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Baseball: Irish travel to face Pittsburgh

Chris Masoud | Friday, April 1, 2011

Along with several Major League teams taking the field for the first time at home, Pittsburgh welcomes Notre Dame in its conference home opener Friday. The Panthers will be looking for their first Big East win at Charles L. Cost Field, while the Irish hope to christen the facility with a loss on the strength of their pitchers.

“Pitching is always going to be a big deal,” Irish coach Mik Aoki said. “The pitching staff has been solid all year long. [The players] pitch to their strengths. We’re lucky to have three seniors who can step up to the challenge.”

Aoki will hand the ball to his trio of senior right-handers Brian Dupra, Cole Johnson and Todd Miller. The three starters have logged 16 quality starts and have propelled Notre Dame (10-12-1, 2-1 Big East) to second in the conference with a team ERA of 2.68.

But the staff should face its toughest test of the season against the Panthers (13-9, 1-2), who have a lineup that includes eight batters with batting averages over .300.

Pittsburgh senior catcher Kevan Smith leads the ballclub with a .459 average, 34 hits and 5 doubles.

While freshman hurler Anthony McIver is the only scholarship left-hander available off the bench, Aoki said he is not concerned with the absence of a lefty in the weekend rotation.

“All of them [Dupra, Johnson and Miller] have weapons to handle lefthanders,” Aoki said. “They all seem to be able to jump into the zone on a pretty consistent basis. I don’t think it’s going to be an enormous issue. When you look at the Big East, there’s not one team that’s just left-handed dominant.”

Confident that his pitchers are up to the challenge, Aoki said he was especially pleased with their performances earlier in the year against Gonzaga and Coastal Carolina, teams with potent lineups. The first-year skipper is more concerned with the productivity of his own offense, which showed signs of turning the corner in a 3-2 win over Central Michigan on Tuesday.

“You just try to go up there offensively and have some quality at-bats,” Aoki said. “You get one pitch every at-bat that you’re going to be able to handle. Hopefully we can put a quality swing on it.”

Freshman right-hander Dan Slania has been a reliable option out of the bullpen for Aoki, as the rookie picked up his third save of the season in Tuesday’s win. Although Slania has emerged as a go-to arm out of the pen, Aoki said he will consider sophomore right-hander Adam Norton and junior righty Will Hudgins in late game situations as well.

“I think the way we’ve been doing that is that as the game goes along, you try to play matchups,” Aoki said. “Maybe Norton will give us a pretty good matchup, or Hudgins, or somebody else — it really depends on the type of hitter.”

The Irish take the field in Pittsburgh Friday at 3 p.m., Saturday at 1 p.m. and Sunday at noon.