May 20, 2006
PLYMOUTH MEETING, Pa. - It came down to his final at-bat in the final game of the regular season and Craig Cooper delivered with a ringing single into right field, completing his 3-for-4 game to lead 19th-ranked Notre Dame's 12-1 victory over Villanova. In the process, the senior first baseman claimed the BIG EAST record for career batting average in BIG EAST games - finishing at .444 (120-for-270) for the best mark in the 22-year history of BIG EAST baseball.
Notre Dame (41-14-1, 21-5-1 BIG EAST) now heads to Clearwater, Fla., looking to extend its unprecedented run of BIG EAST Tournament titles to five. The Irish will face the local team and 8th-seeded South Florida in the final first-round game of the double-elimination tournament on Tuesday, May 23 (8:00 p.m.), at Brighthouse Networks Field - the spring-training home of the Philadelphia Phillies. St. John's and West Virginia (as respective 4th and 5th seeds) will join ND and USF in the same bracket of the eight-team tournament (the winners of the two brackets meet in the May 27th championship game).
The 41 regular-season wins match the fourth-most ever by a Notre Dame team while the 21 BIG EAST wins have been bested just once in the conference's history, by Notre Dame's 2001 team that went 22-4 in league play.
Tom Thornton (6-2) improved to 26-11 in his 51st career start, logging 5.0 innings and 69 pitches in an abbreviated outing (he left with a comfortable 6-1 lead). The senior lefthander allowed one run on six hits and no walks while striking out two Villanova batters.
Cooper - who also was hit by a pitch in his third plate appearance on Saturday - ends the regular season with a .432 overall batting average while claiming an unprecedented third career BIG EAST batting title (for conference games). He hit .491 in 2006 BIG EAST games, representing one of the highest averages ever turned in by a BIG EAST batting champ. Since 1989, only four of the previous 16 BIG EAST batting champs - former Rutgers shortstop Darren Fenster (.505, in '99), former ND infielder Brant Ust (.493, in '98), former UConn centerfielder Mike Scott (.491, in '01) and former ND catcher/DH Jeff Wagner (.488, in '97) - have claimed the BIG EAST batting title with a higher avg. than Cooper's .481.
The race for the 2006 batting title was far from close, as Cooper outdistanced runner-up Todd Frazier of Rutgers (.424) by a whopping 57 batting points. Cooper also ended up leading the BIG EAST in on-base pct. (.573) and slugging pct. (.759), sweeping the three batting avg./pct. categories for the second time in his career (also '04, with no other BIG EAST player ever leading all three categories in the same season).
Here are additional notes on Saturday's game, the Irish and the BIG EAST Tournament:
COOPER SPARKS EARLY OFFENSE - Notre Dame claimed a 3-0 lead in the 1st inning of Saturday's game, sparked by Cooper's single into left-center on a full-count pitch from freshman RHP Josh Eidell (2-5; 6 IP, 6 R/2 ER, 9 H, BB, K) ... Cooper now has reached on two-thirds of his 1st-inning leadoff plate appearances (31-of-47) this season ... a throwing error on Brett Lilley's team-leading 13th sacrifice bunt ultimately helped extend the inning, with Jeremy Barnes then adding an RBI single to left (2-2 count) and Sean Gaston pulling a single through the right side (for a 2-0 lead) before Steve Andres lifted a sac. fly to right field ... ND now owns a 60-32 scoring edge in the 1st inning this season (after a narrow 58-49 edge in the 1st inning last season).
DOWN TO THE WIRE ... - Cooper came up again in the 2nd and drilled a first-pitch single into center field, at that point yielding a .444 career BIG EAST batting avg. (119-for-268) that was above the standing record held by former Rutgers player Joe Cirrone (.443) - who totaled just 115 career at-bats in his BIG EAST career, five fewer than Cooper's hit total (the BIG EAST min. for that stat is 100 career ABs) ... it still was a tight game (3-1) when Cooper returned to the plate in the 4th and he gave himself up to advance the runner, following Alex Nettey's leadoff single and a wild pitch by tapping a groundball to the first baseman (advancing Nettey to third on the "sac. groundout") ... the play of course still is credited as an at-bat, dropping his career BIG EAST avg. to .442 (Lilley's sac. fly scored Nettey for the 4-1 lead) ... Cooper later was hit by a pitch in the 6th, as part of a sequence that yielded two more ND runs (Evan Sharpley and Lilley both singled and scored on a costly error with 2-outs).
