May 12, 2004
COMSTOCK PARK, Mich. - Notre Dame's 2004 pitching staff includes several former and future Major League draft picks, a handful of high school All-Americans, and battle-tested veterans of the elite U.S. National Team Program. But as the Irish near the 50-game point, an unknown commodity in the form of freshman righthander Jeff Samardzija has played a vital role in the '04 staff's success. Samardzija overcame a bumpy fourth and final inning to pick up the win Wednesday night in a planned rotation as 8th-ranked Notre Dame topped Michigan, 7-3, in front of 3,838 spirited fans at the annual Baseball Bash matchup in Fifth Third Bank Ballpark.
Notre Dame (39-9) jumped out to a 6-0 lead after three innings, en route to its sixth straight victory while rising 30 games over .500 for the sixth season in the program's history. The Irish now are on the verge of reaching 40 wins for the 16th consecutive season, which could end up being the longest active streak in all of Division I. Florida State and Wichita State entered 2004 as the only teams with longer streaks of 40-win seasons (both at 26) but FSU is 31-19 while Wichita State is 34-13 (the Shockers streak also includes an "asterisk," due to multiple seasons in that span in which WSU was allowed to play more than 56 regular-season games due to the exemption for playing games in Hawaii).
Two members of the surging sophomore class - leftfielder Steve Andres (2-for-4, BB, 3 RBI) and centerfielder Cody Rizzo (2-for-3, HBP, RBI, R) - snapped out of their recent slumps to play key roles in the win over Michigan (25-22) while the third sophomore in the Irish outfielder, RF Craig Cooper (2-for-5, R), joined Andres and Rizzo as the multiple-hit players in a 10-hit attack.
There are nearly 300 Division I baseball programs with some 10-15 pitchers on each team's staff but Samardzija masterfully has risen above nearly every pitcher in the nation to rank 26th in this week's NCAA statistical leaders for season ERA (2.14; with a minimum of 1.0 inning pitched per team game). The 6-5, 205-pounder lettered as a wide receiver/special teams player with the Note Dame football team last fall before attempting to add college baseball to his list of accomplishments.
Samardzija was held to a pitch limit (he logged 61) due to the upcoming BIG EAST showdown with rival Rutgers at Eck Stadium (12:05 doubleheader on Sat., May 15, with a Sunday night game to follow at 7:05). The football/baseball star allowed just one run and one hit in his four innings of work and overcame a string of throwing 11 straight balls in the 4th, ultimaltey finishing the night with three walks and three strikeouts. His preseason workouts earned him a spot on the first travel squad and Samardzija steadily has emerged as one of the staff's pivotal performers, with his 5-2 record including a hard-luck loss to St. John's (2-1 after allowing a pair of unearned runs in 7.1 strong innings) and a loss at BIG EAST co-leader Pittsburgh, a day after catching a TD pass in the Blue-Gold intrasquad scrimmage. Samardzija clearly was unable to pull off that challenging weekend in late April, allowing 8 runs in 4.0 innings, with his stats from his other 14 appearances (excluding the Pittsburgh game) now including a 0.62 ERA, 4-1 record and .158 opponent batting avg., plus 23 Ks, 12 walks and 24 hits allowed in 43.1 innings (also no wild pitches, two hit batters and just one home run allowed in those 14 GP).
Notre Dame now is one of just eight teams in Division I with single-digit losses, trailing only East Carolina (43-7), Texas (46-8), Stanford (38-8) and Oral Roberts (38-8) in that department while Miami (36-9), Rice (35-9) and Albany (33-9) also are nine-loss teams.
Michigan's lead in the longstanding series shrunk to 75-42, with Notre Dame winning eight of the last 11 (including 6-3 in the Baseball Bash games) and four of the last five.
The short trip to Grand Rapids completed a grueling stretch that saw Notre Dame log 15,527 land and air miles while playing 29 of its first 48 games away from home. The Irish were on the road a total of 36 days during the 12-week stretch from Feb. 18-May 12, with most of that travel coming on weekends and during spring break in order to maintain the Notre Dame guidelines that limit class misses for varsity sports teams. The Irish are limited to missing a total of just six class days all semester (three Mon.-Wed.-Fri. and three Tues.-Thurs.), with all departures from campus coming after attending class that day.
Not surprisingly, a large portion of Notre Dame's 2004 success lies in its road-warrior mentality that produced a final 24-5 record (.828) during 2004 regular-season road games, with five of those wins coming vs. teams that were ranked in the national top-25 at the time (USC, Winthrop, Florida Atlantic, Minnesota and Arizona), plus a high-powered Texas Tech squad that has remained one of the nation's top offensive squads and sits fourth in the Big 12 standings. In nine of the first 12 games, the Irish also were facing an opponent that already had logged more games and outdoor practice time.
Only one previous ND team in the 10-year Paul Mainieri era - the top-ranked 2001 squad (24-3-1, .875) - has totaled a better winning pct. during regular-season road games, with the '01 and '03 teams now sharing the Mainieri-era record for most road wins in one regular season. By comparison, the program's average road record during the previous nine seasons was just 18-9 while the average win pct. was .654. Most recently, the 2003 team went 17-10 in regular-season games outside Eck Stadium while the '02 squad was just 19-11.
The friendly confines of Eck Stadium now are the site for Notre Dame's final eight games before the postseason, starting with the highly-anticipated Rutgers series. Grant Johnson is slated to start game-1 for the Irish while fellow junior righthander Chris Niesel is the probable game-2 starter. Sunday's starter will be determined based on the bullpen needs in the first two games, with Samardzija a top candidate for Saturday relief or a Sunday start.
