College : : Story
Saturday, March 02, 2013

Hokies, Irish take 2 at Irish Classic

Allan Simpson        
Photo: Virginia Tech

Surging Notre Dame, Virginia Tech
Win Twice on First Day of Irish Classic

CARY, N.C.—Notre Dame (5-1) and Virginia Tech (8-1) were a combined 13-2 entering the first day of the Irish Classic, while the remaining four clubs in the three-day, six-team tournament were a collective 3-17 on the 2013 season.

Predictably, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech won all four games played Friday at the USA Baseball complex. The Irish, ranked No. 23 by Perfect Game, dispatched Massachusetts 9-4 and edged Tennessee 3-2 in 12 innings, while the Hokies, lurking on the fringes of the Top 25, took down Rhode Island 7-3 and Ohio 8-3.

The latest wins by two of the nation’s most-improved, up-and-coming college teams didn’t come without a struggle, however, as error-prone Virginia Tech had to overcome a sluggish start in the first game of the day against winless Rhode Island (0-9) before finally breaking a 3-3 deadlock with a four-run, seventh-inning uprising, keyed by a two-run double by Hokies star junior third baseman Chad Pinder.

In the final game of the day, Notre Dame forged a 2-2 tie against Tennessee (2-6) with a run in the bottom of the ninth inning, before sophomore first baseman Ryan Bull singled home the winning run in the 12
th. Irish relief ace Dan Slania retired the last 10 hitters to earn the win.

Notre Dame got a bases-loaded, three-run double from junior catcher Forrest Johnson in the second inning and three-run homer from junior first baseman Trey Mancini in the fourth to beat Massachusetts, playing its inaugural game of the 2013 season, in its first game of the day, while Virginia Tech erupted for seven runs in the first three innings and relied on seven stellar innings by junior lefthander Eddie Campbell in its second contest to easily beat Ohio (1-5).

The Hokies and Irish will put everything on the line today when they hook up against each other in the last of three games on the schedule.

On a personal level, the game will match two former Boston College coaches: Pete Hughes, who went 250-181 for the Eagles from 1999-2006 before departing for Virginia Tech, and Mik Aoki, who led BC to its first NCAA regional berth in 42 years in 2009 and went 114-108 from 2007-10 before moving on to Notre Dame. Aoki also served as Hughes’ pitching coach at BC for two years before replacing him.

Along with USA Baseball, whose national training center is located in the heart of Atlantic Coast Conference country, Notre Dame is officially serving as the host of the inaugural Irish Classic, and the tournament is effectively serving as a pretense to the school’s eventual move to the ACC, although it remains unclear whether that will occur in 2014 or 2015. The chances of that happening sooner than later were increased when the Big East Conference recently elected to disband and reform as a basketball-only conference, technically leaving schools like Notre Dame without a conference affiliation for 2013-14.

Notre Dame and Virginia Tech, not surprisingly, were primarily responsible for attracting a number of scouts to the USA Baseball complex on Friday. Chief among the targets were the third basemen for both teams, Eric Jagielo of the Irish and Chad Pinder of the Hokies. Both players are considered potential first-round picks in this year’s draft.

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Jagielo was hitting .500-3-12 through his team’s first six games, but went 0-for-7 in Notre Dame’s two games Friday. Despite going hitless on the day, Jagielo’s raw power to all fields from the left side was evident in batting practice, and he also hit a long sacrifice fly to the opposite field for Notre Dame as it scored four times in the second inning of its opening game to pull ahead of Massachusetts for good. As a sophomore, Jagielo hit .310-13-43 and enhanced his worth by slugging 13 more homers last summer for Harwich in the Cape Cod League.

Jagielo’s powerful bat has always been considered his meal ticket, though he has holes in his swing to address and remains prone to striking out. But he has also made significant strides in the field at third base after beginning his college career at Notre Dame as a first baseman. Jagielo handled both his chances in the field Friday flawlessly and should continue to enhance his value for this year’s draft if scouts are convinced he can stick at the hot corner in the long term.

With his slight, but wiry strong 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame, Pinder doesn’t possess Jagielo’s raw power potential, but he drove a ball the other way to the warning track Friday that went for a two-run, tie-breaking double and highlighted a four-run, seventh-inning outburst as Virginia Tech went on to beat Rhode Island 7-3. On the day, Pinder had three hits that pushed his average on the season to .385. He also has two homers and a team-leading 14 RBIs.

Pinder is viewed by scouts as more athletic than his Notre Dame counterpart and may be a more complete player overall. A natural third baseman, he has extremely easy actions in the field, along with soft hands and a strong, accurate arm, and is capable of making his share of highlight plays at the hot corner.

Like Jagielo, Pinder stood out in the Cape Cod League last summer, though left midway through the season because of a sports hernia that required surgery. Long-time observers on the Cape compared Pinder to Evan Longoria, who also played for Chatham (in 2005) before moving on to a successful big-league career with Tampa Bay.

