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Chuck In The Armour: Irish Classic Preview

Feb 28, 2013, 2:33 PM EDT

Team USA Baseball Training Complex in Cary, N.C.

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’re a regular reader of UNDerground, you might have seen his season preview earlier this month. Chuck returns to the blog today, as Notre Dame prepares to depart for the USA Baseball-Irish Classic in Cary, N.C.

Brian Kelly kept referring to it during football season as the process – the week-by-week development of his team. For Mik Aoki, it’s the journey. And like the band of that name, it’s important Aoki’s baseball players “don’t stop believing” that they need to keep improving as this season goes along.

There are plenty of backslappers for the Irish right now, after Baseball America ranked Notre Dame No. 22 in this week’s poll. It’s the first time an Irish baseball team has been ranked in the top 25 since May 2006. So you can pardon fans if they’re a little giddy right now.

It’s not that way for the players, who seem more concerned with finding the right walk-up song or pre-game mix tape these days than where they are ranked. By the way, that’s a good thing. The rankings will take care of themselves. The problem of hideous music as you walk to the plate falls on each player. Allegedly, freshman Zak Kutsulis is not to be allowed anywhere near the pregame music, but that’s another story for another time.

Right now, the bats, pitching and defense have found themselves in perfect harmony…but all three have areas where they can improve. Yes, the Irish had good situational hitting, better bunting and timely two-out knocks against Tulane. However, run production needs to become a little more consistent. Defense is improved over last year, but the game that featured three errors also marks the lone loss. Pitchers are usually pounding the strike zone, but seven walks on Sunday are fine for a dog, not for a pitching staff.

They seem like picky criticisms when a team is winning, but they are the kinds of things Aoki and his staff harp on now so they don’t lead to losses down the road, including this weekend when the road takes Notre Dame to the USA Baseball-Irish Classic in Cary, N.C.

The first four-game set of the season forces the Irish to expand their starting staff, so junior Donnie Hissa gets his first career start. Hissa worked as a starter during the summer, and he’ll get the nod in the Friday opener against UMass, a team playing its first game of the season. Regular Friday starter Sean Fitzgerald takes the bump against SEC foe Tennessee, a team that features 18 freshmen, but managed a win over #20 Arizona State last weekend.

Saturday brings the marquee matchup of the weekend, as the Irish square off with No. 25 Virginia Tech. Hokie coach Pete Hughes and Mik Aoki were teammates at Davidson and have remained close friends. Virginia Tech’s lineup is one of the deeper ones in the Atlantic Coast Conference and will provide a stern test for senior Adam Norton, who has picked up two wins this year despite not having his best stuff yet.

On Sunday, freshman David Hearne tries to shake off last week’s difficult start when he faces Rhode Island. I know the Rams are 0-8. I also know they have played nothing but top-10 teams so far, so they won’t be intimidated by Notre Dame’s ranking.

All these caution flags aren’t leftovers from Daytona last Sunday. They are merely a reminder that while the Irish are a talented bunch, they make me think of the Herb Brooks’ quote uttered in the movie Miracle…”gentlemen, you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.” The hard work that brought Notre Dame to this point will be needed to get them past this point.

What point the Irish will reach is anyone’s guess. I know Mik likes the potential of this team…but potential is just a fancy word for what might be. At this point, no one…and especially not the Irish themselves… know how good they can be. So, Notre Dame’s players will continue to hear the message “next pitch” as their focal point.

As that noted baseball fan, Ernest Hemingway once said, “it is good to have an end to journey toward, but it’s the journey that matters in the end.”

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