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Baseball: Squad heads south for ’10 season opener

Chris Masoud | Friday, February 19, 2010

As the Irish lace up the cleats for the 2010 season opener against Mississippi Valley State this weekend, the ultimate goal in the back of their minds will be a bid to the College World Series. Fourth-year Irish coach Dave Schrage says that’s exactly where a trip to Omaha should be: the very back of his players’ minds.

“I know it’s cliché, but we’ve just been focusing on getting better every day and trying to be the best team we can be,” Schrage said. “We’ve been through January, and we told our guys we don’t want to talk about Mississippi Valley or Omaha or winning the Big East. We want to talk about getting better every day.”

Notre Dame has made significant strides over the past two seasons, improving its win total steadily from 28 in 2007 to 36 in 2009. The year’s team features 7 returning position players and 12 pitchers, an asset Schrage believes will be invaluable early in the season.

Nevertheless, Notre Dame lost two of its most productive hitters in outfielder A.J. Pollock and shortstop Jeremy Barnes to the MLB draft last May.

Pollock and Barnes combined for 25 home runs and 122 RBIs, but senior captain and designated hitter Ryan Connolly is confident the team’s balance will be enough to fill the void.

“We just need to be more consistent. I think we have the potential this year, instead of having two guys hit 12 to 15 home runs and drive in 60 runs, we can have six or seven guys hit five to seven home runs and still drive in runs. We have a different dynamic, and I think it will make us a different team to play against.”

Led by Connolly and junior captain Mick Doyle, Schrage believes the Irish are more than capable of handling the best the Big East has to offer.

“No question about it, you have to play to your personnel,” Schrage said. “I think we’re going to be more of a manufacture-runs type team. We’ve been working a lot on hitting and running, and running and hitting. We have to be more aggressive on the base paths. We’ve got a little bit less power, so you have to make up for it with base running.”

The Irish will rely heavily on the experience and depth of the pitching staff to keep them in close games. Junior captain Cole Johnson, who led the team with 94.2 innings pitched and 64 strikeouts in 2009, returns as the Irish ace. Schrage will use a rotation of Johnson, senior Eric Maust, junior captain Brian Dupra and freshman Steve Sabatino, each of whom can pitch deep into games.

“It’s going to be a bit more balanced,” Schrage said. “We’re coming in with a lot of confidence with four starting pitchers right now, and at the end of games we’re really going to need our bullpen. They can take a little bit of pressure off of our starting staff.”

The Irish hope the biggest improvement from 2009 will be the ability to win consistently on the road. Notre Dame finished 6-7 away from Eck Stadium, a trend Schrage says he would like to reverse when the Irish open the season Friday with a three-game series against the Delta Devils.

“When you play on the road you have to be a lot more mentally tough,” Schrage said. “You have to overcome a lot of the obstacles on the road. Any sport it’s tough to win on the road, but good teams find a way to get it done.”