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Baseball: Offense catches fire as squad sweeps UConn

Mary Green and Vicky Jacobsen | Monday, April 29, 2013

The Irish broke out the brooms and picked up a crucial three-game sweep of Connecticut over the weekend at Frank Eck Stadium. 

Notre Dame (26-16, 7-8 Big East) set the tone for the weekend by besting the Huskies in a big 12-2 win Friday, came back from an early deficit to claim a 4-3 victory Saturday and closed out the series with Sunday’s 12-5 win.

A current four-game win streak comes at the right moment for Notre Dame, who entered the weekend with a 4-8 Big East record, but closes it with three more conference victories as the season approaches its final month.

“What I talk to these guys going down the stretch is that it is playoff baseball,” Irish coach Mik Aoki said. “It doesn’t mean that we have to be perfect, but any margin for error that we created with the start of the season that we had in those first 20 games, we kind of used up in our next 20 games. So really as it comes down the stretch, these last 16 games are going to be critically important for us.”

With spots in both the Big East tournament and the NCAA tournament in their sights, the Irish got off to a strong start in the series’ first game.

Not even a 25-minute official delay could slow down a Notre Dame lineup that knocked out a season-high 17 hits. Although sophomore right-hander Pat Connaughton struggled early on, giving up a run in each of the first two innings, his teammates put seven runs on the board before he came back for the top of the third. Connaughton, who eventually earned the win to bring his record to 2-2, allowed just three more base runners before handing the ball to freshman right-hander Nick McCarty in the sixth.

The pitching change did not go smoothly, however. Although McCarty was listed on the 25-man roster, he was not on the lineup card, and the game was delayed while the umpires verified that a player need only be listed on the 25-man roster to play. 

“Our kids responded phenomenally well to it – we tacked on another five runs and kept them right where they were,” Aoki said. “At some level or another every kid that has ever played baseball and gets to this level has some kind of a delay during the course of his game – a weather delay, a lightning delay, an injury delay, a something delay. So you just kind of get used to that part of it.”

It was the two through five hitters who did most of the damage on Friday. Sophomore left fielder Mac Hudgins, junior third baseman Eric Jagielo, junior first baseman Trey Mancini and sophomore right fielder Ryan Bull had a combined 12 hits and eight RBIs en route to a 12-2 win. 

Aoki said he hoped his players would step up at the plate for the last part of the season to make a push for the postseason, especially after a rough stretch in the middle of the year in which the Irish drop six straight games.

“We just kind of got together and we get together with the team as a group and I basically lit them up like Christmas trees, challenged them a little bit,” he said. “They responded great. And I think part of why they responded great, to be honest with you, is that I think they agreed with me. We talked about holding each other accountable and talked about being the one that throws the first punch and we talked about going out there and winning pitches rather than hoping that we were going to win pitches.”

If dominant hitting won the game for Notre Dame on Friday, on Saturday the Irish got some help from Connecticut’s miscues in the field. Senior right-hander Adam Norton gave the Huskies (25-19, 8-10 Big East) a two-run lead in the first, but the Irish gained back a run in the bottom of the fourth when Jagielo, who had gotten on base after being hit by Connecticut starter Anthony Marzi, came home from third on a balk. 

The Huskies scored one more run in the fifth when leadoff hitter Tom Verdi hit a solo shot off Norton, but Jagielo, who had once again gotten on base after being hit by a pitch, scored again in the sixth when a sharply-hit ball from Bull skipped past the glove of senior second baseman L.J. Mazzilli. The Irish took the lead for good in the bottom of the eighth when Jagielo scored after  sophomore pinch hitter Conor Biggio hit a swinging bunt to Connecticut first baseman Bobby Melley, who dropped the ball, and the Irish closed the middle game with a 4-3 comeback victory.

The weekend’s final matchup saw the two squads use a combined 11 pitchers throughout the afternoon. Connecticut jumped out to a quick lead, grabbing three runs in the first two innings off junior starter Sean Fitzgerald, who was relieved by freshman right-hander David Hearne after 1.2 innings. 

A leadoff home run off the bat of senior second baseman Frank DeSico put the Irish on the board in the first, and the team made up the early deficit by scoring three more runs in the second inning to take a 4-3 lead.

In the third inning, the Huskies tied it up at four, a score that held until they crossed the plate again in the top of the fifth to reclaim the lead over the Irish and junior right-hander Donnie Hissa.

Notre Dame finally opened the floodgates in the bottom of the fifth inning, when eight Irish batters tagged Connecticut for four runs, starting with junior first baseman Trey Mancini’s single to right field. The All-American candidate picked up nine hits in 12 at-bats over the weekend and has racked up 15 hits in his last 18 at-bats in a weeklong span, boosting his average to .374. 

Notre Dame picked up four more runs to take the finale by a score of 12-5.

Mancini’s efforts reflected the overall offense of Notre Dame in the series, leaving Aoki impressed with his team.

“Our hitters, I think they’ve been really good,” he said. “I just felt like we were attacking. [Against] Michigan State [on April 24], we attacked. This weekend, we’ve attacked. We’ve been the aggressor, we’ve been the one to throw the first punch.”

With their bats finally clicking, the Irish return to the diamond Tuesday to face Central Michigan at Theunissen Stadium in Mount Pleasant, Mich., at 4:05 p.m.

Contact Mary Green at [email protected] and Vicky Jacobsen at [email protected]