Defending champs await ND
Aaron Sant-Miller | Friday, February 28, 2014
On Friday, Notre Dame will begin a four-game weekend with a matchup against No. 13 UCLA, the reigning national champions, as the Irish travel to Cary, N.C., for the USA Baseball-Irish Classic.
“As the defending champions, playing UCLA (4-4) will be a great challenge for us, but we have the luxury of playing them as recently as last year,” Irish coach Mik Aoki said. “I thought we played a really good game against them last season. It was a good, competitive game, so I hope my guys feel good about the opportunity to play UCLA. We’re very much looking forward to playing them this weekend.”
On Saturday, the Irish (3-4) will continue their weekend against Youngstown State (0-5) in an 11:30 a.m. game before their 3 p.m. game against Michigan (1-5-1). Then, on Sunday, Notre Dame will wrap up its weekend against Appalachian State (0-8) at 11 a.m.“We’ve played Michigan twice a year almost every year I’ve been here,” Aoki said. “This year, we’ll be playing Appalachian State and Michigan later in the season, so it will be good to face them like this early on.”
At the same time, the Irish are not traveling south firing on all cylinders. This weekend, Aoki said Notre Dame plans to drop junior right-handed pitcher Scott Kerrigan from the starting rotation after a rough start to 2014. Though Kerrigan has already started two games this season, he has only made it through 3.1 innings and carries a 13.50 ERA.
“We’re going to take [Kerrigan] out of the rotation for the time being while we just get him throwing and getting a little bit more confidence back in what he’s doing,” Aoki said. “For us to be good, we’ll need for him to be good. For now, he’ll have to work through a few issues, but I think he’ll be fine.”
Additionally, replacing 2013 Big East Player of the Year Eric Jagielo has been a challenge for the Irish. Last spring, the third baseman was drafted in the first round of the MLB draft by the New York Yankees.
So far this season, Irish freshman infielder Kyle Fiala has stepped into Jagielo’s spot, starting four of Notre Dame’s first seven games at third base. Despite an impressive high school resume, Fiala has struggled to start the season, hitting just .125.
“[Fiala] did enough to warrant another weekend,” Aoki said. “He had one tough error, but as the weekend went on, I thought his at-bats got better. He had a big double against Santa Clara and had a couple other hard-hit balls. Defensively, there were maybe three plays where I don’t think another third baseman in the program could have made those kinds of plays. With that, I thought he did enough to lengthen out his leash a bit as our third baseman.”
Oddly enough, missing from Notre Dame’s schedule this weekend is No. 8 NC State, the sixth and final team in the tournament. According to Aoki, this was a strategic move on the part of the two teams.
“Since we’re playing NC State next weekend, we aren’t playing them in this trip,” Aoki said. “NC State, when they called us and asked us if we wanted to be involved in this, specifically talked about this. At the time, the ACC schedule wasn’t out yet, so we decided that we would play each other if we happened to miss each other on the ACC schedule. But, if we were on the schedule for playing one another, we wouldn’t play each other in this tournament.”
Though the Irish have to wait until March 7 to play the Wolfpack (7-1) for the first time this season, the team will first have to take on another top-15 team in UCLA on Friday.
The Irish will play the Bruins at 6:30 p.m. Friday in Cary, N.C., at the USA Baseball Complex.