April 19, 2003
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Kris Billmaier and Matt Macri headed into the second half of the 2003 season looking for a boost in their production and both players made significant impacts - at the plate and in the field - during Saturday's BIG EAST doubleheader action, combining with starting pitchers Ryan Kalita and John Axford to lead 13th-ranked Notre Dame in a 4-3, 9-3 sweep of visiting Seton Hall.
Notre Dame (29-8, 10-2 BIG EAST) - which has won 11 straight vs. Seton Hall, for a 19-6 series edge (12-1 at Eck Stadium) - remained atop the unbalanced and jumbled BIG EAST standings that include four other teams with 10 wins, plus 8-2 West Virginia (which plays last-place Georgetown on Monday). Seton Hall (14-18, 7-9) fell back in the race for a spot in the four-team BIG EAST Tournament, with the No. 4 spot currently occupied by Virginia Tech at 10-4 (final standings are based on win pct.).
Billmaier - who was shifted back from the leadoff spot to the 5-hole - quickly put a 1-for-20 slump behind him, batting 3-for-3 in the opener with a double and two-run home run. The senior co-captain - making his fourth consecutive start in center field (a spot he had not played since his sophomore year in high school) - also made a game-saving catch in the sixth inning of the seven-inning opener, preserving the final 4-3 margin.
Macri continued his recent hot streak (15-for-33/.455 in the last 10 games) by batting 3-for-4 in the nightcap, with a triple, two doubles and a pair of runs scored - plus a leaping stab at his shortstop position on a linedrive headed for the gap and strong relay throws on all three of the Irish double plays in game two.
Junior second baseman Steve Sollmann was not to be undone, batting 2-for-3 in both games while extending his hitting streak to 10 games (hits in 19 of the last 20) and pushing hit multi-hit total to 21 games. The preseason BIG EAST player of the year also made his own stellar defensive play, timing his jump perfectly for a full-extension catch on an early linedrive in the nightcap.
Kalita (5-0) bounced back from a rough outing in last Sunday's 13-12 win at Creighton, allowing just four balls to leave the infield in his six-inning stint. He boosted his career record with the Irish to 12-0, after totaling six strikeouts, nine groundball outs and a pair of popups while allowing three runs on three hits and one walk in the 87-pitch stint. His classmate J.P. Gagne then retired all three batters he faced for his eighth save of the season and the 14th of his career.
Axford (8-0) remained among the nation's victory leaders, with only Rice's Jeff Niemann and N.C. State's Vern Sterry (both 10-0) owning better undefeated marks (Long Beach State's Abe Alvarez, who pitched with Axford's classmate Grant Johnson on the 2002 Team USA squad, also is 8-0). The game marked Axford's 12th consecutive winning decision with the Irish, with all but two of his outs coming on groundballs (11, including thee double-play balls), strikeouts (2) or infield lineouts (3) - in an 81-pitch outing that included two runs allowed on three hits and five walks.
Freshman lefthander Mark Irwin (4-5) suffered the opening loss, allowing the four runs (two earned) on six hits and one walk while striking out five Irish batters. Irwin had entered the game with the lowest opponent batting average (.177) of any BIG EAST pitcher, with ND batting .261 vs. the lefty newcomer.
Righthander Elvys Quezada - one of the nation's top-rated senior pitchers - dropped to 2-4 in the nightcap, after allowing nine runs (seven earned) on 10 hits and four walks (with two Ks).
Sollmann opened the day with a double down the leftfield line, scoring on a pair of groundballs for the early 1-0 lead. Casey Grimm's leadoff home run then tied the game in the second but the Irish reclaimed the lead with three runs in the third. Sollmann showed his versatility with a first-pitch, leadoff bunt single before coming around to score on Brennan Grogan's sacrifice bunt, a stolen base and the ensuing errant throw by the catcher.
A costly infield error then allowed Javi Sanchez to reach with two outs and Billmaier lifted a 1-0 pitch inside the leftfield foul pole for his fourth home run of the season (first since opening week) and a 4-1 lead.
Kalita lost Mike Bascom to a leadoff walk in the sixth and threw errantly on two groundballs back to the mound, suddenly loading the bases with no outs. A double-play ball brought home one run for a 4-2 game and the hot-hitting Grimm then sliced an opposite-field single into left-center to forge a one-run deficit. Kalita worked ahead in the count (3-1) versus righthanded hitter Matt Cuttruff and the game was inches away from being tied - but Billmaier raced to the left-center gap and made a lunging grab to leave the tying run stranded at first.
Singles from Sollmann and Grogan (on an attempted sac. bunt) gave the Irish another first-inning run in the nightcap and the lead grew to 3-0 in the next inning, sparked by Macri's one-out triple to right-center on a 2-2 count (a Cody Rizzo single, fielding error and passed ball led to the second run).
Sophomore first baseman Matt Edwards delivered his seventh home run of the season - and sixth in the last 14 games - to lead off the bottom of the third, launching a 1-0 pitch that carried over the leftfield fence and the service road before landing on the football practice field.
Moments later, Grimm sent his own seventh home run of the season over the centerfield fence for a two-run shot and a 4-2 game in the fourth. But the Irish used another big inning to put the game away, with the five-run sixth including a full-count walk by Sanchez, Macri's double down the leftfield line, Rizzo' record-setting 16th time hit-by-pitch and a clutch two-run single by Greg Lopez that kicked through the right side of the infield.
