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Irish welcome Hokies, still looking for ACC win

| Thursday, March 20, 2014

This weekend, the Irish will continue the hunt for their first ACC win when they begin a three-game series against Virginia Tech on Friday.

“I would just like to see our whole lineup get going and start to play better,” Irish coach Mik Aoki said. “I think they’re at a point where they are a little bit beaten down right now.”

So far this spring, Notre Dame (7-12, 0-6 ACC) carries a team batting average of .234.

“I think we’re going to try to plug [junior outfielder] Conor Biggio in there and see what he can do,” Aoki said. “I think, with some of the guys having struggled, it’s kind of rolled to [Biggio]. At the same time, putting [Biggio] in there is more because, in the limited opportunities he’s had, he’s done pretty well.”

As a team, Virginia Tech (10-8-1, 3-3 ACC) is hitting .266. This spring, the Hokies are paced by freshman outfielder Tom Stoffel and redshirt freshman outfielder Saige Jenco, as the duo is hitting .354 and .351, respectively. Conversely, the Irish are led by junior outfielder Blaise Lezynski, who is hitting .300.

“They seem to swing the bat at a little bit more of a proficient rate than we’ve been doing,” Aoki said. “I think that’s their biggest thing. On paper, they seem to be a bit more prolific offensively than we’ve been.”

Additionally, the Irish will be tasked with facing Virginia Tech junior catcher Mark Zagunis. Last week, Zagunis claimed the ACC Player of the Week award, as he hit .500 and slugged a team-high .682. Earlier this spring, the junior was nominated to both the Louisville Slugger and NCBWA Preseason All-American Second Team.

“He’s a very good player, an all-around good player. He’s an athlete, with a great swing and some juice in his bat,” Aoki said. “This is a kid, as long as the pitcher is giving him a chance to throw somebody out, who can control the running game. I don’t think he’s going to get rattled in any way, shape or form, and he’s been playing at a high-level for awhile now.”

According to Aoki, the Irish will still do their best to manufacture runs this weekend, maintaining an aggressive offensive approach.

“I think we’ve always tried to consciously play offense when we can, whether it’s steals, hit-and-runs, or bunting,” Aoki said. “Sometimes it’s found success this year and sometimes it has not, but I think we’re always trying to look to do that. If you watch college baseball now, that’s what everyone’s doing because of these bats; it’s like swinging wet noodles.”

Per Aoki, the Irish expect to start senior right-handed pitcher Sean Fitzgerald on Friday and sophomore right-handed pitcher Nick McCarty on Saturday. On Sunday, Notre Dame will turn to junior right-handed pitcher Pat Connaughton.

“I hope Connaughton comes out and throws a boatload of strikes,” Aoki said. “When he’s in the strike zone, they usually don’t do a whole lot with it. He should be somewhere between 60 to 75 pitches, and, if he is efficient with them, he should be able to get pretty deep into a game.”

On Friday, Notre Dame will play at Four Winds Field in South Bend, Ind. Though the team was scheduled to play its Saturday and Sunday games at the U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, Ind., poor field conditions due to winter frost have forced the Irish to move the second two games of the series to Grand Park in Westfield, Ind.

“This weekend, it will take up six hours of their time traveling to and from Westfield. There is no question that it is difficult for our players, just from the standpoint of the crunch that it puts on their academic time,” Aoki said. “From a venue standpoint, it’s difficult because there isn’t a ton of familiarity. I think familiarity can breed comfort, which, more than anything else, is why home teams tend to win the lion’s share of their games at home. Both teams are going to be adjusting, so it might as well be a game at a neutral site.”

This weekend, Notre Dame’s three-game series against Virginia Tech will begin at Four Winds Field in South Bend, Ind., at 5:35 p.m.

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