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Bigger Irish start season Satudray

Notre Dame’s seamstress needed to let out some baseball pants this winter. The Irish team that takes the field for the first time this weekend is a bigger, stronger group than in years past, according to head coach Mik Aoki.

Junior firstbasemen Trey Mancini returns to the middle of the Irish lineup after leading the team in RBI a year ago.

Aoki came to South Bend in the summer of 2010 to try to bring the baseball program back to the top of the Big East conference. His first order of business was to instill a more disciplined approach to offseason workouts and a weight room work ethic that would better fill the blue and gold uniforms.

“I think we’ve done that,” Aoki said as he prepares to begin his third year at Notre Dame. “I think if you look at our team now as compared to two years ago it definitely passes the eye test a lot better. Whether or not they can play baseball, we’ll see. In terms of the physicality of the team and the way that they look, they’re big kids. They’re athletic looking kids.”

The Irish begin the 2013 regular season Saturday with a doubleheader in Sarasota, Fla. They play Florida Gulf Coast University and Ohio State then wrap up their only trip to the Sunshine State before the Big East tournament with a game against Mercer University on Sunday.

Aoki, not normally one to oversell his product, says he feels “really good” about his team heading into the regular season. If he and his staff are to keep the same feeling when they return to Florida in late May, they’ll get there by playing with power.

Juniors Trey Mancini and Eric Jagielo both return this year after leading Notre Dame in seven of 12 offensive categories as sophomores. They combined for 25 of the team’s 36 home runs and exactly one-third (89) of the team’s runs batted in. Both are preseason All-Big East picks, and Mancini was a unanimous pick for the second straight year at first base.

“Thank goodness for them. There has been no handwringing about who is going to hit third or fourth in the two years that I’ve been here,” Aoki said. “It’s pretty easy to pencil in three or four.”

The power theme spills over to the pitching staff this season as well where the strongest link will be the last in the chain. Junior Dan Slania, also an all-conference pick, is slotted to spend his season in the closer role for the Irish. The 6-foot-5, 275-pound right-hander led the league with 12 saves last season. He also won the Russ Ford Award this summer, given to the top reliever in the well-respected Cape Cod League each year.

Notre Dame flirted briefly with the idea of moving Slania into a starting role at least early in the season. The Irish will need to rely on some unproven arms this spring, especially in the first couple months before sophomore Pat Connaughton finishes his basketball duties.

Senior Adam Norton has one of three spots in the starting rotation. He’ll be joined by junior Sean Fitzgerald, who started seven games last year and made 27 appearance overall with a 3.82 ERA. The third spot remains a toss-up heading into the first week of the season, but will likely go to one of the young hard-throwing underclassman that proves himself in February. Aoki said freshmen David Hearne and Nick McCarty both have a shot to throw meaningful innings along with sophomores Kyle Rubbinaccio and Scott Kerrigan.

“I think we have arms that have a little more upside to them than we did a couple years ago. We just have to see how they progress,” Aoki said.

Despite some question marks on the mound, the Irish were picked to finished third in the conference this year behind Louisville and St. John’s, last year’s champion. Louisville is ranked as high as No. 4 (Baseball America magazine) in preseason polls and is the only Big East in the USA Today Top 25.

Notre Dame’s preseason scheduled is stocked with a handful on benchmark games as well. Last year the Irish knocked off top-10 program LSU, and former Notre Dame head coach Paul Mainieri, in Lousiana. This season the Irish play Kent State, who made a deep Cinderella to the College World Series in 2012, and more traditional powers like Oklahoma, Cal Poly and UCLA.

“UCLA may be the big sexy factor this season. They’re clearly a great program and a program that’s had a really good run of success here in the past couple years,” Aoki said.

The season is scheduled to being Saturday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. against Florida Gulf Coast.

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