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Baseball: Big three to invade Florida

Ken Fowler | Friday, April 7, 2006

Notre Dame will bring its nine-game winning streak to Tampa this weekend for a three-game series against Big East newcomer South Florida.

Irish head coach Paul Mainieri will send his “big three” to the mound for the set, with junior right-hander Jeff Samardzija starting Friday, senior southpaw Tom Thornton throwing Saturday and junior righty Jeff Manship pitching Sunday.

“If we play our game – pitch as well as we can and play good defense – do the things that we do, then I think we can compete with South Florida and have some good results this weekend,” Mainieri said.

South Florida head coach Eddie Cardieri said he expected his pitchers to rise to the occasion against the Irish starters.

“If our guys pitch as we can, I think we’re looking at three real good pitching matchups,” he said in a telephone interview with The Observer Thursday. “I shudder when I look at the numbers Thornton, Samardzija and Manship have.”

South Florida right-hander Casey Hudspeth squares off against Samardzija in the opener at 7 p.m. Friday. Hudspeth is 3-3 in eight appearances with a 3.99 ERA this season. He has 57 strikeouts in 49.2 innings while holding opposing hitters to a .250 batting average.

“He’s got a good arm and a good curve ball,” Mainieri said. “We’ve got a great challenge against him.”

Samardzija enters the weekend with a 3-1 record and a 3.16 ERA in six starts.

Notre Dame (19-8, 5-1 Big East) topped Ball State 6-4 Wednesday to extend its winning streak to nine. Irish second baseman Russ Brezovsky hit a two-run homer in the seventh to give Notre Dame the lead for good.

South Florida’s season has been marked by streakiness. After winning just four of their first 13 games, the Bulls went 10-3 to climb to 14-12 on the season before facing Florida March 20. USF lost 6-5 in Gainesville, Fla., and then was swept by Cincinnati the next weekend. With an 11-0 loss to Central Florida Wednesday, the Bulls extended their losing streak to five.

“We just kind of hit the skids a little bit, ran into some tough luck,” Cardieri said. “We just hope that we can turn it around.”

Despite South Florida’s recent troubles, Mainieri said he is not taking the Bulls lightly.

“We’re not really concerning ourselves that much with how South Florida is playing,” he said. “We need to be clicking on all cylinders. This will be as challenging a series as we have all year.”

Notre Dame outfielder Danny Dressman leads the Irish attack at the plate with a .483 batting average and .481 slugging percentage. Mainieri said Dressman began the season as Notre Dame’s No. 4 or No. 5 outfielder, but acknowledged that Dressman “keeps forcing me to play him with how well he’s been playing.”

First baseman Craig Cooper will most likely bat first for Notre Dame in all three games. He has reached base to lead off the first in 14 of his 18 starts in the No. 1 hole.

South Florida sophomore righty Daniel Thomas will start game two against Thornton. Thomas is only 1-3 on the season but owns a 3.77 ERA. Thornton is 4-1 in six starts with a 3.02 ERA in 41.2 innings.

Cardieri will send sophomore left-hander Davis Bilardello to the mound Sunday to oppose Manship for game three. Bilardello has started in seven of his nine appearances and has a 1-1 record. He has struck out 31 batters in 44.2 innings with a 3.83 ERA.

Manship enters as Notre Dame’s top starter on the season with a 2.12 ERA. He has fanned 50 in 38 innings, holding opposing hitters to a .199 batting average.

“We know and respect Notre Dame’s program and what they’ve done,” Cardieri said. “[But] this league has so much parody, anybody can beat anybody.”

The games will begin at 7 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday.