May 7, 2006
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Notre Dame and Louisville followed a similar script from the day before in Sunday's series finale, as the Irish jumped ahead early only to see the Cardinals stage the decisive rally in the late innings for a 9-6 victory. Notre Dame had won Friday night's opener (11-3) before the visitors came back to claim game-2 (5-4), with Sunday's result marking just the fourth time - and first since 2003 - that Notre Dame has lost a BIG EAST series at Eck Stadium, spanning 11 seasons and 52 series in the home facility.
Notre Dame (37-11-1, 17-3-1) still sits atop the BIG EAST standings but will have some work to do over the final two weekends in order to secure the regular-season title. Idle Connecticut (13-5-1) stands in second place but St. John's (13-7) is not far behind while Louisville (21-28, 11-10 BIG EAST) now is tied with Cincinnati in fourth place. A wild finish is shaping up as teams jockey for spots in the eight-team BIG EAST Tournament, with other ties in the standings for sixth place (West Virginia and Rutgers, at 10-11) and eighth place (Georgetown and South Florida, at 9-12) while Villanova has entered the picture at 8-12 (one of VU's games vs. UConn was lost to a rainout, as was a UConn-SJU game).
The Irish can finish no lower than third in the final BIG EAST standings, with road series remaining versus 12th-place Seton Hall (5-16) and Villanova (in Plymouth Meeting, Pa.). UConn plays at home next week versus 11th-place Pittsburgh (7-14) before finishing at Rutgers while St. John's has series remaining at home vs. USF and at Cincinnati.
Saturday's game saw Notre Dame claim a 4-0 lead in the 1st inning and Sunday produced another early cushion, with two runs by the home team in the opening frame and another in the 3rd. Louisville chipped away with single runs in the 4th and 5th, then surged ahead with three in the 6th - before the Irish used runs in the 6th and 8th to forge a 5-5 tie. The Cardinals came back to score four times in the top of the 9th and held on for the win, after the Irish had scored once and brought the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the inning.
Senior first baseman Craig Cooper remained one of the top hitters in the nation, batting 4-for-5 with an RBI, two runs scored and a triple. He now is hitting .441 for the season (just six points shy of the ND record) and is batting at a .512 clip in BIG EAST games (42-for-82), leaving him on pace to claim an unprecedented third straight BIG EAST batting title. Cooper also moved closer to claiming the BIG EAST record for best career batting average in conference games, now sitting at .455 (110-for-242) for a 12-point cushion on the standing record held by former Rutgers player Joe Cirrone (who hit .443/51-for-115 in BIG EAST games during his career, with considerably fewer at-bats than Cooper).
Sunday's overall crowd of 3,185 tickets sold completed an impressive regular season at Eck Stadium while pushing the total attendance over 60,000 (60,334) and the average attendance over 2,500 for the 24 home dates (2,514) - with both the total and average attendance numbers representing the highest in the stadium's 13-year history. The final three-day attendance figure for the Louisville series pushed above 8,000 (8,048) while the team's average attendance in the final two BIG EAST series (also 10,003 vs. Rutgers) numbered 3,009 for those six games.
The seven largest attendance numbers in Eck Stadium history all have come during the 2006 season, with the crowd for the series finale versus Louisville ranking fourth on that list behind the three games of the Rutgers series (3,507, 3,221 and 3,275, from April 21-23). Other top attendance numbers for the 2006 season include 3,101 for the series finale versus St. John's on April 15, the doubleheader two days earlier vs. SJU (3,052; counted as one attendance date) and the Friday-night opener of the Pittsburgh series on March 31 (3,028; the first of four record-setting attendance numbers this season).
In addition to the seven attendance numbers listed above, a high number of tickets were sold for the second game of the Louisville series (2,714, on March 6). That total ranks ninth-highest in Eck Stadium history, behind the 2,900 for the 2002 game versus Arizona State.
Notre Dame has won roughly 82-percent of its all-time games at Eck Stadium - including a 109-27-1 mark (.799) during BIG EAST play - but the wins typically have been harder to come by during the weekend prior to final exams, as Irish teams in the 12-year Paul Mainieri era now have won just two-thirds of their BIG EAST games (18-6, all at home) heading into the break for finals.
The Irish entered the day with a 54-24 scoring edge in the 1st inning this season and added to that margin with a pair of early runs. Cooper had his customary strong at-bat to start things off, lining an 0-1 pitch into center field before moving up on a groundout and scoring when Jeremy Barnes pulled a first-pitch offering from junior righthander B.J. Rosenberg through the left side (Barnes took second on the throw). Ross Brezovsky then went the other way on an 0-1 pitch, dropping an opposite-field double down the leftfield line for the 2-0 lead.
Cooper's leadoff triple to the right-center gap led to the game's third run in the 3rd, with Brett Lilley's groundout brining him home for his 63rd run of the season (keeping him among the national leaders in runs scored).
Senior lefthander Tom Thornton had a solid return to the starting rotation for the Irish and was in line to pick up the win, allowing two runs on eight hits and no walks while striking out two in 5.0 innings.
Daniel Burton's RBI single put the visitors on the board in the 4th and Derrick Alfonoso added a run-scoring single in the next inning. Louisville claimed the lead with three runs in the 6th, as sophomore lefthander Wade Korpi struggled in a rare bullpen appearance. The sequence included two walks, three hits, a sacrifice bunt and an error - with Nick Haley's two-run single yielding the 4-3 lead (Chris Cates then singled for the two-run cushion).
Walks were costly to the Irish in the game-2 loss (the tying and eventual winning runs both reached on leadoff walks) and that proved to be the case again on Sunday, as all four of the UL batters who walked in the series finale came around to score (including a leadoff free pass in the 6th).
Notre Dame came back to score an unearned run in the bottom of the 6th and tied the game in the 8th, thanks to another leadoff triple (this time off the bat of Barnes, who scored on Sean Gaston's one-out groundball). It marked the 20th time that the Irish had come back to tie the game or take the lead in a span of 22 deficits faced.
Logan Johnson's leadoff single versus junior LHP Mike Dury (3-1) sparked the winning rally in the 9th, followed by Alfonso's sac. bunt and an intentional walk issued to Jorge Castillo. Freshman closer Kyle Weiland then took the mound but he lost Pete Rodriguez on a four-pitch walk before a wild pitch brought home the go-ahead run. Isaiah Howes followed with a two-run triple deep to the right-center gap, Burton reached on a hit-by-pitch and Michael Urti plated another run on a groundout for the 10-6 lead.
With "senior day" at Eck Stadium nearing its end, three of the Irish seniors reached base with the game on the line in the 9th. Greg Lopez walked, Cody Rizzo was hit-by-pitch for the 80th time in his career and Cooper sent an RBI single up the middle. Senior closer Griffin Bailey (3-2; 1.1 IP, R, H, BB) then beared down with the tying run at the plate, serving up a groundout and flyout to end the game.
Rosenberg joined Thornton in picking up a no-decision after also logging 5.0 innings (4 R/3 ER, 8 H, 2 Ks).
NOTES - The only other teams ever to win a BIG EAST series at Eck Stadium include West Virginia (2-0 in '96, 2-1 in '03) and St. John's (2-1 in '98) ... the Irish had lost just one of 37 home BIG EAST series in a span covering nine seasons ('98-'06) before Sunday's loss ... ND now is 10-2 in final regular-season home games during the 12-year Paul Mainieri era ... Cooper now has reached 72% of the time when leading off the game for the ND offense (28-of-39) ... despite the loss, ND matched its third-best win pct. in regular-season games at Eck Stadium (21-4/.840, trailing only a 25-2 mark in '97 and 23-2 in '02) ... ND reached double-digit hits (10) for the 32nd time this season and had lost just three times previously when totaling 10-plus hits (now 28-4) ... Cooper's season on-base pct. climbed to .543, a full 12 points ahead of the ND record (.531, by Eric Danapilis in '91) ... Cooper hit a combined 15-for-22 (.682) in the final two home series of the season, vs. Rutgers and Louisville (10 RBI, 13 R, 3 HR, 3B, 2 2B, 8 BB, HBP, 1.272 slugging pct., .774 on-base pct., 2.046 OPS) ... Brezovsky batted cleanup for the third time this season, as the Irish fielded their 38th different batting order of the season (in 49 games) ... Korpi owns a 1.09 ERA as a starter this season (9 GS, 57.2 IP, 72 Ks, 16 BB, 37 H/.184, 5-1) but has struggled in his only two relief outings (1.2 IP, 6 R, 6 H, 4 BB, 2 Ks) ... Thornton made his 68th career appearance, tied for 8th in ND history (3rd in the Mainieri era, behind J.P. Gagne's 94 and Aaron Heilman's 83) ... Thornton's next start will be the 50th of his ND career (only three previous ND pitchers have posted 50-plus starts) ... Thornton's career walk avg. dropped to 1.78 BB per 9 IP (remaining 3rd-best in the ND record book) ... he still has issued just 4 walks all season, in 58.1 innings - for 0.62 BB/9 IP (2nd-best in ND history).
Louisville (21-28, 11-10 BIG EAST) 0-0-0 1-1-3 0-0-4 - 9 15 2