May 5, 2006
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - With its regular-season home schedule nearing its end, the 8th-ranked Notre Dame baseball team utilized a familiar formula to extend one of the nation's top victory totals to 37 in Friday night's action at Eck Stadium. The Irish received another strong outing by a starting pitcher (Jeff Manship), played strong defensively for its 13th error-free game of the season, again posted a high-scoring inning in the 4th and continued the season-long trend of clutch hitting and efficient offensive play to dispatch visiting Louisville, 11-3, in the opener of the BIG EAST series.
Notre Dame (37-9-1, 17-1-1 BIG EAST) still has lost just once in the past seven weeks (going 27-1-1 in that span) and now owns the fifth-best season win percentage (.798) among nearly 300 teams in Division I, trailing only Nebraska (.857; 36-6), North Carolina (.830; 39-8), Old Dominion (.818; 36-8) and Rice (.813; 39-9). UNC, Rice and Virginia (39-10) are the only teams in the nation with more wins than the Irish, now riding an extended run of 35-4-1 over the past 40 games.
Manship (7-1) remained on the short list of top candidates for BIG EAST pitcher of the year after allowing three runs on eight hits and no walks in 7.0 innings of work that included 69 of his 105 pitches going for strikes. The junior righthander posted eight-plus strikeouts (9) for the eighth time in 11 starts this season, with his season totals now including a 2.55 ERA, a 5.1 K-to-walk ratio (86/17), a .213 opponent batting average and 16 more innings pitched (74) than hits allowed (58). His strikeout average of 10.45 Ks per 9 IP would rank 8th in the Notre Dame record book while his K/BB ratio (5.06) would rank 5th in the program's history.
The Irish now are 21-2 at home this season and 36-3-1 in their past 40 games at Eck Stadium. With this weekend's matchups representing the final regular-season home games, Notre Dame already is assured of completing one of the winningest seasons in the 13-year history of the facility. The 1997 team (.926, 25-2) is the only Irish squad to own a better win pct. at Eck Stadium in the regular season than the current team's .913, with other noteworthy home records during the regular season including 23-3 in 2002 (.885) and 21-4 in '01 (.840).
Senior first baseman Craig Cooper walked to start the game for the Notre Dame offense, continuing his season-long success as the Irish leadoff batter (he now has reached on 71.1%, 27-of-38, of his 1st-inning leadoff plate appearances this season). Cooper went on to match his career-high with four walks in the game, also singling in his only official at-bat to yield a .538 season on-base percentage that is above the Notre Dame record (.531) set by Eric Danapilis in 1991. Cooper now is batting .431 (69-for-160) with a team-best 31 walks and seven other times on base when hit-by-pitch.
Notre Dame's recent record-setting win streak (23 games) was rooted in a domination of the 4th inning, as the Irish continually made midgame adjustments en route to compiling a 37-3 scoring edge in the 4th innings of the streak. That trend has continued since the win streak ended, including five runs in Friday's game that suddenly changed a tight 3-1 battle into an 8-1 cushion for the home team. The Irish now have amassed a dominating 62-12 scoring edge in the 4th inning this season and have scored 5-plus runs five times in the 4th, representing the bulk of the team's 14 "big innings" (5-plus runs) this season.
Friday's game saw Notre Dame cash in 11 hits for 11 runs, for an efficient night by the Irish that also included scoring nearly twice as many runs as runners left on base (6),
Louisville (19-28, 9-10 BIG EAST) made an uncharacteristic five errors and yielded three unearned runs, with all of UL's own runs coming via a pair of home runs. It marked the only time this season that the Irish have allowed multiple home runs in a game, with the staff still being touched for just 10 long balls in nearly 50 games played during the '06 season.
The Irish claimed a 3-0 lead in the 3rd, sparked by Cody Rizzo's leadoff drive to left field (he stretched his double when the leftfielder misplayed the ball). Lefthander Jake Smith (1-3; 3 IP, 3 R, 4 H, 2 BB, K) then lost Cooper to a full-count walk but kept the game scoreless after a fielder's choice groundout and popup. Freshman DH Jeremy Barnes - who entered the night batting just .228 this season with 2-outs - fell behind in the count (0-2) before taking the next two pitches outside of the zone and then sending an RBI single into left field. Matt Bransfield added his own two-strike hit, ripping his team-leading 18th double of the season into right-center to produce a 3-0 lead on the opposite-field hit.
Junior righthander Mike Lynn relieved Smith in the 4th but the Irish used three hits, a pair of walks, two wild pitches and three errors to claim the 8-0 lead. Alex Nettey walked on four pitches and scooted to the other corner when Greg Lopez dropped an opposite-field single down the rightfield line. A wild pitch moved Lopez into scoring position and Cooper later earned a one-out walk to load the bases, with Nettey scoring on a wild pitch.
The visitors then opted for junior southpaw David Torcise to face lefthanded hitter Brett Lilley but the sophomore went the other way on a 2-2 pitch for an RBI single into left field. A rare sequence followed, as Dressman smashed a single off the first baseman Jorge Castillo. Cooper rounded third and made a bid for the plate, with Castillo's wild throw allowing Lilley to score as well. Catcher Derrick Alfonso had chased down the ball and tried to throw out Lilley, with his errant throw then moving Dressman to third. A groundball up the middle should have ended the inning but a fielding error on the shortstop allowed Dressman to score for the 8-1 cushion.
Cooper singled through the right side to start the 6th and Lilley was hit by a full-count pitch (his 42nd career HBP) before Dressman laid down his team-leading 12 sacrifice bunt of the season and Barnes ripped a two-run single into left. Barnes now ranks third on the team with a .370 batting average when runners are in scoring position, nearly 80 points above his overall mark (.294).
The depth of Notre Dame's offense can be seen by the fact that six players are virtually tied atop the team RBI charts: Barnes (36), Bransfield (36), Lopez (34), Rizzo (34), Cooper (34) and Dressman (33).
The Irish also are close to having nine of their top-10 regulars all batting .300 or above. Six regulars already own that distinction, followed closely by Ross Brezovsky (.298), Barnes (.294) and Nettey (.293).
Louisville (19-28, 9-10 BIG EAST) 0-0-0 1-2-0 0-0-0 - 3 8 5