May 18, 2007
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Freshman pinch-hitter Ryan Smith lined a first-pitch, opposite-field single over the second baseman's head to cap Notre Dame's wild 5-4 win over Connecticut, clinching a BIG EAST Tournament spot for the Irish in dramatic fashion. Notre Dame now has qualified for the BIG EAST postseason during all 12 of its years in the league and will be looking to extend its unprecedented string of BIG EAST Tournament titles to six.
Notre Dame (28-25, 11-14 BIG EAST) still could finish tied in the standings with Cincinnati (10-15) and/or West Virginia (10-15) - but the Irish still would emerge from any possible tiebreakers with a spot (anywhere from #5-#8) in the eight-team tournament. The Irish actually could make at run at fifth place by winning Saturday's series finale and then also needing game-3 losses by South Florida and Villanova (both 12-14) to move past either of those teams. Final standings are based on winning percentage, due to an unequal amount of games played resulting from rainouts.
Connecticut (29-25, 9-14 BIG EAST) now finds itself one of three teams battling for the final playoff spot and is currently just percentage points behind Villanova and WVU. The Huskies need to beat the Irish on Saturday and then hope for losses by both the Bearcats and Mountaineers, in order for UConn to retake the final spot in the tournament. The other series of note that will conclude tomorrow include USF at 1st-place St. John's (20-6), 2nd-place Rutgers (19-7) at Villanova, 3rd-place Louisville (18-8) at Cincinnati and Georgetown at West Virginia. The 1-4 seeds all are locked in for the tournament, with Pittsburgh (15-10) holding down the #4 spot.
The tournament format again will include two double-elimination brackets (seeds 1-4-5-8 in one and 2-3-6-7 in the other), with the winners of each bracket then meeting in a single championship game. Play begins on Tuesday, May 22, with the title game set for May 26. All games will be played at the sparkling minor-league facility Keyspan Park, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The winning sequence came against a pair of relievers, with Ross Brezovsky drawing a five-pitch walk versus righthander Ted Garry (2-5) before Jeremy Barnes beat out his sacrifice bunt to the right side. Lefthanded closer Matt Karl, who also serves as the team's DH, then took the mound but uncorked a costly wild pitch before losing switch-hitter Mike Dury on another five-pitch walk. The righthanded-hitting Smith (who went 3-for-4 as the DH in Thursday night's game) then went after the first pitch he saw, driving a fastball over the leaping second baseman Dale Brannon to end the game.
Notre Dame sophomore righthander David Phelps, pitching on one day shorter rest than his usual weeklong break between starts, was not as sharp as in recent outings, allowing four runs (three earned) on 12 singles and four walks while striking out four in 8.0-plus innings. Phelps walked leadoff batter Pete Fatse to start the ninth and the Irish then summoned righthanded closer Kyle Weiland, who was looking to pick up his 19th career save in 20 chances. Weiland (5-2) failed to close out the win - allowing three walks of his own to push home the tying run - but he later backed into the winning decision, after watching his teammates rally to the victory.
Freshman third baseman A.J. Pollock had given the Irish the lead just minutes earlier, following Brett Lilley's one-out double with his triple (2-2 pitch) into the right-center gap for a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the 8th. The Irish could have picked up a valuable insurance run, but Pollock was thrown out at the plate on an ensuing rightside groundball.
The game featured just three extra-base hits but they all came at key junctures, including a 4th-inning, game-tying home run (3-3) by graduate-student catcher Matt Weglarz. With Pollock on second after a leadoff single and one-out wild pitch, Weglarz connected on a full-count pitch from freshman RHP Dusty Odenbach and drove the ball over the fence in left-center field for his fifth home run of the season and 16th of his career. Weglarz, who played as an undergrad at Missouri State, never had hit more than four home runs in a season during his college career and also has eight doubles among his 35 hits this season.
Odenbach allowed four runs on seven hits and one walk, with a strikeout in 8.0 innings. Phelps saw his season ERA (1.87) still remain under 2.00 while becoming the ninth different Notre Dame pitcher ever to reach 90-plus strikeouts in a season (93). He will finish the regular season with the most strikeouts of any BIG EAST pitcher and likely will have the league's best ERA, among pitchers with more than 60 innings pitched.
