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ND prepares for No. 8 Wolfpack

| Thursday, March 6, 2014

On Friday, the Irish will open a three-game series against No. 8 North Carolina State, a team only a few wins short of the 2013 National Championship. After winning the Raleigh Super Regional last spring, the Wolfpack fell in the second round of the College World Series.

“Look, NC State doesn’t have a whole lot of chinks in their armor,” Irish coach Mik Aoki said. “They are a preseason top-10. They are a returning Omaha team. This is the year, if you look at the guys they have, they’ve been really building toward the National Championship. They’ve played that way; they’ve lived up to the hype, except stubbing their toe against Canisius early on.”

This weekend, Notre Dame (5-6) will play games against North Carolina State (10-2), on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and the Irish will face Wolfpack junior left-handed pitcher Carlos Rodon in one of those three games.

“We’re going to be facing the odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft,” Aoki said. “We’re going to get in there, compete like crazy. He’s actually lost two games already this season; he’s not immortal.”

So far this season, Rodon is 1-2 with a 2.14 ERA, 23 strikeouts and only six walks.

“Obviously, with Rodon, you have a narrow margin for error,” Aoki said. “In basketball, when you’re facing LeBron James, you know that LeBron is going to get his points. When you’re facing a guy like Rodon, he’s going to get his punch-outs. He’s probably going to punch you out nine, 10, 12 times. That doesn’t mean you’re going to lose your game. It just means you have to make your other outs productive.”

This weekend will not be the first time Notre Dame has faced a talented pitcher this spring. When Notre Dame fell to No. 9 UCLA, 2-1, last Friday, the Irish had the challenge of facing Bruins sophomore right-handed pitcher James Kaprielian. So far this season, Kaprielian has a 0.90 ERA with 27 strikeouts and only five walks.

“We don’t really change our approach when we’re facing a guy like [Rodon],” Aoki said. “You just have to go out there and play your game. If you have something that says, ‘this is what he does 80 percent of the time in a particular count,’ then maybe you sit that pitch in that particular count. Individually, you play to what you do well. You go up there with a plan and try to execute that plan to the best of your ability.

Offensively, the Wolfpack is led by junior infielder Trea Turner. Last season, Turner led North Carolina State in batting average, runs, triples, total bases, walks, OBP and stolen bases, despite not playing in 11 games due to injury. So far this season, Turner is hitting .370, just out-pacing his .368 mark from his sophomore campaign.

“Turner changes a lot of stuff,” Aoki said. “He’s a guy that flies, with a little bit of juice in his bat. Thankfully, we can limit him to four or five at-bats a game. We don’t have to worry about him being on the bases if we don’t let him on the bases. At the same time, he’s going to say something about that, too.”

Luckily for the Irish, Aoki explained, Notre Dame’s strengths match up well against a team that is aggressive on the base paths.

“One of our strengths as a pitching staff over the last couple years is that we’re able to control the running game, to a certain extent,” Aoki said. “We put a pretty high emphasis on that. We’ve got two catchers who are capable of throwing guys out and controlling the running game. With Turner, you’ve got a unique and special talent, which is why he is being considered as a potential first round draft pick. If he gets a couple stolen bases on you, well, great. You just have to make the pitches and the outs so that he doesn’t eventually cross home plate.”

Despite the challenge of facing a top-ranked team, Notre Dame will look to get back above .500 on the season.

“On paper, should they beat us? Yeah, they should, but you still have to go out there and play it. If one of our guys gets the hot hand, and we score a couple of runs, we’re able to beat them 2-1. That kind of stuff happens all the time.”

Notre Dame begins its series against North Carolina State on Friday at 3 p.m. in Raleigh, N.C. at Doak Stadium.

Contact Aaron Sant-Miller at [email protected]

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