April 18, 2006
By Pete LaFleur
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Sophomore lefthander Wade Korpi continued his midweek mastery and Craig Cooper's home run extended his hitting streak to 17 games, as the 16th-ranked Notre Dame baseball team (28-8) tied the team record for a single-season winning streak - and matched the best run by a Division I team this season - after posting its 18th consecutive victory with Tuesday's 8-2 win over visiting Toledo.
Toledo head coach Cory Mee may one day be the answer to a unique trivia question, as he is the only individual to be in uniform for both games in which Notre Dame has pushed a single-season winning streak to 18 games. Roughly 15 years ago to the day (May 1, 1991), Mee was serving as a scrappy middle infielder for Notre Dame as they posted a 2-1 victory over Saint Louis at old Jake Kline Field (located where the current Jordan Hall of Science is being constructed, on the corner of Juniper Road and what now is called Moose Krause Drive). That win was the 18th consecutive for the 1991 team and part of their 31-4 record to close that season, after a 14-12 start.
Mee was a junior on that 1991 team and one of the veteran leaders for a squad that included his classmate and future World Series hero Craig Counsell, two-sport star Frank Jacobs (still the ND single-season home run recordholder), another imposing offensive player at first base (Mee's classmate Joe Binkiewicz) and a sophomore outfielder - by the name of Eric Danapilis - who would go on to earn 1993 All-America honors and remains one of the top all-around offensive players in Notre Dame baseball history.
On the mound, Notre Dame's 1991 staff was fronted by the best five-man rotation in the program's history, with freshman Tom Price joined by a sophomore foursome that included fellow lefthander Chris Michalak (who later would pitch with multiple big-league teams) and righthanders Alan Walania, David Sinnes and Pat Leahy (grandson of legendary ND football coach Pat Leahy). Those five pitchers ultimately would combine for 161 wins in their careers (each remains among the program's top-10 win leaders) while totaling nearly 1,300 strikeouts in their combined seasons with the Irish (1,282).
Fast-forward to 2006, as Mee's career has taken him through assistant coaching stints with his alma mater and Michigan State before being named Toledo's head coach in the summer of 2003. On Tuesday, the former two-time Academic All-American - whose staff includes another former ND infielder (J.J. Brock) - found himself back at Eck Stadium and watched his team score the game's first run in the fourth, only to see home runs from Cooper in the fifth and fellow senior Cody Rizzo in the sixth help produce a 5-1 Irish lead.
Notre Dame's all-time top winning streak in 114 seasons of varsity baseball actually spans 21 games, but that run came over a stretch of two seasons (way back in 1907 and '08). Mississippi State and Old Dominion are the only other Division I teams to compile 18-game winning streaks this season, with the Bulldogs doing so to open their 2006 schedule.
Korpi (4-1) entered the week with a 2.19 ERA that ranked fourth among BIG EAST pitchers and 66th nationally (among more than 3,000 pitchers in Division I), with that number plummeting to 1.80 after eight inning versus Toledo that included just one unearned run, four hits and three walks to go along with six strikeouts in the 109-pitch outing (72 strikes). Korpi bottled up Toledo's lefthanded batters (1-for-10) while limiting the Rockets to just one hit with runners on base (1-for-12) and none with 2-outs. He also entered the week ranked sixth among BIG EAST pitchers in opponent batting average (now down to .208) and sixth nationally with 12.6 strikeouts per 9.0 IP (now 11.6). His season stats now include 58 Ks and just 15 walks, for nearly a 4-to-1 K-to-walk ratio to go along with 15 more innings pitched (53) than hits allowed (38).
An 0-for-1 game versus Central Michigan on March 22 (with three walks and a sacrifice fly) are all that stand between Cooper and a 27-game hitting streak. The senior first baseman will have to settle for his current 17-game hitting streak, still third-longest in the 12-year Paul Mainieri era behind Mike Amrhein (21, in '97) and Jeff Felker (18, in '99).
Rizzo - who had been batting just .184 (7-for-38) since late March - snapped out of that slump by going 2-for-2 with a walk, the two-run homer and two other runs scored out of the 9-hole. Junior catcher Sean Gaston continued his recent surge, batting 2-for-3 with an RBI and run scored to push his hitting streak to seven games.
Toledo (16-16) opened the scoring in the fourth after Scott Boley's one-out, full-count walk, Ryan Laude's double down the leftfield line and a passed ball that brought home the unearned run.
Notre Dame has trailed a total of only nine times during the winning streak and just two of those deficits have lasted more than 1.5 innings. Tuesday's quikc answer came in the fifth, courtesy of Rizzo's one-out single through the left side of the infield (on an 0-2 pitch) and Cooper's blast on a 1-1 offering from sophomore righthander Mike Ellis (0-1; 5 IP, 3 R/2 ER, 4 H, 3 BB). The drive over the leftfield fence represented Cooper's team-leading sixth home run of the season (all of which have come in the winning streak, including four in the past nine games) and 23rd of his career, suddenly putting him within reach of joining Alec Porzel and Paul O'Toole as the only Notre Dame players with 30-plus home runs and 30-plus stolen bases in their careers (Cooper's 44 SBs rank 9th in ND history).
The inning continued when Danny Dressman sliced an 0-2 pitch into left field for one of his patented opposite-field base hits. A stolen base and fielding error put Dressman on third and Ellis plunked Matt Bransfield (one of five HBPs in the game for ND) before Gaston pulled a 1-0 pitch through the right side for the RBI single.
Freshman righthander Dan Gatins hit Alex Nettey with a 2-1 pitch to start the bottom of the sixth and Rizzo followed two batters later with his third home run of the season, yanking a 1-0 pitch down the leftfield line for the 5-1 lead. It was the 17th home run of Rizzo's career, to go along with 31 stolen bases.
The Irish had totaled just 11 home runs in the first 30 games of the season but now have launched 10 long balls in the first six games of the current 12-game homestand.
Notre Dame tacked on three runs in the eighth, thanks to singles from Gaston and Greg Lopez, consecutive HBPs for Rizzo and Cooper (RBI) and bases-loaded walks by Dressman and Ross Brezovsky. Rizzo's 76 career HBPs remain third in NCAA history, behind former Florida Atlantic player Gabe Somarriba (81) and former San Francisco player Tony Hurtado (92).
The Irish entered the week ranked 13th nationally for staff ERA (3.25, now 3.15), 20th in fielding pct. (.972) and 26th in team batting average (.321, now .320). Nebraska is the only other team in the nation to be ranked among the top-30 in all three categories (3.07; .976; .326).
Toledo (16-16) 0-0-0 1-0-0 0-0-1 - 2 5 1