Pollock's 3-for-4 day pushed him back atop the team batting charts at .376, as he attempts to become just the fourth Notre Dame freshman ever to lead the Irish in batting. His team-best 25 multiple-hit games this season now include eight games with three-plus hits.
The Irish scored in their first trip to the plate for the 42nd time this season, with Pollock beating one a leftside ball in the hole for a one-out single before showing his hustle to score all the way from first on Danny Dressman's single into right field. Dressman tried to stretch his hit into a double and the Huskies threw to second base - with Irish head coach Dave Schrage then opting to wave the speedy Pollock on to home as he slid in safely for the early 1-0 lead.
Phelps had not allowed an earned run in the 2nd inning all season but UConn scored two of them (plus one unearned), as the Irish narrowly missed completing a couple of key plays in the middle infield. Five-hole hitter Matt Untiet hit a leadoff single to center field and advanced on a single by Pat Mahoney - but rightfielder Brayden Ashdown quickly threw behind the runner as Untiet was tagged out as he tried to scramble back to second. Mahnonet then nearly was forced out at second, when Karl sent a hard-hit ball back up the middle. Second baseman Jeremy Barnes ranged far to his right but failed to complete the tough off-balance throw, just as Karl was sliding into the bag.
Another infield single - a "swinging bunt" off the bat of Josh Farkes that died on the grass near the third-base line - then loaded the bases, with one out still on the board. Phelps appeared on the verge of escaping trouble when he rolled up a potential 4-6-3 double-play ball - but the shortstop Lilley's throw bounced off the hand of the high-sliding Farkes. The resulting wayward trajectory allowed Karl to follow Mahoney across the plate, giving the visitors a quick 2-1 lead. Fatse made the second run earned when he reached on the third infield single of the inning, a chopper that landed beyond the pitcher's bound. That left runners at the corners and Brannon dropped the next pitch into center field for a 3-1 cushion.
NOTES - Phelps now is just seven Ks shy of joining Aaron Heilman (118 in 1999 and 2000; 111 in '01), former teammate Jeff Manship (111, in '06), Danny Tamayo (106, in '01) and Frank Carpin (102, in '58) as the fifth ND pitcher to reach the strikeout century mark ... his 93 Ks are tied for the 9th-highest season total in ND history, just one behind current junior LHP Wade Korpi's 2006 total (94) and four back of Tim Kalita's 97 Ks in '99 ... Phelps located 73 of his 113 pitches for strikes while Odenbach found the strike zone on 57 of his 94 ... Phelps uncharacteristically allowed 7-of-9 leadoff batters to reach (well above his 9-inning avg. of 2.7) but he held UConn to just a pair of 2-out hits all day ... the Irish bullpen now has allowed 30 of 74 inherited baserunners to score (41%) ... Weglarz - who has caught all 14 of the starts by Phelps - threw out two attempted basestealers in the top of the 4th before launching his two-run blast in the bottom of the inning ... the Irish had totaled just one home run in their previous eight games ... the save opportunity was the first in six weeks for Weiland, who had been used mostly as a starter during the past month ... in ND's games this season, the team with the lead entering the 9th inning now is 47-1 (ND is 23-0) ... the Irish have averaged just 5.6 runs in games started by Phelps this season (seven with 0-3 runs) ... Phelps had compiled an 0.79 ERA in his four previous Eck Stadium starts this season ... the Irish are 22-5 when scoring 5-plus runs in 2007 ... ND could have won twice last weekend at Louisville with 5-run games and could have sent last night's game to extra innings with 5 on the board ... Lilley has reached base in 17 straight games and in all but three games this season (50 of 53) ... the loss snapped a five-game losing streak that had seen the Irish total just eight runs in those losses ... ND has not lost more than three straight this season prior to the recent slide.
Connecticut (29-25; 9-14 BIG EAST) 0-3-0 0-0-0 0-0-0 - 4 12 0
Notre Dame (28-25; 11-14 BIG EAST 1-0-0 0-0-0 0-0-0 - 5 9 1