May 13, 2006
SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. - SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. - Brett Lilley had played 106 games and totaled 371 at-bats during his Notre Dame career without hitting a home run but the 2-hole batter smacked a pair of three-run shots in the second game of Saturday's doubleheader at Seton Hall, powering the 11th-ranked Irish to a split of the BIG EAST Conference baseball action at Carroll Field. Notre Dame - fresh off final exams and another long travel day that included arriving at the team hotel at 3:00 a.m. on Saturday morning - appeared to sleepwalk through the early innings of the opener, falling behind 6-0 after the 3rd inning before chipping away and ultimately losing 7-6 despite having the tying run on base in the 9th. The Irish then extended to a 10-run lead in game-2 and saw the hosts score eight times in the 9th before winning the nightcap, 14-12.
Notre Dame (38-12-1, 18-4-1 BIG EAST) inched closer to claiming the BIG EAST regular-season title, with Connecticut still in second place (15-5-1) while third-place St . John's (14-8) has only a slim chance of catching the Irish in the BIG EAST standings. Seton Hall (15-30, 5-17) was eliminated from contention for the 8-team BIG EAST Tournament while 11th-place Pittsburgh (7-16) likely is out of the running as well. Louisville (13-10) is riding a four-game win streak and now alone in 4th place while Rutgers and West Virginia are tied for 5th (12-11), Cincinnati is 7th (11-12) and South Florida 8th (10-13), followed by Georgetown (9-14) and Villanova (8-14). If the Irish win the regular-season title, they will be placed into a four-team, double-elimination bracket at the BIG EAST Championship with the teams that finish 4-5-8 (with an opening game vs. the #8 seed).
Saturday's win marks the 16th time in 22 years of BIG EAST baseball that one of the league's teams has reached at least 18 wins in a season, with Notre Dame now owning six of those seasons with 18-plus BIG EAST wins (Rutgers is next with four, followed by St. John's with a pair of 18-plus win totals). Six previous teams have won 19-plus BIG EAST games in a season, including three Notre Dame squads (22-4 in '01; 20-5 in '99; 20-6 in '04), plus two Rutgers teams (19-6 in '03; 19-7 in '99) and SJU in 2005 (19-4).
Junior righthander Jeff Manship improved to 8-1, after matching his career-high of 10 strikeouts in 6.2 innings. The BIG EAST pitcher of the year candidate allowed four runs on six hits and just one walk while posting his sixth consecutive winning decision. Manship pushed his season strikeout total to 96 in 80.2 innings, for an average of 10.71 Ks per 9.0 innings that would rank sixth-best in the Notre Dame record book (Ryan Doherty is the only pitcher from the 12-year Paul Mainieri era with a better K average). He remains on pace to challenge the Irish record for strikeouts in a season (118), held by former All-American Aaron Heilman.
Manship now owns an impressive 5.33 season K-to-walk ratio (18 BB) that would rank 5th-best in the Notre Dame record book, behind Tom Price (12.14, in '94), Danny Tamayo (6.24, in '01), Scott Cavey (5.88, in '99) and Alan Walania (5.62, in '93). Saturday's high strikeout total also pushed Manship's career average to 10.13 Ks per 9 IP, passing current Major League all-star closer Brad Lidge (9.93) into 4th place in the ND record book, behind Dan McGinn (12.66), Doherty (12.17) and Rick Rusteck (10.75).
Doherty is the only Notre Dame pitcher in the past 40 years with a higher career strikeout rate than Manship, who also has moved ahead of another former teammate (Chris Niesel, 4.09) atop the Irish list for career K-to-walk ratio (4.14; 116/28, in 103.1 IP). Walania (4.00) is the only other pitcher in recorded ND history with a career K/BB ratio of 4.0-plus.
Craig Cooper batted 4-for-9 in the doubleheader and is on the verge of claiming the BIG EAST record for highest career batting average in BIG EAST play. The senior first baseman now is batting .454 in BIG EAST games during his career (114-for-251), 11 points above the record held by former Rutgers player Joe Cirrone. Cooper's season batting average remains at .441, just six points shy of Edwin Hartwell's team record (Cooper also remains on pace for an unprecedented third BIG EAST batting title, now hitting at a .505 clip in 2006 conference games).
Kyle Weiland was the third Notre Dame pitcher to take the mound in the 9th inning of the nightcap and recorded the final out with the tying run on base for his 13th save in 14 opportunities this season. The freshman righthander now shares the Notre Dame record for saves in a season with J.P. Gagne ('03).
Junior righthander Jeff Samardzija (6-2) made his shortest outing of the season in the opener, allowing six runs (five earned) on six hits and three walks while striking out three in 3.0 innings.
Senior leftfielder Matt Bransfield hit 5-for-8 in the doubleheader with a pair of RBI and a run scored in each game. Freshman DH/2B Jeremy Barnes (3-for-8, 3 RBI, 2 R, BB, 3B) added a productive day from the cleanup spot while sophomore second baseman Ross Brezovsky helped spark the game-2 win by batting 3-for-5 (2 RBI, 2 R, 2B).
The Irish made three errors in the doubleheader but two came in the same inning, producing a costly unearned run in the 3rd inning of the opener. Unearned runs now have played a key role in half of Notre Dame's 12 losses this season.
Notre Dame - which scored its 14 runs in the nightcap on 14 hits - broke open the game by scoring six times in the 7th (12-4), with the team's six hits in the frame including Lilley's second home run of the day, a triple by Barnes and doubles off the bats of Brezovsky and Alex Nettey.