Slania, Notre Dame’s massive 6-foot-5, 275-pound reliever, also is a candidate for the first round in June, though he tested the resolve of scouts on a long, chilly, 47-degree day just to be seen. He did not make an appearance for the Irish until two were out in the top of the ninth against Tennessee in the final game of the day, but rewarded those scouts still on hand with bonus coverage by working three extra innings in a game the Irish pulled out against Tennessee in the bottom of the 12

Slania also excelled as a closer last summer on the Cape, going 2-0, 1.52 with a league-high 10 saves, and has been dominant in the role in four appearances this spring for the Irish. He has yet to allow a run in eight innings, while allowing two hits and two walks, and striking out eight. After saving two games over the first two weekends of the season, he earned his first win Friday by retiring all 10 hitters he faced in Notre Dame’s 3-2, 12-inning win.

Surprisingly athletic and light on his feet, despite his big, intimidating frame, Slania overmatched Tennessee with the combination of a fastball in the 90-93 mph range and hard slider at 81-84. He also worked in a slow curve at 70-71 and a quality, deceptive changeup. With Slania’s four-pitch repertoire, Notre Dame entertained the idea of starting the big righthander this season, but has left him in a closing role to date.

The Irish is still awaiting the return of 6-foot-5, 210-pound sophomore righthander Pat Connaughton, a starting guard on the basketball team, to its rotation. He is slated to join the baseball team once basketball is over. Connaughton, considered a potential first-rounder in 2014 with his lively, athletic frame and a fastball that has peaked at 94, is expected to take over as the staff ace for the Irish.

In the meantime, two junior righthanders with pro potential, Donnie Hissa and Sean Fitzgerald, handled the starting duties for the Irish on Friday.

The 6-foot-7, 240-pound Hissa made the first start of his college career in his team’s 9-4 win over Massachusetts after 33 prior appearances in relief for the Irish. The results were mixed as Hissa worked just four innings, and gave up four runs (three earned) and eight hits, but he also walked only one while striking out six. Hissa struggled to repeat his delivery and establish consistent command of a fastball that sat at 88-89 mph, but scouts believe his fastball could eventually reach the 93-94 mph range with continued refinement and development as a starter.

Hissa was finally given a chance to start at Notre Dame after enjoying success in a starting role last summer for the Seacoast Mavericks of the Futures Collegiate League, where he went 4-0, 1.62 in 50 innings. With the need for a third pitch to continue working as a starter, he introduced a changeup Friday.

Fitzgerald, who went 7-3, 3.82 in 27 appearances (7 starts) a year ago for Notre Dame, made his third start of the 2013 season against Tennessee. He pitched effectively for eight innings, allowing five hits and two walks while striking out eight, but received a no-decision when he departed with the score 1-1.

He worked with command of a solid, three-pitch arsenal, including a fastball that ranged from 87-89 mph, and added to his overall effectiveness with the deception he achieved with his cross-fire delivery.

With continued development this season, both Hissa and Fitzgerald could factor into the top 10-12 rounds of the draft in June.

The other pitcher who attracted close scrutiny from scouts Friday was Virginia Tech junior lefthander Eddie Campbell, who overcame a shaky start against Ohio to go seven innings and finish with 10 strikeouts in his team’s convincing 8-2 win. He allowed just two hits, but walked four, including two with the bases loaded in the second inning for the only runs he gave up.

With his slight 6-foot, 190-pound frame, Campbell wasn’t overpowering with a fastball that generally was at 87-89 mph, but he kept Ohio hitters off balance with an excellent curve that he commanded well and accounted for most of his strikeouts. He struggled to command his fastball, which has reached the low-90s in other outings this spring.

Other prospects who garnered attention from scouts in Friday’s action at the Irish Classic:

Virginia Tech outfielder Tyler Horan. Undrafted a year ago as a red-shirt sophomore, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Horan had an explosive summer in the Cape Cod League, tying the record for homers in the league’s wood-bat era (16, set in 1988). Horan’s massive power potential wasn’t on display Friday, but it was evident that it’s there as he has exceptionally strong wrists and forearms, covers all areas of the hitting zone with a short, easy swing and stays back well on off-speed stuff. He had three singles and a double in eight at-bats Friday to push his average to .437, though has gone deep only twice in 11 games. Additionally, Horan runs well for a player his size and can more than hold his own on an outfield corner. He could surge as high as the second round in June if his raw power numbers begin to materialize.

Rhode Island outfielder Jeff Roy. His slight 5-foot-9, 160-pound frame may be an impediment to a meaningful career at the pro level, but Roy’s game-changing speed might be an equalizer. He has been clocked in the 6.3-.6.35 range in the 60, and his raw speed is readily in evidence at the plate, on the bases and in center field. Though hitting just .250 through Rhode Island’s first nine games (all losses), Roy batted .356-2-38 and stole 22 bases as a sophomore at Rhode Island to earn Atlantic-10 Conference player of year honors and followed up last summer with a league-best 24 stolen bases (in 25 attempts) in an all-star summer in the New England Collegiate League. On the basis of his raw speed alone, Roy could crack the first 10 rounds in June.

Tennessee senior righthander Zack Godley. One of the few legitimate draft-eligible prospects on a young, rebuilding Tennessee squad, Godley worked mostly at 89-91 mph, topping out at 92, against Notre Dame, while taking a 2-1 lead to the bottom of the ninth. He was lifted with out, still clinging to a one-run lead, but an error resulted in the eventual tying run coming around to score in a game Tennessee ultimately lost in 12 innings.

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