April 13, 2006
Craig Cooper continued his torrid pace from the leadoff spot and the Notre Dame offense again delivered big scoring innings during both games, as the 21st-ranked Irish baseball team pushed its winning streak to 16 game after sweeping Thursday's doubleheader from visiting St. John's (9-2, 13-7), in a showdown of the BIG EAST co-leaders. For the second time this season, Notre Dame set an Eck Stadium record for tickets sold (3,052), fittingly coming on a day that corresponded with the team's 300th victory spanning 12-plus seasons in the facility (301-66-1; .819).
Notre Dame (26-8, 10-1 BIG EAST) - riding one of the nation's longest hot streaks and now suddenly just two wins shy of matching the longest winning streak in the 114-year history of the program - had trailed just four times for a handful of minutes during the previous 14 games of the win streak but St. John's (24-10, 8-3) held the lead three different times during the doubleheader action. Early 2-0 deficits in both games and then a 6-3 midgame hole in the nightcap did little to deter the spunky Irish, who repeatedly made the key plays in all phases of the game to secure the sweep and clinch the three-game series prior to Saturday's finale.
The 2003 team's 17 straight wins from March 24-April 14 of that season stands as the only longer winning streak for the Irish during the 12-year Paul Mainieri era. Just one other team in nearly 100 seasons (1991, record-setting 18-game win streak) has strung together more consecutive wins than the current Notre Dame squad, with the 1907 team winning 17 straight.
Thursday's doubleheader marked the continuation of Notre Dame's 12-game homestand and completed a rare stretch in which the Irish played seven games in a span of seven days. The pair of wins make Notre Dame 17-1 in its past 18 overall games versus BIG EAST opponents, including the three wins at the 2005 BIG EAST Championship.
Cooper's amazing success as Notre Dame's leadoff batter now includes reaching base 21-of-25 times (with a single and home run on Thursday) when opening the game for the Irish offense, batting 17-for-21 (.810) with three walks and one time hit-by-pitch in those first-inning leadoff plate appearances. The senior first baseman's presence at the top of the order has sparked what now is a six-week extended run, erasing the memories of a frustrating 2-5 start with wins in 24 of the past 27 games.
Notre Dame's veteran savvy ruled the day, as the Irish were able to overcome off-days from both starting pitchers while the position players delivered time and time again, both in the field and at the plate. The group of 10 regular position players for Notre Dame consists of five seniors, two juniors, two sophomores and freshman Jeremy Barnes - with that group now having combined to play in 1,325 games (1,123 starts) during their Notre Dame careers, with 1,249 hits, 740 RBI and 398 walks among their combined career statistics.
Just one season ago, Notre Dame struggled to gain control of games during the middle innings but the current win streak has seen the Irish dominate the 4th (30-1), 5th (21-2) and 6th (15-4) innings for a combined scoring margin of 66-7 during that crucial midgame phase. The Irish had totaled just four "big innings" (five-plus runs) in the first 28 games of the season but the surging squad now has delivered an offensive explosion in each of the past six games - with Thursday's entries included five runs in the 6th inning of the opener and an eight-run bottom of the 4th in game-2.
Junior righthander Jeff Samardzija (4-1) was touched for 11 hits in seven innings of work during the series opener but the two-sport star used some clutch pitching and three double plays behind him to keep the visitors from scoring more than single runs in each of the first two innings. Samardzija struck out five and walked three in a 117-pitch outing that included 71 strikes, with the key stat being the fact that Samardzija held SJU to 4-for-17 batting (.235) with runners on base.
Tom Thornton has delivered 25 career wins and several big-game performances during his Notre Dame career but the senior lefthander was not his sharpest versus the Red Storm, ultimately being charged for six runs on nine hits and no walks with a pair of strikeouts in 2.1 innings. Junior righthander Jess Stewart (3-1) then came to the rescue, allowing only one unearned run, two hits and a single walk in the next 5.2 innings while locating better than 70% of his pitches (46 of 65) for strikes.
Cooper (2-for-5, RBI, R) - whose 15-game hit streak is fourth-best in the 12-year Mainieri era (longest since 2000) - and 2-hole hitter Brett Lilley (2-for-3, R) combined for multiple hits at the top of the order in the opener while Sean Gaston's 3-for-3 game (RBI, 2 R, 2B) provided timely production from the middle of the order (as did Alex Nettey's pair of RBI and run scored in the 9-hole). Junior lefthander Mike Dury (H, BB, K) closed out the game after facing eight batters in the final two innings, with SJU junior righthander Rob Delaney (3-2) suffering the loss (6.1 IP, 9 R, 9H, BB, K) despite not allowing an earned run.
Notre Dame's 16 hits were just one shy of matching the team's season high (17, posted last week in three straight games), with senior DH Matt Bransfield's 4-for-4 effort pacing the Irish in game-2 (2 RBI, R, BB). Other top hitters in the nightcap included senior shortstop Greg Lopez (3-for-4, RBI, 2 R, BB), Gaston (2-for-5, 3 RBI, R), Lilley (2-for-5, 4 RBI, R, BB) and Cody Rizzo (2-for-4, 2 R, BB).
