Apr 9, 2013, 11:17 PM EDT
The Notre Dame baseball team capitalized on the first days of spring weather in South Bend by winning their first four home games of the season at Frank Eck Stadium. The Irish won midweek games against UIC and Valparaiso, and then took two of three from the Villanova Wildcats this past weekend. Now 19-10 on the season, and 4-5 in the BIG EAST, the Irish are ranked as high as No. 16 in the Collegiate Baseball poll.
The series with Villanova opened up with a thriller on Friday, as the Irish walked off with a 4-3 victory in eleven innings. Notre Dame is now 10-5 in 15 one-run games this season, an amazing stat considering they have only played 29 games total.
Sophomore pitcher Pat Connaughton took the mound for the Irish, throwing four scoreless innings. Notre Dame took a 3-1 lead behind RBIs from sophomores Ryan Bull and Blaise Lezynski, and junior Eric Jagielo. Unfortunately, junior relief pitcher Sean Fitzgerald ran into trouble in the top of the eighth and the Wildcats were able to even the score at 3-3.
The teams traded scoreless frames until the bottom of the eleventh. Senior co-captain Charlie Markson led off the inning with a single, and then stole second base. Freshman catcher Ricky Sanchez came through in the clutch for the Irish, hitting a walk-off single up the middle that plated Markson for the winning run. Junior pitcher Dan Slania was fantastic yet again, throwing four innings of scoreless relief to hold off the Villanova comeback.
Neither offense seemed bothered by gusting winds during Saturday afternoon’s game, as the two teams combined for 19 runs. In the end, the Irish were able to pull out another hard-fought win, 11-8. The Irish took an early 3-0 lead, but fell behind 4-3 in the fifth inning, and then 6-4 in the sixth. Senior starter Adam Norton struggled for the first time this season, giving up six runs- three of them earned- over 6.0 innings.
When the Irish needed runs the most, junior 1B Trey Mancini came through with a huge hit. With two outs in the bottom of the sixth and the bases loaded, Mancini hit a 400-foot bomb through the wind and over the wall in left-center for a grand slam to give the Irish a 9-6 lead. Notre Dame would never trail again in the game.
“I was really pumped up about it,” the normally reserved Mancini said, after he sprinted around the bases. “It was really big to take a three-run lead, and I was just excited that I could come in with two outs and get the big hit for the team.”
The junior first baseman finished the game with 6 RBI, one shy of the Notre Dame record of 7 RBI in one game. Mancini had a chance to pick up another RBI in the bottom of the eighth with Jagielo on base, but he took a four-pitch walk.
“I had no idea that the RBI record was seven, so I wasn’t even thinking about it,” Mancini said. “I was just trying to get a hit, but I didn’t really get a pitch near the zone. I wasn’t going to swing at a bad pitch just to go for the record, so I took the walk.”
Junior Donnie Hissa pitched three strong innings in relief to close out the game and pick up his second save of the season. Norton improved to 7-0 on the season, despite the difficult start.
On Sunday, the Irish struggled to get anything going against Villanova starter Josh Harris, while the Wildcats’ offense shelled the Notre Dame pitching staff for 10 runs. The Wildcats were able to take the series finale, 10-6, for their first BIG EAST win of the season.
On a positive note for the Irish, Bull hit 3-4 with a career-high 5 RBI. He has continued to solidify the middle of the lineup behind Jagielo and Mancini.
After being swept last weekend by No. 9 Louisville, the Irish responded with a 4-1 week in their first five games at the Eck. Head coach Mik Aoki was very pleased with the team’s ability to bounce back from the sweep.
“This weekend wasn’t played as clean as we’re accustomed to, but to win games when you haven’t necessarily played your best is the mark of a pretty good team,” Aoki said. “I’m extremely happy with the way we’ve rebounded. Louisville is a quality team and I thought we played them very competitively, but I don’t know if we were necessarily at our best either. I think this is a sign that our team and program are maturing.”
In discussing the team’s sweep to Louisville, Coach Aoki also noticed an interesting pattern that may have to be taken into consideration in scheduling for next season.
“Last year, Seton Hall swept us on that same Easter weekend. I think this might be a message that we shouldn’t be playing on that weekend in the future.”
The Irish wrap up their seven-game home stand this week with games against Michigan on Tuesday and Eastern Michigan on Wednesday. They then travel to Pittsburgh for a crucial BIG EAST series this upcoming weekend. The Irish have struggled early on in BIG EAST play, and could use another strong weekend to solidify their position as one of the conference’s top teams.
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