Irish Turn in Record-Setting Year
The record-setting 1997 Notre Dame baseball team saw its season come to an abrupt end at the BIG EAST Conference Tournament in Norwich, Conn., after a 5-4 loss in 11 innings to upstart Villanova.
The Irish (41-19) went 20-7 over the final month, with four of those losses coming by a single run and a fifth by two runs. One of the not-so-close losses came 10-5 to Villanova on the opening day in Norwich, forcing Notre Dame into the challenging losers bracket. The Irish responded in the face of elimination with a 4-3 win over Seton Hall and an 8-1 victory over growing rival West Virginia.
Notre Dame's surge included capturing the BIG EAST National Division title. After opening with three losses at Seton Hall, the Irish won 15 of their final 18 conference games to finish with a BIG EAST record of 15-6, the top winning percentage among the conference's 11 teams. The final push began with a hard-fought series victory at Rutgers, with each game decided by a single run.
The '97 squad established itself as one of the most potent in Irish baseball history, setting team records for home runs (66), doubles (127) and slugging percentage (.529) while tying the team batting average record (.334) thanks to a starting lineup that included eight starters with batting averages of .308 or higher and six at .365-plus.
Senior catcher Mike Amrhein wrapped up a memorable team MVP season by earning first team all-region honors. Amrhein's home run versus Seton Hall, on the second-to-last day of the season, gave him 14 for the season and 37 in his career, tying the all-time Irish mark. He led the BIG EAST in '97 with 91 hits, 71 RBI and 70 runs while also pacing Notre Dame with a .394 batting average and 33 walks. Amrhein joined Eric Danapilis ('93) as the only players in the Irish career top five for hits, RBI, home runs, runs scored and doubles.
Batting behind Amrhein was yet another long-ball threat, sophomore cleanup hitter Jeff Wagner, who platooned with Amrhein at catcher/DH while repeating as a first team all-BIG EAST selection. One of two unanimous all-BIG EAST picks, Wagner led all players in the conference season in batting average (.488) and on-base percentage (.538) and ranked second in conference slugging (.988). His overall stats included 17 home runs, a .374 batting average, 69 RBI and 21 doubles.
Rounding out the potent 3-4-5 trio was freshman Brant Ust, who split time as a starter at third base, second and shortstop. Ust became the first Irish player named a Freshman All-American by both Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball magazine. He was a runaway winner for BIG EAST Freshman of the Year, also earning first team all-BIG EAST honors--the first freshman middle infielder to be so honored in the 13 years of the awards. Ust led all BIG EAST freshmen in batting average (.372), home runs (11), RBI (54), runs (66), hits (83) and total bases (139).
Ust's 11 home runs are most by an Irish freshman and--combined with Wagner and Amrhein-provided the program's first threesome to hit 10-plus home runs.
The Irish received consistent production from senior centerfielder Randall Brooks, senior third baseman J.J. Brock and sophomore leftfielder Allen Greene, who all posted near-identical batting averages (Brooks hit .366, Brock and Greene .365). Brooks led the Irish with 17 stolen bases and his .364 career batting average ranks sixth all-time at Notre Dame. Brock provided timely hitting and 50 RBI from the #9 spot while ranking among the national leaders with nine triples. Greene led the Irish in two-out batting (.456) and in batting with runners in scoring position (.435).
Other players to emerge included: freshman first baseman Jeff Felker, who hit .319 with four timely home runs; junior Todd Frye, who stepped into a starting infield role by batting .308 and leading the BIG EAST with 12 sacrifice bunts; and freshman Jeff Perconte, who became the starting rightfielder late in the season and responded by hitting .282 with three home runs.
Several pitchers picked up the slack for their injured comrades. Senior Darin Schmalz (9-3, 3.67 ERA) and sophomore Alex Shilliday (7-3, 5.11, team-high 72 Ks) turned in consistent campaigns while sophomore lefty Chris McKeown responded to a chance at weekend starts by posting a 3.26 ERA that led all Irish pitchers with 25-plus innings. McKeown combined with freshman lefty Tim Kalita on a one-hitter versus Toledo--the fewest hits allowed by the Irish since May of '93--and allowed just three earned runs in his final 37 innings.
The bullpen received an unexpected boost from senior Larry Mohs, who returned from reconstructive "Tommy John" surgery that saw him go 22 months between appearances. Mohs led the staff with a 2.66 ERA and four saves while allowing just a .175 opponent batting average.