April 29, 2006
STORRS, Conn. - Danny Dressman and Ross Brezovsky delivered the clutch ninth-inning hits in the 7-6 opener while Craig Cooper's career-best five-hit game and another strong Jeff Manship outing paced the 7-3 nightcap, as the Notre Dame baseball team pushed its BIG EAST Conference winning streak to 16 games with Saturday's doubleheader sweep of Connecticut at Christian Field. Notre Dame (35-9, 16-1 BIG EAST) - ranked as high as 8th in the national polls - continued its recent trend of rallying from early deficits, coming back to tie the opener three times before erasing an early UConn lead in the second game and pulling away for a more comfortable margin.
Connecticut (28-15,13-5) - which now has lost 11 straight games versus Notre Dame - held leads in the opener of 3-0, 5-4 and 6-5, only to see the Irish come back each time. Notre Dame now has won 25 times in 26 games spanning the past six weeks, overcoming 19 of 20 total deficits during that span.
The Irish are off to their best one-loss start in 11 years of BIG EAST play, besting the 1998 team's 14-1 start in BIG EAST play that ended with an 11-9 loss to West Virginia. Notre Dame's 16 consecutive wins in league play are just two shy of the longest conference winning streak ever by a BIG EAST team, an 18-game tear by Notre Dame's talented 2001 squad. The Irish also now own a 23-1 record in their past 24 overall games versus BIG EAST teams, stretching back to the final two weeks of the 2005 regular season.
An overflow crowd was on hand to see the BIG EAST's top teams do battle and the first game featured plenty of twists and turns. Notre Dame had the final answer in the top of the ninth, sparked by Cooper's five-pitch walk that ended the day for senior righthander Tim Norton. With two lefthanded batters due up, UConn sent junior lefthander Ted Garry (3-2) to the mound but Brett Lilley dropped a 1-0 single into left field and Dressman followed with one of his own patented opposite-field hits, redirecting a 1-1 pitch into left-center for the game-tying double.
The Huskies then looked to set up the double play with an intentional walk to the righthanded-hitting Jeremy Barnes, bringing another lefthanded bat to the plate in the form of Brezovsky. The sophomore second baseman had been a late-inning hero several times in the recent 23-game winning streak - including an 8th-inning home run vs. Ball State and a 9th-inning triple that helped beat St. John's - and he added another clutch hit to ultimately win the series opener, jumping on the first pitch from Garry and sending a single into left field for the team's third opposite-field hit of the inning (Lilley raced home for the 7-6 lead).
Junior righthander Jeff Samardzija overcame another bumpy start and likely would have improved to 6-0 in BIG EAST action this season, if not for a series of timely UConn hits that included several that snuck through the infield and a key late single off the bat handle. Samardzija finished with had no-decision, allowing six runs (five earned) on nine hits, three walks and a hit batter in 7.2 innings. The two-sport star located 70 of his 111 pitches for strikes while his 23 outs included three strikeouts (two "looking"), 13 groundball outs and two balls that were lined out or popped up to the infield.
Notre Dame's other top-50 draft prospect took the mound in game-2 and Manship (6-1) remained among the top contenders for BIG EAST pitcher of the year, allowing three runs on six hits and just one walk in 7.0 innings. His eight strikeouts marked the seventh time in 10 starts this season that Manship has posted eight-plus Ks, with 64 strikes among his 101 pitches.
Two-out batting proved to be a key factor in the doubleheader, as the Irish batters combined to hit 11-for-32 (.344; 7 RBI) with 2-outs while UConn was just 6-for-32 (.188; 4 RBI) when down to its final out of the inning. Samardzija (2-for-9) and Manship (0-for-7) led the way, combining to limit the home team to .125 batting (2-for-16) with 2-outs.
Cooper hit 5-for-5 with an RBI and three runs scored in the second game, negating his 0-for-3 effort (with a walk and hit-by-pitch) in the opener. The senior first baseman entered the weekend owning the best career conference batting average in the 22-year history of BIG EAST baseball, with his 5-for-8 day pushing that mark from .445 to .451 (103-for-228). Cooper joins two of his teammates - junior catcher Sean Gaston (in '04) and the sophomore third baseman Lilley (in '05) - among the 31 all-time Notre Dame players who are known to have posted five-plus hits in a game.