Notre Dame's series-clinching win at Connecticut on Monday featured a staggering 10-run top of the 1st and the Irish were poised for another big start on Wednesday vs. the Wolverines, ultimately settling for three runs before adding a run in the 2nd and two more in the 3rd.
Senior second baseman Steve Sollmann started the opening rally with a one-out walk before sophomore DH Matt Bransfield ripped a double past the diving third baseman and down the leftfield line. Junior righthander Michael Penn then hit senior catcher Javi Sanchez with a 1-0 pitch and Andres pulled the next offering through the right side of the infield for a two-run single. Andres alertly took second on the throw home, with the ball skipping up on the catcher (allowing Sanchez to score and Andres to take third, on the rightfielder's throwing error).
Freshman righthander Andrew Hess - the first of six Michigan relievers - took the mound in 2nd and Rizzo returned his first pitch back up the middle for a leadoff single. Two batters later, junior third baseman Matt Macri drove a double to center field, plating Rizzo for Macri's 46th RBI of the season (one behind the team lead, shared by Bransfield and Matt Edwards).
Five Michigan errors led to three unearned runs, with shortstop Jeremy Goldschmeding's high throw allowing Sanchez to reach second on a two-base error in the 3rd. Andres raked the next pitch into right field for an RBI single and Hess had another chance at his first out of the inning wiped out when Eric Rose dropped Cooper's deep flyball to center field (Andres had to hold at second). Hess then induced a popup and Andres was thrown out at third on a blown hit-and-run - but Rizzo recovered by drilling the next pitch into center field, scoring Cooper for the 6-0 lead.
Samardzija worked himself into a jam in the 4th, after allowing a one-out double and three straight walks that suddenly put the tying run on deck. He battled back from a 2-0 count vs. pinch-hitter Leif Mahler, who went down looking at strike three, and Samardzija then served up a groundball off the bat of Matt Rademacher to escape with the 6-1 lead.
Notre Dame's starting infield has made its case all season for being one of the best defensive units in the country and Wednesday's performance added more fuel to that argument, with the team's 19th error-free game of the season featuring three double plays and several other above-average plays.
Michigan had scored once in the 5th but was looking for more, with runners on second and third and the deficit at 6-2. A.J. Scheidt stepped in as the potential two-out hitter and sent a high bouncer that was bound for the rightside gap as a two-run single. Edwards - a prep shortstop who split time in '03 at third and first - anticipated the tricky path of the ball and quickly ranged to his right before making a low stab to keep the ball in the infield. Freshman righthander Dan Kapala, the first of three Irish relievers, was quick off the mound and took the scoop from Edwards to complete the stunning turn of events.
A similar scenario unfolded in the sixth, with no outs and runners on first and second. Rademacher sent a slow grounder to the right side and Sollmann appeared in a tight spot to force even one runner on the play. With Mahler crossing in front of him, Sollmann fielded the ball and spun to his right for a quick toss to sophomore shortstop Greg Lopez, who then sent the ball on to Edwards for a close play at the bag and a huge double play.
Notre Dame added to its lead with a run in the 7th before the game was halted by a 45-minute rain delay. Freshman righthander Dan Lentz hit Sanchez with the first pitch of the inning and Cooper later delivered a one-out single, going the other way on a 2-2 pitch that found the right-center gap to leave runners at the corners. Sanchez then raced home on a wild pitch, pushing the lead to 7-2.
NOTES - ND's 2nd-inning scoring edge continues to grow (49-7) ... the five previous ND teams that reached 30 games over .500 include the top-ranked 2001 squad (best record of +36) plus the 1990 (+35), 1992 (+34), 2002 (+33) and 1989 (+30) teams ... Edward (1-for-3) extended his hitting streak to 10 games, matching his career best (from May 13-31, 2003) ... Kapala (2 IP, 2 H, R, 2 BB) was followed by senior LHP Joe Thaman (2 IP, 2 H, BB, 2 Ks) and sophomore closes Ryan Doherty (IP, 2 H, R, K) ... ND extended the program's 2nd-longest scoring streak to 135 games ... Sollmann picked up career hit #286, plus his 77th career stolen base and 200th run scored ... Samardzija's ERA rose slightly to 2.15 ... four ND players were hit by pitches, extending the team's season record to 90 ... just 10 previous Division I teams have totaled more than 90 HBPs in a season: Nevada (125, in '97), Long Beach State (124, in '98, and 114 in '99), Arizona State (115, in '00), San Jose State (105, in '00), Cal State Fullerton (98, in '02), Washington (98, in '01), Nebraska (99, in '02), Oklahoma State (99, in '99) and Richmond (97 in '00) ... Macri (41) and Lopez (31) now have combined for 72 error-free games on the left side while Sollmann has yet to make an error in 132 fielding chances this season (Edwards has 3 Es and 43 error-free games) ... Cooper registered his 12th multiple-hit game of the season and now has hits in 13 of his last 14 games ... Rizzo picked up his 18th HBP of the season (10 shy of his ND record set in '03) while registering multiple hits for the first time in nine games.
#8 NOTRE DAME (39-9) 3-1-2 0-0-0 1-0-0 - 7 9 0
MICHIGAN (25-22) 0-0-0 1-1-0 0-0-0 - 2 5 5
Michael Penn (L, 4-5), Andrew Hess (2), Phil Tognetti (3), Michael McCormick (5), Dan Lentz (6), Craig Murray (8), Jeff Niemiec (9) and Matt Rademacher, Jeff Kunkel.