final three innings, making the final out of the game at home, several more costly errors and every other way Notre Dame lost over those five games, they’ve realized it will take a team effort to win these games late. While the Irish lineup may feature several surprises and loads of potential, it does not have a superstar that can put the team on his back game-in and game-out to eke out close games.

But this past weekend, Mik Aoki’s squad was able to dig out of its rut by getting timely contributions from its entire lineup.

In Friday’s game against Cincinnati, the Irish shot out to an 8-1 lead, but then watched as the reliable Hudgins, who led the conference with a 1.33 ERA, allowed the Bearcats to come back to 8-7 before being chased from the game. After losing five straight heartbreakers, heading back into a tight game had to mess with the team’s collective psyche.

But the offense forced through a couple more runs, and the bullpen didn’t allow a hit in the last three innings to break the losing streak and secure a late win.

The offense picked up the slack again on Saturday against the Bearcats. Down a run in the ninth, freshman infielder Phil Mosey ­- who’s hitting only .136 on the year – started the inning off with a single, and five batters later, senior outfielder Alex Robinson completed the rally with a walk-off single.

The Irish couldn’t complete the sweep in a 6-2 loss on Sunday, but coming through in the clutch for two out of three gave them a .500 Big East record, and something more important – confidence. This young lineup is still learning how to win, and two clutch victories should help make up for the lost self-belief from losing nine of their last 13.

So as the conference season goes on, Notre Dame will still undoubtedly end up in their fair share of close games. And with the right amount of clutch hitting, solid relief pitching and maybe some of that Irish luck this team has the ability to outperform even its own expectations down the stretch. But that success can only start if Notre Dame continues to play some of its best baseball after the seventh inning stretch.

The end is only the beginning.

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu