Chuck In the Armor - 3.22.12

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One-third of the way through the 2012 season, Notre Dame's baseball team can look in the mirror and feel pretty good. As the Irish (12-7) get ready to begin the BIG EAST season, they can also look in the mirror and see a similar Pittsburgh Panthers (10-8) club.

Notre Dame's first opponent of the conference slate bears some striking similarities to the Irish. The Panthers bat .289 as a team. The Irish hit .287. Pittsburgh has 47 extra base hits. Notre Dame has 45. Both teams have four individuals with at least 10 RBI.

Defensively, it's pretty even, too. While both squads have people playing out of their natural position, they have been fairly steady with the glove. Pittsburgh has 26 errors and a .961 fielding percentage. The Irish have committed 27 miscues, but a .963 fielding percentage. Perhaps a little underappreciated is the play of Notre Dame's middle infielders, as junior 2B Frank DeSico (Cleveland, Ohio/St. Ignatius H.S.) and freshman SS Jason McMurray (West Des Moines, Iowa/Dowling Catholic H.S.) have helped the Irish turn 23 double plays, opposed to 10 by Pitt.

What may set the Irish apart in this series is pitching - and it's not necessarily starting pitching, because that too is fairly even. Notre Dame's senior RHP Will Hudgins (Richmond, Va./Douglass Freeman H.S.) leads the BIG EAST in ERA, but Pitt senior ace LHP Matt Ianazzo (who I swear is on the eight-year plan ... that kid has been there forever) is 4-0 this season. In fact, the Panther weekend starters are a combined 8-0 on the year.

So if they're 8-0, why is Pitt 10-8?  Welcome to the difference maker, known as the bullpen. Setup man Joe Harvey and closer Tanner Wilt have been the only reliable arms in Joe Jordano's pen - and even they have had their moments of getting roughed up. 

Meanwhile, the Irish bullpen has been steadily improving. Freshman RHP Matt Ternowchek (Glenmoore, Pa./Downington East H.S.) hasn't been scored on this year. Freshman RHP Cristian Torres (Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif./Palos Verdes Peninsula H.S.) has posted four straight scoreless appearances. Senior LHP Ryan Richter (South Bend, Ind./St. Joseph's H.S.) and senior LHP Joe Spano (Verona, N.J./Seton Hall Prep H.S.) offer two reliable lefties. Sophomore RHP Closer Dan Slania (Tucson, Ariz./Salpointe Catholic H.S.) is second in the BIG EAST with four saves. Now add in the wild card of flame-throwing freshman RHP Pat Connaughton (Arlington, Mass./St. John's Prep H.S.), and there's some depth there that wasn't apparent at the beginning of the season.

The season is one-third over and second-year head coach Mik Aoki likes where his team stands.  Not many Irish fans would have expected a team with 19 freshmen and sophomores to be 12-7 entering league play, especially with a pre-conference schedule that included Purdue (14-3), Texas State (14-6), LSU (17-4) and Indiana State (17-4) - all of whom are ranked in the top 25 of one of the four major polls.  The 2012 Irish appear to be a team in every sense of the word. They have good chemistry, focus and drive.

Can they drive towards a BIG EAST title? We'll see in the coming weeks, but the time to look in the mirror is over. It's time to look out the windshield at what can be accomplished.

-- Chuck Freeby ('86), Notre Dame baseball play-by-play man

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