BASEBALL: Rallying Irish use momentum
By JOE HETTLER
Assistant Sports Editor
After taking two of three Big East games from St. John's and pulling off a come-from-behind win against Western Michigan in the past week, the Notre Dame baseball team heads into back-to-back Big East doubleheaders with confidence and momentum.
The Irish (18-11, 5-5) face tests against Pittsburgh on Thursday and Virginia Tech on Friday before having the weekend off.
"We obviously need to take advantage of these games being [at home]," head coach Paul Mainieri said. "I know our team is really excited about this opportunity for these next two days. I think our players are really anticipating, with a great deal of emotion, these next four games. Hopefully we're going to go and play our very best baseball, have great crowd support and come away with some good victories."
After a disappointing start to the season, the Irish have rallied as of late, winning nine of their last 10 contests. This recent success has been due to solid overall play, offensively and defensively alike.
Notre Dame's offense has been led by centerfielder Steve Stanley, whose .449 batting average leads the Big East conference. Stanley also leads the team in hits (53), runs scored (24), on-base percentage (.508) walks (13) and stolen bases (19). Third baseman Andrew Bushey is second on the team with a .379 batting average and leads the club with 25 RBIs and 10 doubles.
The pitching staff has posted a 3.52 team ERA and has seen significant contributions from freshman pitchers, Chris Niesel, Grant Johnson and John Axford. This trio has combined to pitch 113.3 out a possible 248.1 innings already this season.
After a shaky start, Notre Dame's bullpen has strung together several strong performances that have sealed numerous Irish victories, which has been essential in helping the team win.
"[Good relief pitching] just shows the difference in your team when your bullpen performs," Mainieri said. "If you're going to be careful about how deep you're going to let your starting pitchers go into the games, you better be strong in your bullpen. Early in the year we lost a couple of games because we weren't strong with our bullpen, but they've been getting better and better."
Players such as Javier Sanchez have also stepped up their game to compensate for the rash of injuries the Irish have experienced. With both shortstops Matt Macri and Matt Edwards out for the season with injuries, Sanchez has had success being the everyday shortstop for Notre Dame.
"I think he's handled it marvelously," Mainieri said. "There might be additional pressure, but there's also an ability for him to just relax and play the game because he knows he's our shortstop. I feel like he's gotten better every day out there."
When the Irish take the field on Thursday, they face a Panthers team that has played well for most of the season, en route to already posting 20 wins. Pittsburgh is coming off a doubleheader sweep of Canisius, where right-handed pitcher P.J. Hiser threw a one-hitter in the nightcap. With a sweep of Pittsburgh, Notre Dame could move within a game of first place in the log-jammed Big East.
Thursday's first game is set for 5 p.m. with the second following approximately 25 minutes after the first game's end.
All Sports Stories for Thursday, April 11, 2002