THE FINAL AT-BAT - Cooper's final chance at the record came with 2-outs and a pair of runners on base in the 7th ... senior RHP Jake Wolff worked ahead in the count, as Cooper took the first pitch for a strike, walked the second offering sail out of the zone and fouled off pitch-3 ... he then connected on the next pitch, driving a 2-run single through the right side of the infield for the .444 career BIG EAST avg.
... AND A RUNAWAY - The scope of Cooper's dominant season can be seen in the fact that he could have gone hitless in 14 more at-bats and still claimed his unprecedented third career BIG EAST batting title (would have been 52-for-122/.426) - as RU's Frazier finished a distant second with a .424 BIG EAST batting average this season ... Cooper won his first BIG EAST batting title in 2004 (.470; 31-for-66) and then hit .403 in 2005 BIG EAST games (27-for-67), joining former Boston College player Kevin Penwell ('95 and '96) as the only repeat batting champs in the 21-year history of BIG EAST baseball ... Cooper's BIG EAST career had a modest start in 2003, when he hit "just" .345 (10-for-29) while platooning in the outfield.
THREE-WAY THREAT - Prior to the 2004 season, no BIG EAST player ever had led the league in conference batting avg., slugging pct. and on-base pct. for the same season ... Cooper became the first player to lead all three categories in that '04 season (.470 batting, .573 on-base, .759 slugging) and duplicated the unique feat this season (.481 batting, .573 on-base, .759 slugging).
BIG EAST BEAST - In addition to leading the above three hitting categories, Cooper paced the BIG EAST in hits (52), runs (43), home runs (7, tied for lead) and total bases (82) during 2006 BIG EAST games, also ranking 7th in walks (19) and 8th in RBI (24) ... he enters the postseason with a 32-point cushion atop the BIG EAST charts for overall batting avg. (.432) while also leading the league in total runs (72) and overall on-base .529) - plus 3rd in hits (86) and slugging pct. (.673), 5th in total bases (134), 9th in home runs (9) and 12th in walks (34).
ALWAYS THERE - Cooper's 50 games this season have seen him reach base in all but two games (48), with hits in 45 of those games and runs scored in 44.
PITCHERS PERFECT - The Notre Dame pitching staff enters the postseason on a roll, having allowed just nine runs (eight earned; 1.67 ETA) in the past five games (1-2 vs. Seton Hall, 1-3 vs. Michigan and then 3-1, 6-2 and 12-1 vs. VU) ... the ND pitchers have held the opponents to a .225 batting avg. in the past five games (34-for-151), with a dominating K-to-walk ratio of better than 9-to-1 (37/4) and nine more innings pitched (43) than hits allowed (34) in those final five games of the regular season.
WALK IS A FOUR-LETTER WORD - ND pitching coach Terry Rooney has preached the importance of low walk totals since his arrival in the summer of 2003 and his staff nearly ripped through the full 27 innings of the Villanova series without issuing a single walk (Jeff Manship had the staff's only BB in the three games) ... the ND pitchers now have pushed their season K-to-walk ratio over 3.0 (3.05; 445/156), which would best the team record set by the 2001 staff (2.92) that was fronted by senior standouts Aaron Heilman and Danny Tamayo ... the Irish pitchers are averaging just 2.61 walks per 9.0 IP, which would rank 2nd in the ND record book (behind the 2.48 BB/9 IP in '01).
CONTROL FREAKS - In addition to owning the lowest walk total in the BIG EAST (146, well ahead of the next team on that list, Rutgers, with 163 BB), the 2006 ND pitchers also have compiled a low hit-by-pitch total (46, tied with Villanova for fewest in the league) and have uncorked only 22 wild pitches (the lowest WP total in the BIG EAST, with UConn next at 28) ... the ND staff owns a total "control number: of 214 (BB+HBP+WP), with UConn a distant second (247) ... the ND pitchers are averaging just 0.39 wild pitches per game, which tie the team record set by the talented 1993 staff.
