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No. 16 Cardinals visit Notre Dame in renewal of rivalry

| Friday, March 20, 2015

Notre Dame will meet a familiar foe in No. 16 Louisville on Friday to start its first weekend series of the season at Frank Eck Stadium.

The Cardinals (15-6, 5-1 ACC) and the Irish (15-4, 3-3) last met back in March 2013, Notre Dame’s final season in the Big East, when the Louisville earned the three-game sweep.

After a year in separate conferences, the teams meet this year as members of the ACC, and Irish batters will match up with one of the league’s stingiest squads on the mound.

Cardinal pitchers pace the conference in opponent batting average (.215), hits allowed per game (7.15) and strikeouts per game (10.1).

“They’re going to pitch; they’re going to have some guys with some power arms,” Irish head coach Mik Aoki said. “They’ve got guys that are swing-and-miss — they’re much more of a prolific strikeout-creating team than we are.”

However, the Irish come into the matchup after a big victory over Central Michigan in their home opener Wednesday, in which Notre Dame crossed the plate eight times, four in the first inning alone.

They were helped out by the performances of two players who have seen vastly improved results at the plate this season from 2014.

Sophomore catcher Ryan Lidge recorded two hits and a team-high three RBIs against the Chippewas and enters the Louisville series with a .317 batting average — a boost from last year’s .264.

“I think with Ryan, he’s a kid that we felt all along throughout the recruiting process and even last year that he just needed to continue to develop, that the talent was there, and now I think it began to show itself last summer,” Aoki said.

Perhaps even more improved in his hitting is junior shortshop Lane Richards, who batted .254 last season. Richards tallied two hits and drove in two runs on Wednesday, adding to his team-leading 15 RBIs and lifting his average to .329.

“I think that he’s just been far more committed to getting his swing off and just being aggressive,” Aoki said of Richards. “… He’s a talented kid, and he’s a hard-working kid. He’s a phenomenal kid, so I’m glad to see him have some success.”

Louisville comes into the series as one of the best teams in the ACC on the base paths. The Cardinals aren’t afraid to show some speed when they get on base — they lead the conference in stolen bases (31) and attempted steals (45) and stand second in steals per game (1.55).

“They’re going to be athletic,” Aoki said. “They’re going to be able to play the short game, steal some bases unless we do a good job of shutting it down. They’re a high-quality, ACC, national-level, elite program.”

Though Notre Dame stands eighth in the ACC in hits allowed per game (8.55), the team has shown proficiency in getting out runners before they swipe a bag or cross the plate. The Irish lead the nation with 30 double plays this season and recorded two against Central Michigan on Wednesday.

“We’re going to give up some hits because, unfortunately for us, not every ball that gets put into play finds a glove, so I think our kids are used to pitching like that, and our defense is used to playing that way,” Aoki said. “And we always feel like we’re just one pitch away from being able to be out of an inning by spinning a double play or just making a good play.”

Aoki said he will most likely send the usual weekend-series trio of senior right-hander Scott Kerrigan, freshman right-hander Brandon Bielak and junior right-hander Nick McCarty to the mound to start against the Cardinals.

“We’ve done well with those guys. Hopefully one of these weekends, we get all three of them going, but I’ve been really pleased with the way that they’ve thrown,” he said. “ … I feel good about our three guys that are starting, and we’ll certainly stick with that for the foreseeable future.”

The Irish and the Cardinals will start their three-game series Friday at 6:05 p.m. at Frank Eck Stadium with the first pitch for Saturday’s matchup at 2:05 p.m. and Sunday’s finale at 1:05 p.m.

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