April 8, 2006
TAMPA, Fla. - Three-hit games from Craig Cooper and Brett Lilley led a 17-hit attack while Tom Thornton held South Florida to one run in six strong innings, as the Notre Dame baseball team continued to roll with its 11th straight victory, 10-4, in Saturday-afternoon action at McEwen Field.
The victory moves Notre Dame (21-8, 7-1 BIG EAST) into a tie with St. John's atop the conference standings, after the Red Storm split their first two games at Pittsburgh (SJU won the resumed game, 6-2, but the Panthers rallied for a 3-2 win in game-2). The Irish are 14-1 in their past 15 games versus BIG EAST teams, including a total of five wins over the teams picked to finish second (Pittsburgh) and third (USF) in the 2006 BIG EAST preseason poll. St. John's will visit Eck Stadium next week for a showdown series versus the Irish during the Easter holiday.
South Florida (14-18, 5-6) dropped back to seventh in the league standings, after scoring once in the third and benefiting from an outfield misplay to score three times in the eighth.
Despite enduring a 2-5 start, the Irish now have won 19 of the past 22 games and a win on Sunday would match the seventh-best record at the 30-game mark in the 114-year history of the Notre Dame baseball program. Just three teams in the 12-year Paul Mainieri era have started better than that prospective 22-8 record (26-4 in '04, 24-5-1 in '01, 24-6 in '03).
Cooper and Lilley had matching Saturday stat lines of batting 3-for-4 with an RBI and two runs scored (Cooper also walked once and Lilley twice) - with the pair now combining to reach base 18 times in the series while batting from the top two spots in the order.
Notre Dame's 17 hits matched the team's season high (set in the first game vs. Southern Illinois) and featured hits from 11 different players, with junior catcher Sean Gaston's double holding up as the only extra-base hit among 27 in the game.
The Irish sent 13 batters to the plate in the fifth while using eight hits (including two by Cooper), three stolen bases and a pair of walks to score seven runs, matching the team's highest-scoring inning of the season.
Notre Dame is batting .350 in the current 11-game winning streak and have posted double-digit hits in seven straight games, the longest double-digit hit streak by a Notre Dame team since the 1999 team had a similar seven-game streak of 10-plus hits at virtually the same point in that season (April 1-10).
Thornton (4-1) moved into a tie for eighth on the Notre Dame career victories list (25-10) after avoiding major trouble in his six innings, with the senior lefthander allowing the single run on six hits and one walk while striking out six in an 83-pitch outing that included 53 strikes.
Cooper in 2005 became the second player ever to repeat as the BIG EAST batting champion (in league play) and he could be on pace for a third straight batting title, currently hitting at a .500 clip (15-for-30) in conference action while raising his career average to .432 (83-for-192) in BIG EAST regular-season games - second-best in the 22-year history of BIG EAST baseball behind former Rutgers player Joe Cirrone (.443; '97-'00).
Sophomore righthander Daniel Thomas failed to close out the high-scoring fifth inning and ultimately was charged for nine runs on 12 hits and a pair of walks in 4.2 innings (with 2 Ks).
The Irish opened the game by scoring a pair of runs, marking the 16th time this season that the Irish have scored in the first inning (with a 34-11 scoring edge). Cooper started the game by sending a full-count pitch up the middle for a single, extending his impressive success as the Irish leadoff batter. The senior first baseman now has reached base 16-of-20 times when opening the game for the Notre Dame offense, batting 12-for-16 (.750) with three walks and another time hit-by-pitch in those 20 first-inning leadoff plate appearances.
Lilley followed Cooper's hit by diving head-first for a bunt single and the runners moved up on Danny Dressman's sacrifice bunt before Jeremy Barnes brought home one run with a groundout to the left side. Sophomore DH Ross Brezovsky - who joined Cooper in extending his hitting streak to 10 games - then sent his own single up the middle for the early 2-0 cushion.
