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Irish recover from slow home start

No. 15 Notre Dame stumbled into its first few innings of conference play this weekend in the wintry Spring of the Midwest, but recovered to take two of three games from Seton Hall.

Sticking to their regular routine, the Irish(14-6, 2-1 Big East) and the Pirates(8-12, 1-2) played a three-game series decided by a total of three runs. Seton Hall won the opener Friday night, 4-3, before losing 3-2 in both games of a doubleheader Saturday. Eleven of the last 13 meetings between the two Big East clubs have been one-run games.

Seton Hall scored all four of its runs in the first three innings. Junior pitcher Sean Fitzgerald struggled to hit his spots early. He walked Chris Selden, the second batter he faced, in the top of the first inning. A successful hit-and-run and a wild pitch brought Selden home to give the Pirates an early 1-0 lead.

Fitzgerald issued another walk to start a rally in the third inning. An uncharacteristic errors by first basemen Trey Mancini – who booted two ground balls in the game – complicated matters. Seton Hall right fielder Scott Kalamar drove in one run with a sharp comebacker that Fitzgerald was able to knock down later that inning. Back-to-back doubles from Giuseppe Papaccio and Sal Annunziata drove in two more runs to put the Irish in a 4-0 hole.

“I didn’t feel like [Fitzgerald] was very locked in physically or mentally for the first three innings,” Irish head coach Mik Aoki said. “I think I could kind of say that for the entire team. I thought Seton Hall outcompeted us. I think they just flat outplayed for those three innings.”

All three games this weekend were played at Coveleski Stadium, home of the Single-A South Bend Silverhawks, while Notre Dame’s on-campus field recovered for snowfall earlier in the week. Temperatures dipped into the 30s on Friday night and remained seasonably chilly the following day. Aoki didn’t want to pin his team’s slow start to the weather adjustment after spending all of last week in Southern California.

“God, I hope we’re not that soft. I don’t think that we are,” he said.

Notre Dame’s bats warmed up in the fifth inning starting with a lead-off single from sophomore Ryan Bull. Freshman Zak Kutsulis drove him home five pitches later with a single to right field. Frank DeSico and Mac Hudgins also added RBI singles in the inning to bring the Irish within one run.

Pirates senior Jon Prosinski stopped the bleeding from there. He struck out five and allowed seven hits without a walk in seven innings on his way to picking up the win. Brain Gilbert slammed the door on any last-inning heroics. He made quick work of the Irish in the bottom of the ninth thanks to a sinking fastball that consistently hit 94 miles per hour.

“I think the team was feeling pretty good about themselves coming into this game,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a tough loss, but it’s a great loss going ahead because we’re not invincible, obviously. We’re going to need to take the Big East seriously.”

The Irish took that attitude into Saturday’s games and came away with a pair of wins. Senior Adam Norton(6-0) remained unbeaten on the hill this year in the first game of the day. He threw 7.2 innings and gave up two earned runs.

DeSico scored two of Notre Dame’s three runs in the 3-2 win. Mancini knocked him in with a deep sacrifice fly in the first inning and Eric Jagielo brought him home again with an RBI groundout in the third.

Tied 1-1 in the seventh inning of the nightcap, Seton Hall provided a handful of breaks the Irish needed to clinch the series win. Notre Dame loaded the bases with two walks and hit batter. Then an infield single and a throwing error by Selden plated two runs and gave the Irish the lead and a little bit of breathing room.

Notre Dame hosts Kent State, who made a trip to last year’s College World Series, Monday and Tuesday before returning to Big East play next weekend.

The Irish face their stiffest conference these of the season starting Friday with a three-games series against Louisville. The Cardinals have been ranked as high as fourth in the nation this month, but dropped two of their first three conference games to Rutgers this weekend.

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