Irish Come Out Swinging in BIG EAST/Big Ten Challenge

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Still in the process of becoming a complete team, the Irish impressed with their 2-1 record at the BIG EAST/Big Ten Challenge this past weekend in Florida. The squad left feeling good about its offensive firepower, but questions lingered with regards to the starting rotation and bullpen.

Notre Dame defeated Illinois in the season opener on Friday in a 13-12 slugfest and beat Iowa 5-2 on Saturday behind a complete game from Adam Norton. On Sunday, the Irish failed to complete the sweep and fell 15-8 to Purdue.

"We swung the bat very well, and we expected to be a much better offensive team than a year ago," Irish coach Mik Aoki said. "We still have some questions with our bullpen, but, overall, I'm pleased our guys never gave in and competed hard for 27 innings."

Perhaps the most encouraging sign was the team's performance on offense. After serving as the squad's principal weakness in the 2011 campaign, the Irish offense came out swinging, scoring 26 runs and batting .379 over the course of the weekend. The run total could have been higher had the Irish not left 42 runners on base.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame nearly bested the tournament record for team batting average. St. John's still holds the record for single tournament batting average when they hit .387 in 2009. The 44 hits for the Irish also approached the Red Storm's record of 48 hits in 2011. Notre Dame drew 17 walks - the second-most ever in a single tournament - and did set a tournament record with 11 batters hit by a pitch.

The Irish registered 10 or more hits in each of the three games - a feat not accomplished by a Notre Dame team in its first three games of a campaign since 1993.

This surge was led by a potent middle of the lineup combination of Eric Jagielo, Trey Mancini, and Joe Hudson. The trio went a combined 20-for-36 with three home runs and 17 RBI on the weekend.

Hudson, who entered his junior season with just one home run in two seasons, jacked two on Friday against the Illini, including a go-ahead solo shot in the ninth inning to give the Irish a 13-12 lead. He was the first Irish player to ever hit multiple home runs in a season opener. In addition, the junior catcher reached base 13 times in 16 plate appearances.

Hudson was understandably named BIG EAST Player of the Week on Monday. He set tournament records with 11 total bases in the victory over Illinois, 16 total bases over the entire tournament and a tournament slugging percentage of 1.600.

Hudson also tied tournament records for home runs in a single game, home runs in a tournament and doubles in a single game. He batted .700 (7-for-10) with three doubles, two home runs and seven RBI. Hudson added three runs scored, three walks and three hit by pitches.

Hudson, who had just nine multi-hit and five multi-RBI games in 2010, has registered three and two, respectively, already in 2012. If his prowess at the plate was not enough, Hudson was dynamic behind the dish as well. He gunned down two of the three attempted stolen bases over the weekend.

Meanwhile, Jagielo went 7-for-13 during the three games and drove home four runs. His most clutch hit of the weekend occurred Saturday against Iowa in the top of the eighth inning, with the Irish down 2-1. With runners on first and second base, he laced a double to deep center field, scoring two runs to give the Irish a 3-2 advantage, which they would not relinquish.

Mancini picked up where he left off last season and recorded six hits in 13 at-bats and homered against the Fighting Illini.

"Those three are all hard-working, talented baseball players," Aoki said. "While they obviously won't hit at that kind of pace, you saw the potential for as powerful a 3-4-5 trio as there is in the BIG EAST."

However, faced with the task of replacing three starting pitchers, the Irish pitching rotation and bullpen remain in a state of flux. Yet, one bright spot was the performance of Adam Norton. After Friday's starter, Sean Fitzgerald, failed to escape the third inning, Norton delivered his first career complete game on Saturday. He limited Iowa to just two runs on seven hits (three of which never left the infield) and struck out four in nine innings.

Norton blanked the Hawkeyes over the final 7.1 innings of the contest. His complete game was the first for an Irish hurler in a season's opening week of the year since Tom Price on Mar. 5, 1994.

"[Norton] was just what the doctor ordered on Saturday," Aoki said. "He was efficient with his pitches and created a lot of bad contact early in counts for easy outs."

On Sunday, when the Irish took a 4-0 lead over the Boilermakers into the fifth inning, they looked poised for a weekend sweep. However, defensive errors and a bullpen that struggled to record outs led to nine runs for Purdue in the sixth, putting the Boilermakers ahead for good on their way to a 15-8 win.

"[The errors] were mental lapses as much as physical ones," Aoki said. "Our guys weren't in the right position and also did a poor job of communicating and taking care of the baseball."

Yet, considering that the team registered just one error in its first two games, Aoki believed Sunday's performance would be the exception rather than the rule for the season.

"[Sunday] was an aberration on defense," Aoki said. "Tommy Chase unfortunately had a rough day at shortstop, and the errors just went viral on the team."

The Irish return to the diamond at 12:05 p.m. ET on Sat., Feb. 25 at the Team USA Baseball Complex in Cary, N.C., when they face Hofstra for a three-game series.

- Matt Unger ('14)

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