Norton came into the series sitting atop the BIG EAST's overall ERA charts (1.20), with Manship standing fourth on that list at 2.25. The first nine teams to face Norton this season had totaled just nine runs (eight earned) versus the UConn ace but the pesky Irish scored six times (five earned) in Norton's 8.1 innings, via seven hits, three walks and three hit batters (his ERA climbed half a run, to 1.71). Norton struck out seven in a 132-pitch outing that included 83 strikes.
Junior lefthander Mike Dury (1-0; 6-0 career) was the pitcher of record in the opener before picking up his third career save (first of '06) in the second game. Dury retired all three batters he faced in the doubleheader, including one via strikeout.
Freshman righthander Kyle Weiland came on to set down the final two batters in game-1, delivering his 12th save of the season (in 13 chances). The 12 saves tie Ryan Doherty's 2004 total for second-most in Notre Dame single-season history, one behind the record-setting 13 saves posted by J.P. Gagne in 2003 (Gagne's father, Greg, was one of numerous ND fans on hand to cheer on the Irish during the doubleheader).
Dressman batted just .267 while serving as a role player during his first two seasons with the Irish but the junior outfielder has been among the team's most valuable players throughout the '06 season. His three doubles in the opener led the way each time that the Irish erased leads by the Huskies.
Four hits and an error gave UConn a 3-0 margin (one run unearned) in the day's second inning but the Irish claimed their first lead with a pair of runs in both the fourth and fifth. Lilley drew a leadoff walk and motored around for the team's first run on Dressman's first-pitch double to left-center. Brezovsky later walked on a full-count and a two-out error allowed Dressman to score unearned for a 4-2 game. Norton then hit Cooper with an 0-2 pitch to start the fifth, Lilley pulled a full-count pitch through the right side and Barnes tied the game with a flyout to left field. Lilley's stolen base put the go-ahead run in scoring position and Brezovsky delivered on an 0-2 pitch, singling through the right side for a 4-3 lead.
The Huskies went back ahead with two runs in the sixth (5-4) but the Irish re-tied the score in the next inning, after Dressman's one-out double down the leftfield line and a Barnes single into left. Samardzija started the bottom of the eighth by sawing off Dennis Donovan but his hit off the bat-handle fell down the leftfield line for a double, with a sac. bunt and flyout giving the Huskies their third lead (6-5).
UConn sent junior LHP Rich Sirois (4-2) and the BIG EAST's fifth-best ERA (2.79) to the mound in the nightcap but the Irish scored six runs on 12 hits and a walk in the 6.2 innings logged by Sirois (3 Ks).
Notre Dame held a brief lead in the first inning of game-2 - after Cooper's leadoff single (to left, on a 1-1 count), Lilley's sac. bunt and a two-out double by Barnes down the rightfield line - but the Huskies came back to score twice versus Manship. Cooper then started the third with a full-count single to center, advanced on an errant pickoff throw and Lilley's groundout, and scored on Dressman's single through the right side.
Cooper picked up his third hit of the nightcap after sending a 2-2 pitch to the right side (the second baseman was unable to make the tough play) and the Irish added their fourth run in the next inning, after Alex Nettey's one-out infield single and Greg Lopez's RBI single into the right-center gap.
Another full-count single from Cooper (through the left side) started things in the seventh, as three runs from the Irish yielded a 6-2 lead. Lilley added a sac. bunt, Dressman singled to right field and Barnes plated a run on a groundball before stealing second and scoring on Matt Bransfield's single to left. Another member of the "Killer B's" capped the inning, as Brezovsky pulled a single into right for the key four-run cushion.
Both teams added single runs before a two-out error gave UConn a final chance in the ninth. Dury then relieved junior righthander Jess Stewart (1.2 IP, 2 H) and rolled up the game-ending groundout to Brezovsky.
Cooper's fifth hit came in the eighth on a 1-0 single up the middle, plating Lopez after his leadoff double.
#8 Notre Dame 0-0-0 2-2-0 1-0-2 - 7 10 2
Connecticut 0-3-0 0-0-2 0-1-0 - 6 9 1
Doubles: Danny Dressman 3 (ND), Dennis Donovan (UConn)
#8 Notre Dame (35-9, 16-1 BIG EAST) 1-0-1 0-0-1 3-1-0 - 7 14 2
Connecticut (28-15, 13-5 BIG EAST) 2-0-0 0-0-0 1-0-0 - 3 8 1