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Baseball: Aoki improves program in first season as coach

Andrew Gastelum | Friday, May 20, 2011

With a new coach and a young team, Notre Dame had an excuse for its anemic offense and poor run support early in the season.

But the Irish (21-24-1, 12-11 Big East) are starting to peak at the right time after winning consecutive series against Big East opponents Seton Hall and Rutgers — two of the three teams vying for the final spot in the Big East Tournament. Notre Dame capped off its recent success with a three-game sweep of South Florida last weekend.

The story of Irish coach Mik Aoki’s first season has been his young squad’s considerable progress, guided by the senior leaders.

“The one thing that I have been really impressed with and thankful for is our seniors who have really bought in and done an exemplary job of leading the team throughout the year,” Aoki said. “There has been some progress and we hope that it’ll be enough to play us into the [Big East] tournament.”

Notre Dame hired Aoki in July of 2010 to replace Dave Schrage. Aoki led Boston College to its first NCAA Regional since 1967 with a 34-26 record in 2009.

This year Aoki has faced some new struggles as his team’s worst enemy has been itself. His toughest challenge may be dealing with an inconsistency that emerged from the season’s onset.

“This year has been a little up-and-down,” Aoki said. “If the season were to end today, I would say that we have underachieved who I think we could be a little bit. At times we have really shown that we could be a quality ball club, and at times I have been really disappointed with our level of play.”

But the biggest strength for the Irish has been their pitching, as the staff is ranked first in the pitching-heavy Big East in runs allowed (136) and second in earned run average (3.00).

Brian Dupra (3-5), Lowe’s Senior Class Award finalist Cole Johnson (2-5) and Todd Miller (4-3) have spearheaded the effort. All three seniors have sub-3.00 ERAs, but a lack of run support has cost them wins throughout the course of the year.

“I think it has been a very good season but I wish I had a few more wins,” Dupra said. “I think we have some pieces of the puzzle to go forward and get going to make the season that much better. But it is just amazing pitching Friday nights — that’s what you come here to do. It’s been awesome, and I’ll remember coming into games knowing that you’re going up against the best and having to bring your best as well.”

Meanwhile, the Irish may have witnessed the birth of a future star in freshman first baseman Trey Mancini. The first-year slugger leads the Irish in nearly every offensive category going into the last week of the season, including batting average (.342), home runs (7) and RBI (28).

The highlight of his year thus far came in a crucial 5-4 comeback win against Seton Hall May 1, when Mancini cleared the left field fence with a two-out, three-run home run to give the Irish the lead for good.

“College baseball is a 55-game season, so you can’t get too down on yourself when you have one bad game,” the first baseman said after his game-winning blast. “You have just got to keep going, stay positive and wait for the right pitch to hit.”

With a spot in the conference tournament still up for grabs, the Irish will need to rely on timely hitting, an area Aoki has focused on all year. The squad will look to clinch a playoff berth when it ends the season with an away series against seventh-place Louisville starting May 19.