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Big East teams face an important weekend of season

Chris Federico | Friday, April 23, 2004

With the top five teams in the Big East standings all scheduled to play over the next three days, this weekend could be the most important for No. 4 Notre Dame (31-5, 11-2 in the Big East) and the rest of the Big East in jockeying for position down the stretch run of conference play.

“I think this weekend could be a turning point in the league if things happen the way that you hope they could happen,” Irish coach Paul Mainieri said. “I think that Rutgers has as tough of a challenge as we have, going to [Boston College and St. John’s]. This is what separates teams – going into tough venues.”

The Irish travel to Seton Hall for a Big East doubleheader today, and then onward to Pittsburgh for a Sunday doubleheader. The Panthers currently stand in third place in the Big East with a conference record of 7-3.

Meanwhile, Rutgers, who is tied with Notre Dame at 11-2 atop the Big East, must travel to Boston College today and then to St. John’s Sunday for a pair of conference doubleheaders. St. John’s and Boston College are fourth and fifth, respectively, in the Big East.

For the Irish, Seton Hall may pose more of a threat than its 10-24-1 record would indicate. The Pirates have gone 4-1-1 at home this season, including winning two of three from Rutgers.

“With Seton Hall, you have to forget about their record,” Mainieri said. “I’ve gone to Seton Hall too many times to count on anything as being easy. Those games are going to be two tough games.”

The Pirates have hit .266 as a team this season, and are led at the plate by senior catcher Chris Fulda with a .322 average and 18 RBIs. Two other Pirate hitters – first baseman Tim Pahuta (.313) and infielder Anthony Seratelli (.306) – are batting over .300 this season. Pahuta also leads the team in runs scored (25), doubles (10) and home runs (five).

On the hill, Pirate pitchers have an ERA of 5.30 and an opponents’ batting average of .277.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has proven to be one of the most powerful Big East teams this year. The Panthers lead the Big East in hitting with a .323 team batting average, which is two points ahead of second-place Notre Dame. The Panthers are also fourth in the Big East in pitching, with a staff ERA of 4.16.

“Pittsburgh is as good as Rutgers and ourselves,” Mainieri said. “They are right there in the top of the heap. I’m sure Pittsburgh is trying to win this thing.”

Pittsburgh boasts four of the top 10 hitters in the Big East. Outfielder Ben Copeland leads the league with a .393 average, scoring 39 runs and driving in 20. The other Panther hitters in the top 10 are Jim Negrych (.382), P.J. Hiser (.374) and Peter Parise (.361).

The Irish, however, have been just as dominant at the plate this season, with 10 Irish hitters surpassing the .300 mark Shortstop Greg Lopez leads the Irish regulars with a .369 average.

On the mound, Mainieri plans to use a similar starting rotation as he did in Notre Dame’s three-game sweep of Georgetown last weekend. Left-hander Tom Thornton will take the hill in the seven-inning opener of the doubleheader today, while righty Chris Niesel will start the nine-inning nightcap.

Against Pittsburgh Sunday, right-hander Jeff Samardzija will start the seven-inning opener, and junior righty Grant Johnson will work the second game against the Panthers.

The freshman Samardzija, who is a scholarship football player for the Irish, will have to meet up with the baseball team on the road Saturday night after participating in the football team’s intra-squad Blue-Gold game Saturday afternoon. Samardzija has been splitting time between spring football practices and baseball the past four weeks, but he will be able to concentrate on pitching after the Blue-Gold game Saturday, which marks the conclusion of spring practices.

With a full slate of Big East games ahead and tough games for other top teams in the conference, Mainieri says he is ready for an exciting Big East weekend.

“We’ve got four big games ahead of us this weekend, and I’m excited about it,” he said.