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Baseball: Big 10 to provide challenge

Chris Masoud | Friday, February 26, 2010

Notre Dame rose to the occasion in its first test of the season, routing Mississippi Valley State for the first season-opening three-game road sweep in program history. The competition will suddenly get stronger, though, as the Irish travel to Florida for the Big Ten/Big East Challenge.

Notre Dame (3-0) will face three of the Big Ten’s best in Illinois, Ohio State (3-0) and Penn State in the three-day tournament. Irish coach Dave Schrage says his team will have to play up to the higher competition if they hope to maintain their success on the road.

“It’s a great challenge for us,” Schrage said. “Right now we’re just focusing on Illinois. We did this last year down there, and right now we just want to beat Illinois and we’ll move on from there. We’ve set a benchmark with how we played against Mississippi Valley. Now we’re going against better competition, we have to get better.”

The Irish offense erupted to the tune of 39 runs in three games against the Delta Devils, a promising sign for a lineup that has been limited to hitting in the batting cages for the better part of the offseason. Senior first basemen Casey Martin was named Big East Player of the Week after batting .500 with two home runs and seven RBIs over the weekend.

“He’s a senior and I think he plays with a lot of confidence,” Schrage said. “It’s kind of funny, out of all our hitters hitting in the cage live, he was probably struggling the most. Sometimes you get outside and the ball looks bigger. He’ll tell you, his first hit was a swinging bunt, but it’s a base hit, and as a hitter that gives you confidence.”

Like Schrage, Martin attributes the team’s offensive success to playing outdoors for the first time all season. Although the Big Ten pitching staffs will be bringing more heat, Martin said he expects a solid plate approach to lead to the same results.

“I’m glad I could contribute and help the team win a few games down there. I think everybody on the team was a little bit anxious to get outside and see some pitches live,” Martin said. “Obviously there will be small adjustments because of the new pitching staff we’re looking at. Everybody’s having good at bats, and I think we’ll be fine.”

While the offense appears to be operating in midseason form, Schrage said the pitchers will still be running on a pitch count this early in the season. Irish ace junior Cole Johnson will take the rubber for Game 1, followed by junior Brian Dupra and senior Eric Maust in Games 2 and 3, respectively.

“We got some tough lineups to face,” Schrage said. “Illinois returns five really good hitters in their lineup. Ohio State, one through nine, is a veteran club. This weekend, we’re going to have to be a little bit more finesse. We’re facing some really good fastball hitting teams, so it’s imperative for Cole and Brian to get their changeups and breaking balls over.”

The Irish take the field against Illinois on Friday at 4:30 p.m., against Ohio State on Saturday at 4 p.m. and against Penn State on Sunday at 10 a.m.