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Orioles prospect Pat Connaughton focused on Notre Dame's Sweet 16 run — for now

Pat Connaughton began his pro baseball career last summer with the Aberdeen IronBirds, and he's had a strong senior season with Notre Dame's men's basketball team.
Pat Connaughton began his pro baseball career last summer with the Aberdeen IronBirds, and he's had a strong senior season with Notre Dame's men's basketball team. (Left: Baltimore Sun Media Group; Right: Getty Images)

Orioles scouting director Gary Rajsich first saw Pat Connaughton pitch in person last May in College Park.

After throwing three wild pitches in the first inning, which led to the only runs in a 2-0 loss to Maryland, Connaughton settled down, retiring 12 of the next 13 batters and going the distance.

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By doing so, Connaughton impressed the longtime scout not only with his heater, but his heart.

"I liked his competitive nature," Rajsich recalled Tuesday, noting that Connaughton was throwing 94 mph with movement on his fastball. "He didn't back down at all. He got roughed up a little bit and he got himself out of several jams. I just liked the way he competed."

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A month later, the Orioles drafted the 6-foot-5 right-hander in the fourth round. "We look for athletic throwers with plus [above average] arms," Rajsich said.

How about a pitcher who can dunk, drain 3-pointers and help lead his team to the Sweet 16?

Returning to Notre Dame for his senior basketball season, Connaughton has helped guide the Fighting Irish (31-5) to their first NCAA tournament regional semifinal since 2003. The third-seeded Irish play seventh-seed Wichita State (30-4) Thursday night at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena, delaying Connaughton's looming decision on which sport to pursue professionally.

Connaughton (pronounced CON-uh-tin) has shown his versatility in leading Notre Dame in rebounding (7.3 per game), 3-point shooting (16th in the country at 42.1 percent) and shot-blocking (34) while ranking third on the team in scoring (12.5).

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The competitiveness Connaughton demonstrated to the Orioles on the mound last spring was evident in Saturday's overtime victory over Butler. Connaughton forced the overtime by flying into the deep corner to block a potential game-winning 3-pointer — one of a career-high five blocks for the game.

After finally hitting a 3-pointer on his sixth attempt to break a 59-59 tie in overtime, Connaughton told his teammates as they raced back on defense, "They're not going to stop us."

"He's the cruelest of competitors," Notre Dame men's basketball coach Mike Brey said recently. "Nice guy off the court, but he'll cut your heart out on it."

Connaughton said during a news conference Wednesday in Cleveland that the mental approach he takes to one sport is transferable to the other.

"When you get to a stage where there's people watching, even if it's a different sport, you've put yourself through some pressure situations and you've put yourself in a situation where — the line I always like to use is — winners win, no matter what it is," he said.

As a result of what Connaughton has done this winter, the Orioles might have competition for his services — at least in the short term.

Though not being mentioned on any of the major NBA mock drafts, Connaughton's pro stock has certainly gone up dramatically over a season in which he also helped the Irish win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, scoring 20 points in the championshp game win over North Carolina in Greensboro.

The Orioles drafted Connaughton knowing that he was going to return to South Bend to play basketball his senior year. According to Baseball America, Connaughton received a bonus of $428,100.

While Orioles manager Buck Showalter has joked a few times that he hoped the Irish would end their season early, there seems to be a collective patience in allowing Connaughton time before he resumes his professional baseball career. He pitched in six games for short-season Single-A Aberdeen last summer.

"He has a passion for both sports. We think it's a wonderful thing," Rasjich said. "We want him to be fully committed to playing baseball when he does come back. We're are very hopeful that he does choose that route, because we think there's a lot there. We'd love to have him play baseball, obviously."

The Orioles also seem confident that will happen, even allowing Connaughton to attend a few NBA tryouts this spring.

"He's a baseball player who's also a really good basketball player," said Brian Graham, the Orioles' player development director. "Obviously he's playing basketball right now, he's doing a great job and we certainly are happy for him and wish him luck. I've spoken to him, and I anticipate he'll be back to baseball when basketball ends."

Graham said that Connaughton is mostly a fastball pitcher capable of throwing between 92 and 96 mph. Though Graham said Connaughton's "secondary pitches are behind right now," he likes the whole package.

"He has tremendous intangibles outside of his athleticism," Graham said. "He's competitive, he's intelligent, he has great instincts. You look at an athlete like that and you guess he'll be able to make adjustments fairly easily. I would guess he's a fast learner and he's got great leadership skills"

If anyone in the Orioles organization can understand what Connaughton is going through, it's Ryan Minor, manager of their Low-A affiliate, the Delmarva Shorebirds. Nearly two decades ago, Minor had the same decision to make after being drafted by both the Orioles and Philadelphia 76ers.

An All-American basketball player and Big Eight Player of the Year at Oklahoma, Minor was picked 32nd overall in the 1996 NBA draft, one pick behind Mark Hendrickson, another baseball-basketball pro. Having led the Sooners to the College World Series with twin brother Damon, Minor was selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the 33rd round that same year.

On the surface, at least, it seemed that the 6-foot-7, 195-pound Minor's future was in the NBA. Spending the summer months split between the Orioles' rookie league team in Bluefield, W.Va., and the 76ers' summer league team, Minor went into training camp in Philadelphia that fall "kind in the mood where I was going to try to give both of them a whirl."

Minor finally made up his mind to focus on baseball when he was cut by the 76ers.

"It might have been a little different [had I made the NBA team]," he said.

Minor, mostly known as the player who manned third base when Cal Ripken Jr.'s record streak ended, played just parts of four seasons in the majors but said he had no regrets about his decision.

"Not for me," said Minor, who'll likely manage Connaughton later this year. "Once I make a decision, I make a decision. I don't look back and say 'What if?' For me, I kind of lived in the moment and I went after it, and a couple of years later I was already in the big leagues. As far as look back and regretting the decision, that never crossed my mind."

Connaughton said recently of his dilemma, "it's like a parent answering the question of who is their favorite twin."

Eventually, he will have to answer that question.

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"If I had a sport that I liked more, I would probably be playing a single sport right now," he said. "So the way I look at it is, I've been playing both of them my whole life, I don't want to burn a bridge before I see what's across that bridge, and I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't give up on one before I saw it through."

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The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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