For the first time in three years, the Irish enter the final weekend of the regular season not worried about qualifying for the BIG EAST tournament. That doesn't mean there isn't a reason to show up at Connecticut this weekend.
There are a lot of permutations that affect the BIG EAST standings, but everyone will be best served by keeping it simple. If Notre Dame can win this series against Connecticut, chances are the Irish finish no worse than fifth in the BIG EAST. That would surpass the preseason expectations of the league, give Notre Dame 30 wins and make it three straight series wins entering next week's conference tournament.
Tuesday night after the win against Northwestern, Mik Aoki told some of us that he believes the pitching duo of Will Hudgins and Pat Connaughton can have Notre Dame competitive with any team in the country. He believes Adam Norton can beat any team's #3 starter. He's pleased with the development of Sean Fitzgerald and Steve Sabatino as "long relievers". Then Aoki put the caveat on the deal..."as long as we play clean defense."
It's not a news flash to anyone who has followed this team all year. Sometimes, the Irish make errors the way people eat potato chips...one just leads to another and another. As Mik explained on one of the pregame shows last week, it's a matter of looking at mistakes as new opportunities to pick up a teammate...to make the kind of play that bolsters the team. Instead, many times, the body language has been that of "here we go again".
When Notre Dame can avoid that pitfall...when they make one error or none, the Irish are 24-8 this year. Think about it...a team with 19 freshmen and sophomores...and one that had to replace its entire starting staff at the beginning of the year...still wins 75 percent of the game when they play good defense. That's pretty darn good.
Is that good enough to get past Connecticut? The big names like George Springer and Matt Barnes are gone, but UConn still has talent. Second baseman L.J. Mazzilli is likely to be a top-three round draft pick. Speedster Billy Ferriter leads the team with a .340 average and 22 stolen bases. And when you look at the earned run averages of the Connecticut pitchers, they're very comparable with Notre Dame. So what is UConn's Achilles heel? The same as the Irish...the heel of the glove.
Connecticut has made 91 errors...13 more than the Irish. The Huskies are 13-6 when they make one error or less...which also means they've had 32 games where they have made two or more. So, the Huskie faithful are saying the same thing..."if we can only play clean".
Normally, when you go into a tough battle, the phrase used is "it's time to take the gloves off". This weekend, it's time to make sure they're on and used properly.