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Chuck In The Armour: Season Preview

Feb 15, 2013, 9:22 AM EDT

photo by Matt Cashore photo by Matt Cashore

Chuck Freeby is a 1986 graduate of the University of Notre Dame, and the voice of Fighting Irish baseball on Harvest Radio (WHME 103.1 FM) and UND.com. If you read Irish UNDerground last season, you might remember his “Chuck In The Armor” series. Chuck returns to the blog today, as Notre Dame prepares to depart for a its season-opening weekend in Sarasota, Fla.

Eight years ago, the Dodgers were preparing to play their spring training opener. The complex in Vero Beach had been ravaged by a recent hurricane, but the game would be played. The incomparable broadcaster Vin Scully, opened his call by saying:

You look out at the outfield fence and you’ve got some palm trees. Old palm trees are down and they’re not coming back. You’ve got some mid-sized palm trees that look like they’re going to survive, and then you’ve got some new palm trees that have just been planted. Isn’t that what spring training is all about?

And as Notre Dame’s baseball team heads to Florida to open the 2013 season, the Irish roster looks like the scene Scully depicted. Veterans like Will Hudgins, Alex Robinson and Joe Hudson are gone and not coming back. Familiar faces are back and offering stability, much like those mid-size palm trees. And then a host of new players hope to take root in the Irish lineup and bear fruit.

This is as experienced and talented a team as Mik Aoki has had in his three years at the helm. The top of his lineup will look much the same as last year with co-captains Frank DeSico (2B) and Charlie Markson (CF) likely batting 1-2, third baseman Eric Jagielo in the three hole and first baseman Trey Mancini hitting cleanup. That’s four .300 or better hitters from last season to start things off.

The five-hole brings about some interesting questions. Last year, that was Joe Hudson, who was a sixth-round choice of the Cincinnati Reds. Forrest Johnson will fill Hudson’s role behind the plate, and the junior from Hudson, Ohio, is undoubtedly the most improved player on the roster. Even his brother, Cole, marveled how far his brother has come in the last two years. Johnson had a pair of big RBI hits in Tuesday night’s intrasquad game, but he’s not a big power stick.

If Aoki wants some more pop in that five hole, he could go with one of his corner outfielders or designated hitter. That could mean someone like sophomore Ryan Bull or freshmen like James Nevant, Kyle Richardson or Ricky Sanchez, who could see time in the outfield or backing up Johnson behind the plate. Chances are early in the season, Aoki will use a rotation, seeing if there’s someone who can lay claim to the spot.

When Aoki wants a little more speed or bunting ability, he can go with sophomores Mac Hudgins or Conor Biggio.

Shortstop was a revolving door last year. There’s hope that won’t be the case this year. Freshman Lane Richards will get first crack at earning the starting job. The youngster from Pendleton, Ore., has a strong, accurate arm, but we’ll see how he adapts to college pitching. Sophomore Jason McMurray, who batted .323 in BIG EAST games last year, waits in the wings.

As for the pitching staff, junior Sean Fitzgerald will start the opener for the second straight year. Fitzgerald went 7-3 last season, and is as complete a pitcher as there is on the Irish staff. With a summer of work behind him, he should be better suited to a starter’s role this year.

Senior Adam Norton gets the nod against Ohio State. It’s hard to believe he’s already a senior, and his five-pitch mix and bulldog attitude make him tough to beat.

Freshman David Hearne will start the Sunday tilt against Mercer. He has a fastball around 90 miles per hour, but has shown a good ability to mix the curve and changeup. Of course, you never know what you’ll get with a freshman, but pitching coach Chuck Ristano has confidence that Hearne can be “dynamic.”

As for the bullpen, veteran set up man junior Donnie Hissa and junior closer Dan Slania are the anchors, but they’ll need some help from returnees like Matt Ternowchek and Christian Torres. Torres was unhittable Tuesday night in the intra-squad. If he can bring that same kind of nasty stuff out of the pen, he’ll add some much needed depth.

Some freshmen lefties will likely see some time, as well. Not only can Zak Kutsulis hit, he can be called on to pitch, as can southpaw Michael Hearne. Those are the only two left-handed arms on the staff.

Expectations are as high as the Florida palm trees for the Irish. Baseball America has already deemed them an NCAA tournament team. I know they are chomping at the bit to play, and I am eager to get back behind the mic as well. I know I can’t do as well as Vin Scully – who can? – but I hope you’ll be ready to “pull up a chair, sit back, relax” and join me all season long on UND.com.

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