The 7-9 hitters - Macri (2 R), Rizzo (2-for-3, RBI, R) and Lopez (2-for-4, 2 RBI, 2 R) - played a key role in the second win, combining to bat 7-for-11 with three RBI and five runs scored.
The opening win made the Irish 7-1 in one-run games this season while the nightcap was the team's 16th win in 2003 by a margin of five-plus runs.
PITCHING STAFF NOTES - The ND staff ERA now stands at 3.55 (2.39 in BIG EAST games) ... Axford (2.29 ERA, 8-0, .216 opp. batting avg., 55.0 IP, 53 Ks, 26 BB), Kalita (3.97, 5-0, .229, 45.1 IP, 35 Ks, 21 BB) and sophomore RHP Chris Niesel (2.33, 5-1, .223, 59.1 IP, 55 Ks, 11 BB) have emerged as a strong three-man rotation, with their combined stats as follows: 2.99 ERA, 18-1, .225, 159.2 IP, 143 Ks and 58 BB ... the trio has been even more dominating in BIG EAST games, combining for a 2.15 ERA in conference games, a 10-0 record, .202 opp. batting, 68 Ks and 24 BB in 71.1 IP ... Kalita owns the top league ERA among the three (1.67, 4-0, .167, 27.0 IP, 23 Ks, 7 BB) while Axford has allowed just .148 opponent batting in BIG EAST games (plus 2.12, 3-0, 17.0 IP, 17 Ks, 14 BB) and Niesel has nearly a 10-to-1 K-to-walk ratio in BIG EAST games (28/3, plus 2.63, 3-0, .262, 27.1 IP) ... nearly 80 percent of Kalita's outs in 2003 (103 of 136) have come via Ks or groundouts ... Gagne's eight saves rank 5th in ND single-season history, three shy of John Corbin's record total in 2000 (11) ... his 14 career saves are 2nd in ND history, six behind Corbin's record total ... Gagne made his 82nd career appearance, one behind former teammate Aaron Heilman for 2nd in ND history ('93 grad. Chris Michalak holds the record, with 92 GP) ... senior RHP Brandon Viloria logged a scoreless 7th in the nightcap, dropping his career ERA to 2.52 (4th in ND history) while his ND record-low walk total now stands at 1.32 BB per 9 IP ... freshman RHP Ryan Doherty logged the final two innings (2 Ks) and now is averaging 15.5 Ks per 9 IP (23 in 13.1) and a .208 opponent batting avg.
POSITION PLAYER NOTES - Macri boosted his season slugging pct. to .500, fourth-best on the team behind Edwards, Sollmann and Rizzo ... Sollmann's batting average again is nearing .400 (.396) while Macri's has climbed over .300 (.304) ... Edwards' home run ended an 0-for-13 drought while Lopez snapped out of a 2-for-16 slump ... the Irish rapped out 11 hits in the nightcap, after failing to total more than eight hits in any of the previous four games ... the Irish now have totaled 14 "big innings" (5-plus runs) this season, including 11 in the last 16 games (first in last eight games) ... the Irish posted 1st-inning runs in consecutive games for just the third time this season ... ND extended its 2nd-inning scoring margin to 51-8 ... ND's team fielding pct. stands at .970, with 13 error-free games and 12 one-error games (the team's only error vs. SHU came on a Kalit throw) ... the eight starting position players have totaled just 32 errors in 37 games this season.
BIG EAST NOTES - Sollmann now owns a .571 career batting avg. vs. SHU (16-for-28, 4 RBI, 11 R, HR, 2 2B, 3 BB, 2 SB) while Gagne is 2-0 with two saves and a 1.10 ERA in 16.1 career innings vs. the Pirates (12 Ks, 6 BB, 13 H) ... ND's 69 all-time BIG EAST series now include 54 series wins and eight splits (the 67 doubleheaders include 41 sweeps, 22 splits) .... the Irish have played 32 consecutive BIG EAST doubleheaders at Eck Stadium without being swept ... the BIG EAST leaders include ND (10-2), WVU (8-2, plays Monday vs. Georgetown), Rutgers (10-3), Virginia Tech (10-4) and Pittsburgh (10-7), with SHU and UConn at 7-9 and Boston College 5-7.
Seton Hall 0-1-0 0-0-2 0 - 3 2 4
Notre Dame 1-0-2 0-0-0 X - 4 6 1
Mark Irwin (L, 4-5), Chris Noonan (6) and Lou Santangelo.
Home Runs: Casey Grimm, SHU (solo in 2nd; 6th of season), Kris Billmaier (1 on in 3rd; 4th of season).
Doubles: Billmaier (ND), Matt Bransfield (ND).
Seton Hall 0-0-0 2-0-0 0-1-0 - 3 5 4
Notre Dame 1-2-1 0-0-5 0-0-X - 9 11 0
Elvys Quezada (L, 2-4), Jake Haggerty (6), Jeff Barrow (7), Ben Grams (8) and Lou Santangelo, Dave Kady (7).
Home Runs: Matt Edwards, ND (solo in 3rd; 7th of season), Casey Grimm, SHU (1 on in 4th; 7th of season).
Triple: Matt Macri (ND).
Doubles: Macri (ND), Matt Cuttruff (SHU).