Apr 12, 2013, 12:23 PM EDT
At times this year, the Frozen Four may well have referred to the Notre Dame baseball coaching staff, so perhaps we were greeted as the bus rolled into town Thursday night.
No, those signs were for the NCAA hockey tournament…and as a former voice of Notre Dame hockey, I wish the Irish were here as a participant. Alas, the only Notre Dame team in the Steel City this weekend is a baseball team that finds itself in an NCAA tournament hunt.
That might sound odd to say coming off back-to-back losses to Villanova and Michigan, but let’s see the big picture. Notre Dame is 19-11. It has as solid of a non-conference resume as you could ask with a 15-6 record, including four wins over top-25 ranked teams. Now the Irish have to get some wins racked up in the BIG EAST.
It won’t be easy here in Pittsburgh, where the Panthers have their usual strong offense mixed with some quality experienced pitching. Joe Jordano’s ball club is off to the third-best start in the program’s history at 21-9, including sweeps of Wichita State and St. John’s. However, those teams aren’t as strong as they have been traditionally, and it’s tough to really gauge the Panthers.
I suppose you could say the same about the Irish. One day, Notre Dame pounds out 11 runs. Two games later, they score one. One day, the pitching staff looks superb. The next day, they can’t find the strike zone. It’s a bit of a headscratcher right now for Mik Aoki, but he remains upbeat.
For one, he has confidence in his pitching. Pat Connaughton should be just about ready to reach the 90-pitch mark now, Adam Norton is 7-0, and, hopefully, a return to his home state is just what the doctor ordered for Matt Ternowchek after an unusually wild outing last Sunday. The bullpen is rested, especially closer Dan Slania, as he showed in his 4.0 inning stint last Friday to get the win over Villanova. Control is always a key, but it’s especially vital against a slugging team like Pitt, which leads the BIG EAST in numerous offensive categories.
Over the years, Irish players like Eric Jagielo, Trey Mancini and Ryan Bull have hit well against Pittsburgh pitching, particularly if they can get into the Panthers bullpen. Ah, but there’s the rub. Workhorse starters Matt Wotherspoon and Ethan Mildren are among the league leaders in complete games, and rarely issue walks. The Irish have to take advantage of favorable counts and avoid hacking so much at the first pitch…which has rarely worked in their favor.
This is not a baseball town like Louisville, but the Panthers have been tweeting all week, talking about the importance of this series. For them, it’s a chance to get some attention by knocking off a nationally-ranked team.
And Notre Dame should hope enough people can be swayed away from the Yale-Quinnipiac matchup downtown to create a tournament atmosphere in the hills of Oakland…you know, just in case the Irish need to be prepared for one in a couple months.
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