April 22, 2006
The fourth record-setting crowd at Eck Stadium in a span of just 15 days was treated to a memorable Friday night at Eck Stadium, as Jeff Samardzija pitched strong into the eighth on a promotional night named in his honor while Craig Cooper smacked a pair of home runs to help knock off Rutgers, 11-5, and extend the 16th-ranked Notre Dame baseball team's record-setting win streak to 20 games. An unprecedented total of 3,507 tickets were sold for the series opener, with the grandstand, bleachers and every standing-room spot filled to capacity to watch the Irish continue their monthlong tear.
Notre Dame (30-8, 12-1 BIG EAST) maintained its hold atop the league standings while reaching the 30-win mark quicker than all but two of the previous 113 teams in the program's history. The current seniors were sophomores on Notre Dame's 2004 team that reached its 30th win in 35 games (30-5), one game better than the 2001 team's 30-5-1 start. The Notre Dame baseball program now has totaled at least 30 wins in each of the past 19 seasons , dating back to a 39-22 record in 1988.
The Irish earlier this season lost both their home opener and their BIG EAST opener but they have gone unbeaten in both of those categories since those losses (16-1 at home, 12-1 in the BIG EAST). The talented 2001 team - fronted by ace pitchers Aaron Heilman and Danny Tamayo - is the only team in 22 seasons of BIG EAST baseball that has compiled more consecutive wins in league play (18).
Hundreds of fans stood in line well before the gates opened shortly before 5:00 p.m., helping to ensure the acquisition of the "Shark" commemorative poster that celebrates Samardzija's two-sport excellence with the Notre Dame football and baseball teams (his former baseball teammate Chris Niesel is credited with coining the Shark nickname during the 2004 season). Samardzija's football coach (Charlie Weis) and 2006 ND football captains Brady Quinn, Tom Zbikowski and Travis Thomas were on the mound for the first-pitch ceremony, with the son of the coach (Charlie Weis, Jr.) doing the honors. Plenty of other bells-and-whistles - including a special appearance by the Notre Dame leprechaun and the presence of several members of the national media, including ESPN and 60 Minutes - set the tone for an electric night that actually saw the visitors score first.
Samardzija (6-1) improved to 19-5 in his three-year Notre Dame career, after once again delicately working out of jams while keeping Rutgers away from a big inning. The junior righthander ultimately was charged for three runs on six hits and three walks, with six strikeouts in his 119-pitch outing that spanned 7.1 innings.
Cooper - who extended his hitting streak to 19 games (one shy of matching the best in the 12-year Paul Mainieri era - hit the ball on the screws in his first two at-bats but failed to reach either time, as his first-inning rocket kicked off the foot of junior righthander Steve Holt (4-5; 5 IP, 5 R, 8 H, BB) and resulted in a 1-4-3 groundout. Two innings later, Cooper had a runner in scoring position and ripped a linedrive that was headed for the right-center gap but instead was snared by the second baseman.
Rutgers (17-16-1, 7-6) used Todd Frazier's two-out walk and Frank Meade's double down the leftfield line to claim the first-inning lead. It marked the 11th deficit faced by Notre Dame during the win streak but the Irish now have quickly drawn even or taken the lead in nine of those instances when they have played from behind. On five occasions, Notre Dame has erased the deficit in the next half inning while three others have ended in one-and-a-half innings. Friday's deficit lasted just a tad longer (2.5 innings), as the hosts brought home a pair of runs to take the lead.
Greg Lopez has singled to open the third and moved up on Alex Nettey's bunt before seeing Cooper's infield lineout. Brett Lilley then sent a 1-0 pitch up the middle to tie the game and Danny Dressman pulled a 2-1 pitch that skipped inside of the first-base bag for an RBI double and the 2-1 lead.
Rutgers forged a 2-2 tie in the fourth but Notre Dame seized control with three runs in the fifth, two in the sixth and four more in the seventh for a commanding 11-2 cushion.
Nettey coaxed a full-count walk to start the bottom of the fifth and the righthanded-hitting Cooper drove the next pitch over the fence in right-center for his team-leading seventh home run of the season and the 4-2 lead. Lilley then again singled up the middle, Dressman went the other way for a hit through the left side and Jeremy Barnes bunted the runners over before Ross Brezovsky's RBI groundout made the score 5-2.
Chris Lillis relieved Holt in the sixth but the junior righthander was charged with a pair of runs while recording just one out. Lopez's opposite-field single to right-center proceeded walks by Nettey (full-count) and Cooper (3-1) that loaded the bases with out. Lilley then beat out an infield single and Dressman walked on five pitches, forcing home another run as the lead grew to 7-2.
Notre Dame's four-run seventh included Brezovsky's leadoff single, the team-leading 13th double of the season from Matt Bransfield, Lopez's sac. fly and a fielding error that allowed Cooper to bat in the inning. The error proved costly, as Cooper hammered the next pitch to the same location of the field (right-center) to cap Notre Dame's scoring in the game/.
Cooper (2-for-4, 4 RBI, 2 R), Lilley (4-for-5, 2 RBI, 2 R) and Dressman (2-for-4, 2 RBI) combined to bat 8-for-13 while producing eight of the team's 10 RBI. Bransfield and Lopez also had two-hit games, with Lopez (201) joining his classmate Cooper (222) among Notre Dame's 200 career-hits club.
NOTES - Mike Amrhein (21, in '97) owns the longest hit streak of the 12-year Mainieri era ... ND managed just 10 home runs in the first 30 games of the season but now has totaled 11 home runs in the current 8-game homestand ... Cooper also had two home runs in the same game during the series finale at Pittsburgh in 2005 (21-1) ... Cooper (.432;92-for-213) moved back into 2ndlace on the EAST list of top batting averages.
Rutgers (17-16-1, 7-6 BIG EAST) 1-0-0 1-0-0 0-3-0 - 5 9 2
#16 Notre Dame (30-8, 12-1 BIG EAST) 0-0-2 0-3-2 4-0-X - 11 14 0
Steve Holt (L, 4-5), Chris Lillis (6), Joe Baione (6) and Frank Meade.
Jeff Samardzija, Sam Elam (8), Jess Stewart (8) and Sean Gaston.
Home Runs: Craig Cooper, ND (7th and 8th of season; 24th and 25th of career); Steve Hook, RU.
Doubles: Danny Dressman (ND), Matt Bransfield (ND), Frank Meade (RU), Ryan Hill (RU).