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Irish set to host tournament in Florida

| Friday, March 2, 2018

After falling in the championship of the 20th annual Irish Alamo Classic last weekend in San Antonio, the Irish will head south this weekend to host the Kissimmee Irish Classic. The tournament, which features Youngstown State, Seton Hall and Seattle University, will take place at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Florida, which is the spring training home of the Houston Astros and the home stadium of the Florida Fire Frogs, an A-affiliate of the Atlanta Braves.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer
Irish junior outfielder Matt Vierling races to second base during Notre Dame’s 5-4 win over Duke on April 28 at Frank Eck Stadium.

Notre Dame (4-3) will face opponents who are theoretically a bit less challenging than teams it has faced already this season, such as LSU, but Irish head coach Mik Aoki knows that his squad will face considerable challenges and will need to maintain a high level of play.

“Youngstown State (1-5) was an awfully good team, and they’ve got some kids returning who put up some funny numbers. I think they had one kid who had 17 or 18 home runs last year,” Aoki said. “They’ve got another kid who had 15 home runs last year. I think we’ll have to play well. And Seton Hall (2-4) is obviously an old-school Big East rival, and every single one of those games that I’ve been involved in with them since I’ve been at Notre Dame has been a nail-biting affair and really hard-fought. Those have been difficult games. And then the last one is with Seattle (5-4). It’s been a while since we’ve played them, but we played them my first year at Notre Dame and they took two of three from us.”

Plus, Aoki said, college baseball is fickle by nature. On any given day, a team that matches up well against its opponent on paper could easily drop a game due to factors like pitching alignments and matchups.

“College baseball is so much different than something like college football,” Aoki said. “[Baseball] is so contingent upon how the pitching lines up and how matchups are. We could have — and I’m not saying that we do — clearly the superior group of players and just get one guy on the mound who has it going, and you just never know. I think probably the closest comparison is hockey or soccer, where you get a hot goalie, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re the No. 1 team in the country … you might end up dropping a couple of games to somebody that, on paper, you’re supposed to beat. … Pitching is that great equalizer in our game.”

In line with this sentiment, Aoki sees a need for improvement in his starting pitching staff, which has struggled with control and efficiency as of late. Aoki said he wants to see his staff challenge the strike zone more efficiently and reduce the numbers of walks it surrenders. But he remains confident that, as the season goes on, the staff will improve.

“Our starting pitching needs to be more efficient, they need to be better,” Aoki said. “We can’t continue to walk hitters at the rate at which we’re walking them and expect to have sustainable success. … I have been pleased, really for the most part, everywhere else but our starters. Now those guys have to challenge in the strike zone a little bit more than what they have been. But it’s their second outing, too, and we’ll get better and those guys will get better. This isn’t anything that they don’t know. It’ll be fine.”

The Irish will begin their run at the championship this weekend Friday at 6:30 p.m., when they will take on Youngstown State.

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