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May 16, 2012

Brey on Connaughton's dual role

Those long arms and legs come in handy out here, too.

Pat Connaughton, the 6-foot-5, 205-pounder from Arlington, Mass., who started 18 games for Mike Brey’s 2011-12 basketball team, also has become an integral part of the Irish baseball squad.

After averaging 7.0 points and 4.4 rebounds while logging 24 minutes per game for the 22-12 Irish this past winter, Connaughton has emerged as Notre Dame’s No. 3 starter for Mik Aoki’s baseball team.

Sunday, Connaughton limited Rutgers to one run and five hits over five innings of work while striking out six and walking one. He claimed the 2-1 victory to raise his record to 4-3 as his earned run average dipped to 2.02 with 34 strikeouts and 17 walks in 35 2/3 innings. In nine games and seven starts, opponents are hitting just .231 against him.

“I thought Pat was really good,” Aoki said. “He needs to work more ahead in the count, but outside of that, he’s got a little more margin for error with as hard as he throws and as good as his pitches can be.”

Connaughton topped out at 93 miles per hour during Sunday’s game, which was observed by one Mike Brey, Connaughton’s other coach at Notre Dame.

“It’s been interesting for me watching him as a pitcher,” Brey said. “Certainly we talked a lot about it in the recruiting process. It’s been fun to watch him come out and play baseball. I know it’s a big passion of his. So we want him to be able to do both to help two teams win here at Notre Dame.”

Brey recalled the recruiting process with Connaughton, who averaged a phenomenal 23 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists per game during his high school career at St. John’s Prep. His 1,713 points are the most in school history.

On the mound, Connaughton fashioned an 11-2 record as a senior with a 1.75 ERA and 160 strikeouts in 90 innings pitched. Connaughton’s prowess in both basketball and baseball turned his collegiate career into a package deal.

“That was part of the process when we recruited him,” Brey said. “I remember his dad said, ‘Coach, are we going to be able to pitch?’ I said, ‘We’ll work that out. No problem.’ And it’s worked out great.”

Brey believes there is a benefit for basketball when it comes to Connaughton’s baseball participation.

“It’s a two-way street,” Brey said. “When you’re out there pitching and you have the whole game on your shoulders, you’re more ready to deliver under pressure.

“I think he was so successful as a freshman (in basketball) because he had pitched and won games and was in jams and had to get out of them. I would hope going through the Big East season and some of the thrilling experiences that he had this year with us has helped him here. It goes hand-in-hand.”

Connaughton has always thrived on competition.

“I was composed, I was focused, and I knew what I had to do,” said Connaughton to the South Bend Tribune following Sunday’s victory, which included a key strikeout of the leading candidate for Big East player of the year, Patrick Kivlehan. “I really had to bear down in the fifth. I trusted my arm. It felt great to get that out. It was just rear back and bring it on, power on power.

“We were up 2-1, the game’s on the line. You have to find that focus, and I was able to do it. You can’t be tentative. I love those moments. I love them in basketball and baseball. Those are moments you live for. You want to be the man throwing that pitch. If you don’t want it, that’s when you get in trouble.”

Connaughton, a 38th-round draft choice of the San Diego Padres last year, has a bright future in both sports.

“I’ve had a lot of guys say his future is more in baseball,” Brey said. “But I’d like to see who he is as a basketball player the next two seasons because he is developing and improving, and he’s already got the raw athletic ability to play professional basketball. It’s just skill repetition in basketball that he needs work on, and we’re going to do that with him this summer.

“Because he got more playing time as a basketball player, it’s hard to top the freshman year he had for us. But if you were to ask Mik, I think he would say he’s been very solid for them and they expect even bigger things in later years.”

Brey couldn’t help but offer a joking reminder of where Connaughton’s priorities should be, first and foremost.

“Mik and I have worked it out,” Brey smiled. “Of course, I’m paying for school, so they better listen to me in the baseball office.

“Pat does a little bit of baseball in the fall, and then he’s with us late fall and winter. It’s been good. It’s been fun following him, and I’m thrilled that he can help two teams be successful.”

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