NO-FLY ZONE - Another area that showcased the control of the ND pitching staff continues to be the low number of home runs allowed by Irish pitching this season (12) ... the staff allowed an avg. of 0.21 HRs per game in the 2006 regular season, which would rank 2nd in the ND record book and best in more than 30 years (0.16, in '75) ... there are 40 BIG EAST pitchers who have met the league minimum for the ERA stat leaders charts (1.0 IP per team game) ... of those 40 pitchers, only five have yielded 0-1 home runs - with three coming from ND (Tom Thornton, Jeff Samardzija and Wade Korpi each have surrendered just one ball over the fences this season) ... until last week's Michigan game, Korpi held the distinction of being one of three BIG EAST "regulars" who had yet to allow a HR (Seton Hall's Dan Merklinger and Rob Delaney of St. John's still have you to be touched for a HR).
PROFESSOR PINPOINT - Saturday's outing cemented Thornton's status as one of the top control pitchers in Notre Dame history ... Thornton now has allowed just 62 walks in 321.2 career innings, for a lowly avg. of 1.74 BB per 9.0 IP that remains 3rd-best in the ND record book (behind Brandon Viloria's 1.61 and Alan Walania's 1.64) ... the Academic All-America candidate has issued just 5 walks in the entire 2006 season (71.1 IP), with a 0.63 walk avg. (per 9 IP) and an equally eye-popping 10.80 K-to-walk ratio (54/5) ... another LHP, Tom Price (0.49 BB/9 IP; 12.14 KBB), is the only pitcher in the program's recorded history ever to post better season numbers than Thornton's walk rate and K/BB ratio (Price posted both marks in '94, with 85 Ks and 7 BB in 127.2 IP) ... Thornton is the only pitcher among the 40 BIG EAST "regulars" (min. 1.0 IP per team game) who has allowed fewer than 16 walks this season (5).
START ME UP - Thornton's career start total (51) remains 4th in ND history but he could pull reach 2nd place on that list during the postseason, as Brian Piotrowicz made 52 starts in the late 1980s while Darin Schmalz totaled 53 in the mid-90s ... Price holds the ND record for career starts, with 56.
MID-INNING MACHINE - Thornton allowed just three Villanova batters to reach scoring position, all in the 3rd inning (when VU scored its lone run) ... he then clamped down again in the 4th and 5th ... Thornton still has allowed just 2 runs all season in the key mid-inning stretch (4th-7th), for a 0.58 ERA in that four-inning span (31.0 IP).
200-K PLAN - With his pair of strikeouts vs. VU, Thornton landed squarely on 200 strikeouts for his career ... he is the 12th ND pitcher to reach the 200-K milestone, just one behind Piotrowicz, five back of former teammate J.P. Gagne, six shy of mid-50s pitcher Tom Bujnowsky and 14 behind Tim Kalita for 8th (another former teammate, Chris Niesel, is 7th with 233 Ks) ... Thornton also made his 60th overall appearance with the Irish on Saturday while lowering his career ERA to 3.75.
20-20 PAIR - Thornton (26-11) and Samardzija (20-7) give Notre Dame multiple pitchers with 20-plus career wins ... it marks just the third time in the program's history - and first season since 1993 - that an Irish staff has featured multiple pitchers with 20-plus career victories ... ND's 1992 staff featured four pitchers who owned 20-plus career wins with the Irish: LHP Chris Michalak (23-8) and RHPs David Sinnes (22-5), Pat Leahy (25-7) and Alan Walania (25-9) ... Michalak (34-13), Sinnes (32-8) and Walania (30-12) returned in 1993 while Price (26-5) also reached 20 career wins that season ... Samardzija is one of 16 ND pitchers ever to reach 20 career wins while Thornton remains now sits along in 8th place on the ND career wins list, one behind Piotrowicz.
IRISH POST FIFTH 3-0 SWEEP OF SEASON - Notre Dame earlier this season posted 3-0 sweeps of Pittsburgh, South Florida, St. John's and Rutgers, in addition to not losing a game (2-0-1) in the showdown series at UConn ... the 2004 team is the only other ND squad to post five 3-0 BIG EAST sweeps (vs. West Virginia, Villanova, Georgetown, UConn and Rutgers) ... the 2001 team rattled off 3-0 sweeps of Seton Hall, RU, VU and St. John's but failed to close a fifth 3-0 sweep, losing the third games to both UConn and BC.
