ND to challenge Virginia in conference home series
Brian Hartnett | Friday, March 27, 2015
Since it entered the ACC last season, Notre Dame has faced some of the toughest competition in the nation. This weekend, the team will welcome a perennial national contender in No. 14 Virginia, which will enter Frank Eck Stadium fresh off a College World Series finals appearance last season.
The Cavaliers (15-8, 3-6 ACC), which fell to Vanderbilt in the best-of-three College World Series finals last June, have struggled recently, losing seven of their last 10 games. Nonetheless, Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki said he expects Virginia to present a tough challenge for the Irish (16-7, 3-6).
“I know that they’re a really good club,” he said of the Cavaliers. “I know that they’re going to pitch their rear ends off, and we’re going to have to do a great job of competing from pitch to pitch in order to get the results we want to come out with.
“Whether they’re struggling or not, I don’t think it matters. They’re a really good ball club, and we’re going to have to do a really good job against them.”
Aoki said Virginia has typically been strong in multiple facets of the game under head coach Brian O’Connor, an assistant coach at Notre Dame from 1995 to 2003. Since O’Connor arrived at Virginia in 2003, the Cavaliers have made 11 NCAA tournament appearances and reached three College World Series.
“I think over the years, they’ve proven that they can be one of the best pitching teams in the country,” Aoki said of the Cavaliers. “They’ve had really good players from a positional standpoint. … They’re typically very athletic, and they swing the bat very well.”
Virginia sophomore catcher Matt Thaiss has led the Cavaliers at the plate, posting a .345 batting average and seven home runs on the season. Virginia junior right-hander Nathan Kirby, named a first team All-American last season by multiple publications, has a 3-1 record with a 1.16 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings on the season.
Notre Dame will enter this weekend’s series coming off an 8-3 win against Western Michigan on Wednesday night. Irish sophomore catcher Ryan Lidge was 4-for-4 with three runs scored, two doubles and an RBI against the Broncos, and Irish sophomore right-hander Ryan Smoyer picked up his second consecutive win while allowing two runs on six hits in 5 1/3 innings.
The Irish hosted their first home conference series last weekend, scoring only four runs in three consecutive losses to No. 7 Louisville.
Despite the team’s struggles last weekend, Aoki said he is not worried about Notre Dame’s ability to play at a high level and maintain focus over a three-game series.
“We’ve played 23 games so far, and to be honest, I think it was four innings out of the 23 games that we’ve played, which included a few extra-inning affairs, that our energy level hasn’t been outstanding,” he said. “We’ve been fine. I’m not really concerned about how we can come back to who we are from an energy standpoint.”
Notre Dame’s usual weekend starting pitching trio of senior right-hander Scott Kerrigan, freshman right-hander Brandon Bielak and junior right-hander Nick McCarty have provided strong efforts on the mound all year, Aoki said, which he expects to continue this weekend.
“I would expect for them to go out and compete at the same level they’ve been competing at all year,” Aoki said. “They’ve been really good for us, and I’ll would expect them to do the same thing, and hopefully we can turn some losses from last weekend into wins this upcoming weekend.”
Notre Dame and Virginia will meet in a doubleheader beginning at 1:05 p.m. Saturday. The Irish and Cavaliers will conclude the series Sunday at 1:05 p.m. All games will be at Frank Eck Stadium.