Notre Dame's seven-run outburst in the fifth started with singles from Cooper (left side/stolen base), Lilley (right field), Dressman (right field) and Barnes (right side) before Thomas recorded the first out. Matt Bransfield then drilled a two-run single into center field and stole second, with Gaston pulling his RBI double down the rightfield line before the second out. The Irish kept pounding singles to the right side as Cody Rizzo replicated the Barnes opposite-field hit through the right side (RBI) and swiped the team's third stolen base of the inning before scoring when Cooper pulled a full-count pitch through the left side. Yuri Higgins then took the mound, losing Lilley and Dressman to walks before finally getting the third out.
UPDATED ND NOTES - Thornton made his 46th career start, still 5th-most in ND history and now one behind former teammate Chris Niesel ... he passed Chris Michalak (292.2) and David Sinnes while moving into a tie with another former teammate, J.P. Gagne, for 6th in ND history with 298.0 career innings pitched (just shy of the 298.2 totaled by Darin Schmalz) ... Thornton's 25 wins are two back of 7th-place Brian Piotrowicz on that ND career list ... Thornton dropped his career walk average to 1.84 in 9 IP, still 3rd-best in ND history behind Brandon Viloria (1.61) and Alan Walania (1.64) ... he now owns a 9-to-1 season strikeout-to-walk ratio (36/4) and is averaging just 0.76 BB per 9 IP this season, with both marks still on pace for 2nd in the ND record behind Tom Price's 1994 season (12.14 K/BB ratio; 0.49 BB/9 IP) ... Thornton has yet to allow a run in the 4th-7th innings this season (spanning 24 IP) and has totaled 0-1 walks in six of his seven starts ... Cooper is batting 6-for-9 in the series (3 RBI, 5 R, HR, BB) while Lilley is 7-for-8 (RBI, 4 R, 3 BB, 2B) ... Cooper also had a 13-game hit streak in 2005 and is the ninth Mainieri-era player with multiple double-digit hit streaks in his career ... Cooper boosted his season batting avg. to .415, including .500 (19-for-38) in the 11-game winning streak ... Dressman (2-for-4) inched closer to .400 for the season (.395) while also drawing a walk to move his on-base pct. to .509 ... Cooper swiped the 40th stolen base of his career, to go along with 40 doubles and 20 home runs ... Lilley is batting .485 (16-for-33, 8 HBP, 3 BB, 11 R, 3 RBI, only 2 Ks) over the course of 10 career games played in the state of Florida ... his batting avg. has soared to .330, 5th-best on the team just behind Brezovsky's .352 and Bransfield's .340 ... ND pushed the team batting avg. to .315, including .338 with runners in scoring position (8-for-19 on Saturday) and an eye-popping .382 in the first innings ... the Irish have dominated the middle innings during the 11-game win streak (31-5; 7-1 in the 4th, 17-1 in the 5th, 8-3 in the 6th) ... ND earlier scored seven runs in the first inning vs. Central Michigan and the second inning vs. Valparaiso ... the Irish are batting .337 in BIG EAST play, led by Cooper's .500, Lilley (.462, 12-for-26), Greg Lopez (.406, 13-for-32) and Brezovsky (.400, 10-for-25) ... the ND seniors own a 17-4 record during their careers for games played in the state of Florida ... the senior shortstop Lopez still has made just three errors all season in 115 fielding chances (.974 fielding pct.) ... the ND pitching staff still has allowed just three home runs all season and now has logged 24-plus games without allowing a home run, spanning 927 batters faced ... the Irish improved to 16-2 when posting double-digit hits, 12-4 when scoring in the first inning, 19-1 when leading at the end of the seventh and 19-3 when outhitting the opponent.
Notre Dame (21-8, 7-1 BIG EAST) 2-0-0 0-7-0 0-0-1 - 10 16 0
South Florida (14-18, 5-6 BIG EAST) 0-0-1 0-0-0 0-3-0 - 4 10 1
Double: Sean Gaston (ND).