Irish baseball team advances to Big East Semifinals

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Sophomore RHP Pat Connaughton, freshman RHP Nick McCarty and junior RHP Dan Slania did not allow an earned run as the No. 7 seed University of Notre Dame knocked off No. 3 seed Pittsburgh, 5-3, in the winner's bracket of the 2013 BIG EAST Tournament Thursday afternoon at Bright House Stadium. The Fighting Irish improve to 33-23 overall, while the Panthers drop to 41-16. Notre Dame will play the winner of tomorrow's elimination game between No. 2 seed Seton Hall and No. 3 seed Pittsburgh at 10 a.m. Saturday.

Connaughton, who exactly one year ago today in the 2012 BIG EAST Tournament failed to retire a single St. John's batter and ultimately allowed seven earned runs, battled through 6.0 hard-fought innings. He scattered nine hits and allowed three runs, all of them unearned. Connaughton fanned three and walked three. He improved to 4-2 on the season and has not allowed an earned run in 26.0 innings of work.

Connaughton turned the ball over to McCarty, who struggled mightily in outings against St. John's on May 12 and Western Michigan on May 14. He allowed 10 earned runs on eight hits in just 1.1 innings of work in those appearances, but the rookie right-handed hurler entered the game and showed all the confidence in the world.

McCarty picked up a strikeout to open the Pittsburgh seventh. After a walk, he got Sam Parente to ground into an inning-ending 4-6-3 ground ball double play. McCarty returned to the mound in the top of the eighth and collected another punch out.

With Notre Dame clinging to a 5-3 lead and five outs away from a spot in the BIG EAST tournament semifinals, the Irish turned to their All-American closer.

Slania made quick work of the Panthers in the eighth, retiring two batters on five pitches. He made it look even easier in the ninth. Slania got back-to-back foul outs before inducing a pop out to end the ball game.

Slania picked up his 13th save of the season and 30rd of his illustrious career. He lowered his ERA to 0.98 with another scoreless outing.

Notre Dame has yet to allow an earned run over its first two games of the BIG EAST tournament.

Senior 2B and co-captain Frank Desico paced the Irish offensive attack with three base hits. He went 3-for-5 with two RBI, including an RBI single and sacrifice fly. Five other Irish players had one hit. Sophomore DH Blaise Lezynski, who belted a two-run home run in yesterday's 5-0 victory over Seton Hall, went 1-for-3 with an RBI single and run scored.

Pittsburgh RHP Matt Wotherspoon took the defeat and dropped to 9-3 on the year. He was charged with five runs, only two earned, on eight hits in 7.2 innings of work. Wotherspoon struck out seven and walked two.

Notre Dame grabbed the game's first lead with a pair of runs in the bottom of the second inning ¬-- all after the first two batters of the inning were retired. Junior C Forrest Johnson drew a walk, and senior CF and co-captain Charlie Markson followed with an infield chopper to third base. Parente fielded the ball cleanly but his throw tailed to the inside part of the first base bag. The ball caromed off the glove of 1B Stephen Shelinsky and rolled into short right field. Johnson, who was off on the 3-2 offering, never stopped running and scored all the way from first base. Johnson evaded Pittsburgh C Elvin Soto's tag and the Irish led 1-0. Markson scampered to second base and cruised home on DeSico's RBI single back up the middle.

Connaughton found himself in trouble in each of the first three innings, but made a big pitch to get out of the jam each time.

Soto doubled with one out in the first and Casey Roche drew a two-out walk, but Connaughton struck out Shelinsky to end the first. The Panthers got back-to-back singles in the top of the second with one out, but Connaughton induced a 5-4-3 ground ball double play to end the inning. Pittsburgh got a leadoff hit from Steven Vranka to open the third and Boo Vazquez collected a one-out single two batters later, but Connaughton rebounded with a ground out and once again fanned Shelinsky to end the inning with two Pirates in scoring position.

Connaughton had his only 1-2-3 inning in the top of the fourth and Notre Dame responded with two runs in its half of the inning to grab a 4-0 lead.

Freshman SS Lane Richards and Lezynski were each plunked, and Johnson followed with a sacrifice bunt toward Parente at third base. He fielded it cleanly and attempted to get the lead runner, but his throw was late and the Irish had the bases loaded with nobody out. Markson followed with a ground ball to the hole between third base and shortstop. Evan Oswald bobbled the grounder in an attempt to retire the runner at third base. Richards scored and everyone else moved up a base. DeSico followed with a sacrifice fly and Notre Dame's lead grew to 4-0. Lezynski coasted home on the fly ball, but Johnson mistakenly took off and was doubled off at second base. Sophomore LF Mac Hudgins followed with a fly out to end the inning.

Notre Dame's missed opportunity proved even more costly when the Panthers took advantage of an Irish defensive miscue in the top of the fifth and plated three runs. An error to open the inning was followed by an infield single, Connaughton got Soto to fly out and Vazquez to ground out. Now with runners at second and third, Connaughton quickly got ahead of Roche 0-2, but the Panthers right fielder somehow slapped a fastball off the outside corner of the plate into shallow right field. The blooper could not have been placed any better by Roche, who moved to second on a wild pitch and ultimately scored on Parente's RBI single.

Lezynski pushed Notre Dame's lead to 5-3 with a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the fifth.

Connaughton stayed in the game and evaded one more Pittsburgh threat in the sixth. A one-out infield single from Dylan Wolsonovich and two-out walk from Soto moved the tying run into scoring position and go-ahead run on base, but Connaughton got Vazquez to fly out to end the inning.

McCarty and Slania did the rest.

Notre Dame advances to the BIG EAST tournament semifinals for the second straight season. The Irish have not done so without a defeat since 2006 - the last time Notre Dame captured the tourney title and reached the NCAA regionals.

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