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Baseball: Notre Dame clinches spot in Big East tourney

Vicky Jacobsen | Wednesday, May 16, 2012

This season’s Irish team has been a model of inconsistency. They beat then-No. 11 LSU on the road – but lost to Western Michigan. They opened the season by winning five of six and added a five-game winning streak in late March – then went on four and five-game losing slides.

But Sunday’s 2-1 win over Rutgers moved Notre Dame (27-23, 13-11 Big East) into sixth place in the conference and secured a spot for the Irish in the Big East tournament.

Junior catcher Joe Hudson said he is confident in Notre Dame’s Big East chances, despite worrying streaks of underachieving.

“In the greater scheme of things, we’re in a position right now where we can still accomplish our goals that we started at the beginning of the year,” Hudson said. “I believe that we’re a pretty good tournament team. We’ve got some pretty good pitching, and if we can just get the timely hitting down, we’re a good tournament team.”

Although second-year Irish coach Mik Aoki said he is pleased overall with the team’s performance, he said inconsistent play has been a source of frustration.

“Over a whole season you’re not going to play at your ideal best for 56 games,” Aoki said. “But I think that when we’ve been bad, we’ve been really bad, and when we’ve been good, we’ve been really good.”

Hudson said the 7-1 victory over No. 3 LSU (38-11, 16-8 SEC) on March 11 remains a great source of confidence for the team.

“We went into their stadium on a night that there’s a sold-out crowd, and we took it to them,” Hudson said. “We beat them 7-1, [a] convincing win. And that game showed us how good we could possibly be when we’re playing our game, and it’s nice to have that game in our back pocket, because we can draw on that and remember, ‘Hey, guys, we are good if we can just put the pieces of the puzzle together.'”

Senior outfielder Alex Robinson agreed the trip to Baton Rouge, La., was one of the best moments of the season.

“The LSU win was unbelievable,” Robinson said. “Alex Box Stadium, several million-dollar stadium, great fans, really a great atmosphere. We came in there and really took it to them and came out on top.”

Aoki said one of the exciting developments from the season was watching players thrive as they took on new roles with the team.

“Take [senior right-handed pitcher] Will Hudgins for example. I think a lot of people have always looked at him as a reliever, and clearly he’s proven himself to be a really, really good starter,” Aoki said. “And I think a lot of people might have labeled Joe Hudson to be just a really good catch-and-throw guy who was not that great a hitter, and I think he’s certainly proven a lot of those people wrong.

“I think there [are] a lot of different stories like that. I don’t know that necessarily that any of them are surprises, because I think that all of them are really pretty talented kids, and I’m happy to see that they’re playing to their capabilities.”

Robinson, who is hitting .325 in 37 games played, is another one of those “good stories.”

“I didn’t play much my first three years, but really got an opportunity to play this year,” Robinson said. “And as your last year, you always hope for the best, hope to make it to the College World Series and win it all, and honestly I think we’ve got a good chance to make a run in the tournament. I feel really good with the team we have.”

Hudson praised the way senior leadership has guided the team through the ups and downs of the season.

“We have two great captains, [senior infielder] Tommy Chase and Will Hudgins, and the guys in the clubhouse really trust those guys and they really respect their place in the team as captains,” Hudson said. “They set a great example for us as captains all year, so they’ve really made our team better that way.”

Although the close losses have been disappointing, Aoki said they highlight how easily the Irish could improve.

“When you boil it all down, I think that we could very easily be sitting atop the Big East right now had we gotten a handful of more timely hits, or made a handful of more timely pitches,” Aoki said. “I think I’m optimistic, looking at these last games in the Big East, and I’m optimistic as we look ahead into future years.”

The Irish will take on Connecticut in their last conference series of the season before the Big East tournament in Clearwater, Fla. begins May 23. First pitch will be thrown out in Storrs, Conn., at 3 p.m. on Friday.

Contact Vicky Jacobsen at vjacobse@nd.edu