March 25, 2010

NOTRE DAME, Ind.- The Fighting Irish will begin conference play against the USF Bulls this weekend, with game times at Red McEwen field in Tampa set for 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday. All three games can be heard on WHME 103.1 FM and

The Bulls have been the most common opponent for the Irish over the past four seasons, as Notre Dame and USF squared off 14 times from 2006-09, with the Bulls taking eight of those games (the only other matchup in the series was a 6-1 USF win on March 3, 2001, in the Devil Rays Invitational in St. Petersburg, Fla.). The Bulls entered last season’s series (May 8-10) at Notre Dame with a 17-4 conference record, but the Irish took two of three, dropping just the finale by one run when Daniel Rockhold drove home Mike Consolmagno with a two-strike, two-out single in the ninth inning to break a 5-5 deadlock.

After beginning the 2010 campaign 1-9, USF has won three straight, five of six, and seven of 11 to up its season record to 8-13. The Bulls have recorded a season ERA of 4.29 (compared to a 5.41 ERA for the opposition) and rank seventh in the nation in strikeouts per nine innings (9.67), but have been hampered by unearned runs (33 to date) and one-run losses (0-6 in one-run games). As a team, USF is batting .281 and has committed 31 errors in 21 games (.960 fielding percentage).

Seven Bulls with at least 30 at bats on the year are hitting over .300, led by juniors Junior Carlin (.322, 13 RBI), Ryan Lockwood (.312, 7 2B, 8-8 SB), and Stephen Hunt (.310, 3 HR, 20 RBI). USF is 25-for-31 (.806) in stolen bases, while opponents are just 7-for-15 (.467). On the pitching side, senior lefty Teddy Kaufman leads the team with three wins and one National Pitcher of the Week (NCBWA) award, which came after he fanned 14 UCF batters in a complete-game shutout on March 16. Junior left-hander Andrew Barbosa is 1-1 with a 3.23 ERA in five starts, while junior ace Randy Fontanez has a 4.28 ERA but is 0-4 due in large part to a lack of run support (just 3.0 runs per game). Junior Kevin Quackenbush leads the team with 11 appearances and two saves out of the bullpen and has punched out 21 batters in 11.2 innings; remarkably, 58% (38-of-65) of the batters he has faced this season have either walked, struck out, or been hit by a pitch.

Notre Dame dropped four of five on the recent homestand (Mar. 20-24), winning 11-5 over Ball State (Mar. 23) after being swept at the hands of Michigan State (Mar. 20-21) and before falling to UIC, 10-5, on Wednesday night. The Irish yielded 38 runs in the five games, but only 23 were earned; in fact, Irish pitchers have compiled a 4.00 ERA over the last seven games, dropping Notre Dame’s season mark to 4.98.

Highlighting the Irish play of late has been the emergence of freshman Frank Desico in the starting lineup, the continued success of fifth-year outfielder Ryan Connolly, and the arising of little-known junior Joe Spizzirri out of the depths of the Irish bullpen.

After just four at bats in Notre Dame’s first seven games, Desico (Cleveland, Ohio) has started the last 13 games at second base for the Irish and is batting .364 (16-for-44) over that stretch. He leads the team in sacrifice bunts with five and, at his current pace, could challenge teammate David Mills’ school record in that category (19 two seasons ago).

Connolly (Binghamton, N.Y.) battled through injuries his first three seasons at Notre Dame, and there was doubt as to whether he would ever be able to play full-time again. But on May 8, 2009, against USF, head coach Dave Schrage inserted Connolly into the starting lineup for good, and the rest is history (and more to come). In 32 games since that day, Connolly has batted .357 (40-for-112) with seven home runs, 26 RBI, and 28 runs scored. His on-base percentage over that stretch is .471, but even more astounding is the fact that Connolly has reached base safely in all 32 of those games.

Spizzirri (San Juan Capistrano, Calif.) had not appeared in a game for the Irish until this season, but he has allowed just one earned run in four appearances out of the bullpen (1.59 ERA in 5.2 innings) so far in 2010. He punched out his first-ever batter on three pitches (Mar. 10 at UTPA), recorded a five-pitch, scoreless inning two days later against Pacific, and has also pitched against Michigan State (3.0 IP, 1 ER) and UIC (1.1 IP, 0 ER).

After the showdown in Tampa, the Irish will travel to Georgetown (Apr. 1-3) before hosting Oakland (Apr. 6), Western Michigan (Apr. 7), and BIG EAST rival Rutgers (Apr. 9-11).

Probable Starters
Game-1, Friday (7:00 p.m.)
RHP Brian Dupra (2-1, 4.76 ERA) vs. RHP Randy Fontanez (0-4, 4.28 ERA)

Game-2, Saturday (7:00 p.m.)
LHP Steve Sabatino (1-2, 3.38 ERA) vs. LHP Andrew Barbosa (1-1, 3.23 ERA)

Game-3, Sunday (1:00 p.m.)
RHP Eric Maust (0-1, 4.63 ERA) vs. LHP Teddy Kaufman (3-1, 3.54 ERA)

— ND —