Chris Joachim's RBI single and Jarod Hickle's run-scoring double had given St. John's the early lead in game-1 but the Irish forged a 2-2 tie with runs in the 2nd and 5th. Gaston's one-out single, a fielding error and Nettey's sacrifice bunt plated the first Irish run while Lilley went the other way for a 2-out single in the 5th, scooted to third on a wild pickoff throw and scored on Danny Dressman's single up the middle.
Notre Dame's decisive five-run 6th featured singles from Gaston, Lopez and Cooper, plus three errors (half of SJU's total in the game), a sacrifice bunt from Bransfield and Lilley's 39th career time hit-by-pitch (placing him second in the ND record book, behind Rizzo's 75 career HBPs).
Sophomore lefthander Luis Monell had no-decision but failed to pitch beyond the 3rd inning in the nightcap (6 R/5 ER, 6 H, 3 BB, K). Sam DeLuca and Gil Zayas both hit RBI singles to give the visitors a quick lead but the Irish came right back to go ahead 3-2, as Cooper sent a full-count pitch over the rightfield fence while Bransfield and Gaston added RBI singles. It marked the fourth time during the win streak that the Irish have trailed for just a half-inning.
The opposite-field blast was Cooper's 22nd career home run and team-best fifth of the season, including four in the past 10 games. It produced the third time this season that Cooper has led off the game for the Irish with a home run, to go along with six doubles and 10 singles.
Four singles and a double off the bat of Eddie Schultz ended Thornton's day in the 3rd, as the visitors claimed a 6-3 lead. But one inning later, Notre Dame sent 12 batters to the plate while scoring its second-most runs (8) in an inning this season, for an 11-6 lead. The six hits included two singles from Lopez (RBI), plus two-run hits from Lilley and Gaston, Bransfield's RBI single and another single by Rizzo. Nettey, Dressman and Jeremy Barnes added walks to the big inning that also included two errors and a wild pitch.
NOTES - The Irish made a harmless error in each game, marking the 26th and 27th time this season that ND has posted 0-1 errors ... the seven deficits faced by ND in the win streak span a total of just 12.5 innings ... the past four games have seen ND outscore the opponents 24-0 in the 4th inning ... the Irish are outhitting the opponents .357-.226 in the win streak (2.56 staff ERA, .978 fielding pct./14 Es) ... ND fielded its 33rd different batting order of the season (34 GP) in the nightcap ... the Irish have outscored their opponents 65-17 during the past six games (avg. 11-3) ... Mike Amrhein (21, in '97), Jeff Felker (18, in '99) and Steve Stanley (16, in '00) are the only Mainieri-era players with longer hitting streaks than Cooper ... Lilley is a .500 batter in four career games vs. SJU (9-for-18, 4 RBI, 2 R, 4 BB) while Lopez has hit .433 (13-for-30) in his career vs. the Red Storm (5 RBI, 6 R) ... Samardzija's three career outings vs. SJU include a 2.12 ERA in 17 IP ... ND now leads the series vs. SJU 18-10 (9-5 at Eck Stadium), getting back on the winning track after three tough losses by a total of four runs in 2005 (at SJU) ... Thornton's 48 career starts place him 4th in the ND record book while he became the 5th ND pitcher ever to eclipse 300 career innings (300.1) ... ND improved to 16-4 when scoring in the 1st inning, 12-1 when hitting a home run, 23-3 when outhitting the opponent, 16-2 when totaling double-digit hits, 24-1 when leading at the end of the 7th and 22-3 when allowing 0-5 runs ... game-1 marked the first time this season (1-5) that ND has won despite being outhit ... the Irish are 22-3 in games with Cooper in the leadoff spot and 24-2 when Barnes starts (15-0 when he starts at 2B, SS or 3B) ... ND has totaled double-digit hits in 11 of the past 12 games and 15-plus five times in the past seven games ... the Irish have totaled 174 more wins than losses while compiling an .815 win pct. during the month of April in the Mainieri era (226-51-1).
St. John's 1-1-0 0-0-0 0-0-0 - 2 12 6
Notre Dame 0-1-0 0-1-5 2-0-X - 9 11 1
Doubles: Ross Brezovsky (ND), Gaston (ND), Will Vogl (SJU), Sam DeLuca (SJU), Chris Anninos (SJU), Gil Zayas (SJU), Jarod Hickle (SJU).
St. John's (22-10, 8-3 BIG EAST) 2-0-4 0-0-1 0-0-0 - 7 11 4
Notre Dame (26-8, 10-1 BIG EAST) 3-0-0 8-0-2 0-0-0 - 13 13 1
Home Run: Craig Cooper, ND (leadoff/solo in 1st; 5th of season, 22nd of career)
Doubles: Will Vogl (SJU), Eddie Schultz (SJU).