Mar 8, 2013, 10:18 AM EDT
As the Irish prepare for a big weekend in the Golden State, Chuck Freeby (’86) returns to the blog with his latest “Chuck in the Armour” preview. Freeby is the voice of Notre Dame baseball on Harvest Radio (WHME 103.1 FM). You can also catch all the games on UND.com, beginning tonight at 9 pm ET.
Contrary to popular belief, Notre Dame’s baseball team is unbeaten this year…at least that’s the opinion of head coach Mik Aoki.
The official ledger says Notre Dame is 8-2, with losses to Mercer and Rhode Island. But in Aoki’s mind, the only team to beat the Irish this year is Notre Dame itself. It doesn’t take much to make the case. After all, in their two losses, the Irish have committed eight errors.
When they have played cleanly – and that has been most of the time – the Irish are a very good baseball team, and one that appears worthy of their No. 22 ranking. The 3-4 combo of junior All-American candidates Eric Jagielo and Trey Mancini is one of the most formidable in the country. Sophomore Ryan Bull leads the BIG EAST in hits.
And then there’s the pitching.
The team ERA is 2.39 through a 10-game period that includes facing three teams ranked in the top 30. The bullpen has put together 35.0 innings with a miniscule ERA of 1.03. Junior Sean Fitzgerald has pitched better than his 1-0 record. Reigning BIG EAST pitcher of the week and senior Adam Norton has been terrific, and even freshman David Hearne has had dominating moments.
They’ll need to be on their game this weekend though. Notre Dame heads to Los Angeles for the first time in nearly a decade, facing a gauntlet of teams and opposing pitchers unlike anything it has faced in recent years.
No. 7 UCLA sends Adam Plutko to the hill Friday night, the pitcher that led the Pac-12 in wins last year. The Bruins’ team ERA is not much worse than the Irish mark at 2.45. UCLA’s lineup is built similarly to Notre Dame’s – four solid hitters, some speed – but the difference has been more productivity with runners in scoring position. Still, there’s no reason for the Irish to be intimidated when they walk into Jackie Robinson Stadium.
USC hurler Wyatt Strahan takes a 1.59 ERA to the bump against Norton Saturday. Strahan was scratched from last weekend’s start for undisclosed reasons, one of a myriad of Trojan injuries. The USC program has struggled in recent years and interim coach Dan Hubbs has done a nice job just to get them to 6-6. Third baseman Kevin Swick provides the spark for the offense, but unlike their crosstown rivals, the timely hit has eluded the Trojans most of the season.
On Sunday, it’s a matchup with No. 17 Oklahoma back on the UCLA campus. Big lefty Adam Choplick has been impressive in his return from Tommy John surgery, posting a 2-0 record with a brilliant 0.87 ERA. The Irish have usually been tough on lefties with their predominantly right-handed lineup, but they’ll have to keep up with one of the better offensive lineups in the nation. The Sooners are hitting at .299 clip and scoring over seven runs per game.
If there’s one warning light blinking on the Irish engine, it’s the lack of productivity from the bottom of the batting order. In the last two games of the USA Baseball-Irish Classic, the bottom five hitters in the Irish order went a combined 1-for-32. Despite having 14 hits for the season, the only three runs Mancini has scored this year are on his three home runs. For the first 10 games, the top four spots in the order are batting .337…the bottom five are at .236. Sooner or later, teams will start pitching around Bull, Jagielo and Mancini unless someone steps up.
Notre Dame believes it’s truly a top-25 team and this is weekend could provide the necessary amount of evidence. Otherwise, the Irish may be playing someone good enough to actually beat them.
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