Cooper entered game-2 having reached base better than 70% of the time when leading off a game for the ND offense and he added to that total with a double to right field before scoring after Lilley's 12th sac. bunt of the season and an RBI groundout by Danny Dressman. Cooper now owns a .714 first-inning on-base pct. (30-of-42) as the Notre Dame leadoff batter.
SHU's Brandon Cohen preceded fellow lefthanded hitter Lilley's pair of home runs over the rightfield fence, with each of the three blasts aided by a brisk wind. Cohen's 3-run shot made the visitors lead a short one in the 1st and marked just the 11th home run surrendered by Notre Dame pitching this season.
Dating back to the start of Notre Dame's record-setting win streak on March 25, the Irish have made a habit of overcoming deficits and that continued with four runs in the 5th inning of game-2. The inning included singles by Bransfield, Nettey and Cooper (plus Greg Lopez's RBI groundout) before Lilley connected on his first career home run for the 5-3 lead, supplying half of the runs allowed by sophomore RHP Dan McDonald (6 IP, 5 ER, 6 H, BB, 4 Ks).
Notre Dame now has erased 21 of its past 25 deficits faced, over the span of 33 games and seven weeks of action.
Bransfield's sac. fly plated Brezovsky in the 6th and the Irish then claimed their 12-4 cushion with six runs in the 7th, the 15th time this season that ND has posted 5-plus runs in an inning. The inning included Nettey's 21st time hit-by-pitch this season (3rd-most in the nation), Cooper's high-chop single to the third baseman and Lilley's second home run of the day. Luis Fernandez then relieved fellow lefthander Mark Irwin but plunked pinch-hitter Cody Rizzo, producing Rizzo's 11th HBP of the season and 81st of his career (tied for 2nd in NCAA history, 11 shy of the record). Barnes then parked a triple into center field, Brezovsky dropped an opposite-field double down the leftfield line and Bransfield capped the big inning with a one-out single to left.
Lilley's six RBI doubled his previous career-high for a single game (3), set earlier this season in game-2 of the St. John's series.
The Irish tacked on what proved to be two valuable runs in the 8th, after three walks issued by freshman RHP Greg Miller (to Lilley, Barnes and Sean Gaston). an error and Brezovsky's RBI single. Bransfield's day possibly should have been 5-for-7 with 5 RBI, after his flyout to the leftfielder with one out produced an apparent sac. fly - but the home plate umpire ruled that Barnes had left third base early.
The excruciating bottom of the 9th included eight hits (five with 2-outs), a sac. fly, a stolen base and a pair of 2-out walks. Weiland provided that second free pass after losing the first batter he faced (Matt Skopak) but Mike Morano ended the game on a groundball to the shortstop Lopez.
SHU had jumped ahead in the opener with three runs in both the 1st and 3rd before the Irish scored twice in both the 4th (Barnes double, Bransfield single, passed ball, Nettey groundout) and 5th (Lilley HBP, Dressman walk, Barnes and Bransfield RBI singles).
The Pirates plated what proved to be a key insurance run in the 6th, versus freshman righthander Brett Graffy (5 IP, 2 H, 2 Ks). The Irish then rallied in the 9th with sophomore RHP Tim Dexter on the mound. Gaston slapped a pinch-hit single past the third baseman and Cooper walked before Lilley sent an RBI single down the rightfield line.
McDonald then took the mound in advance of his game-2 start and recorded the second out before Barnes forged a 7-6 game with his sac. fly to left field. Cooper scored on the play but Lilley inadvertently was running on contact and was doubled off first base to end the game.
Sophomore LHP Dan Merklinger picked up the victory in game-1 (7 IP, 4 R/3 ER, 7 H, 3 BB, 3 Ks).
NOTES - Manship did not allow a Seton Hall leadoff batter to reach base (0-of-7) and now has limited the opponents to a .293 leadoff on-base pct. (2.6 have reached per 9 IP) ... he now has posted 8-plus Ks in 9-of-12 starts this season (2 with 10, 3 with 9, 4 with 8, also 7, 6 and 4-K games) ... Rizzo and former Florida Atlantic player Gabe Somaribba ('99-'02) are tied for 2nd on the NCAA list for career HBPs (San Francisco's Tony Hurtado had 92, from '97-'00) ... Lilley's HBP was his 13th of the season and 43rd of his career while Nettey now has 40 career HBPs (Rizzo, Lilley and Nettey are 1-2-3 on the ND career HBP list) ... ND's seasons with 18-plus BIG EAST wins also include 18-7 in 2000 and 18-8 in '02 ... other teams with 18-plus BIG EAST wins (in addition to ND, RU and SJU) include West Virginia, Seton Hall, Virginia Tech and Providence (each with one) ... Manship and Samardzija will be featured on MLB.com late next week (with feature stories and video interviews that were conducted at the ballpark on Saturday).
#11 Notre Dame 0-0-0 2-2-0 0-0-0 - 6 10 2
#11 Notre Dame (38-12-1, 18-4-1 BIG EAST) 1-0-0 0-4-1 6-2-0 - 14 14 1
Jeff Manship (W, 8-1), Mike Dury (7), David Phelps (9), David Gruener (9), Kyle Weiland (9; SV, 13) and Sean Gaston.
Home Runs: Brett Lilley, ND (2 on in the 5th and the 7th; 1st and 2nd of career); Brandon Cohen (2 on in 1st; 7th of season).