MVP NO-BRAINER - Cooper completed the regular season having dominated the team stats possibly like no other player in the program's history ... he currently leads the team (or shares the lead) in 15 different categories, with a: .432 batting avg., .673 slugging pct., .529 on-base pct., 1.202 OPS, 86 hits, 3 triples, +27 plate-discipline ratio (BB+HBP-Ks), 9 home runs, 134 total bases, 34 walks, batting vs. both LHPs (.400) and RHPs (.444) - plus key situational stats such as leadoff on-base pct. (.571), batting with runners on (.455) and with them in scoring position (.380) ... Cooper also ranks 2nd on the team in doubles (15) and stolen bases (9), 3rd in RBI (37) and games started (50) and 4th in HBPs (8).
BIG EAST TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE (full bracket linked above as PDF) ¬- The first-round games on May 23 include #3 seed Louisville (17-10; 28-28) vs. #6 Rutgers (13-14; 27-26-1) at 10:00 a.m., followed by #2 seed UConn (18-6-1; 38-16-1) vs. #7 Cincinnati (13-14; 32-24) at 1:00 ... the other bracket then will begin play later that day, with #4 St. John's (16-10; 37-17) vs. #5 West Virginia (14-13; 35-20) at 5:000 and then the ND game vs. USF (12-15; 23-33) at 8:00 ... the winners from the ND bracket will meet on Wed., May 24 at 8:00 (the SJU-WVU loser will face the ND-USF loser in a may 24 elimination game at 1:00) ... the teams that go 2-0 in each bracket have a day off (Thur., May 25), with elimination games played that day at 4:00 and 7:00 (ND's bracket) ... the bracket championship games then will be held on Friday, May 26 (the ND bracket title game is at 1:00, with another game at 6:30 if necessary) ... finally, the champs from each bracket will meet in the Sat., May 27 tournament championship game (1:00; live on ESPN-U).
A REGULAR SEASON TO REMEMBER - Notre Dame's 2006 regular season featured the longest winning streak (23 games) in 114 seasons of ND baseball and ultimately led to 41 wins ... the only Irish teams to win more regular-season games: 2004 (46-10), 2001 (45-9-1) and 1990 (44-10).
COOPER IN THE RECORD BOOKS - In addition to claiming the BIG EAST career batting avg. record, Cooper also finished 6th on the BIG EAST list for career hits (120, one behind former UConn CF Mike Scott) and 8th with 83 career runs (one behind former SHU player Dana Brown) ... Cooper's 52 hits in 2006 BIG EAST action were two shy of that record, set by former Rutgers SS Darren Fenster ... his .432 overall season avg. ranks 5th in ND history (2nd-best since '93), behind Edwin Hartwell (.447), Dan Peltier (.446), Steve Stanley (.439) and Eric Danapilis (.438) ... Cooper's career avg. climbed to .360 (10th in ND history; 5th in the Mainieri era) ... his season on-base pct. stayed at .529, just two points shy of the record set by Danapilis in '91 (Cooper's .460 career on-base is 7th in the ND record book) ... Cooper (284) moved past Alec Porzel into 10th place in the ND career runs list (Scott Sollmann is next, with 187) ... his 72 runs this season are 9th on that ND list (Scott Sollmann scored 73 in a season) ... Cooper's 254 hits remain 9th in the ND record book, now three behind Peltier.
DEFENSIVE DYNAMOS - Notre Dame is on pace to set the team record for season fielding pct. (.972) and finished the regular season with the special distinction of having no players with double-digit errors (Greg Lopez and Ross Brezovsky each have 9 Es, Brett Lilley 8 and Jeremy Barnes 7).
#19 Notre Dame (41-14-1, 21-5-1 BIG EAST) 3-0-0 1-0-2 2-4-0 - 12 14 1
Tom Thornton (6-2; 26-10 career), Joey Williamson (6), Jess Stewart (7),