May 21, 2005
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - The Notre Dame baseball team had battled throughout the past week looking to maintain control of its postseason fate and the Irish came through once more on Saturday at Eck Stadium, completing a three-game sweep of West Virginia (7-3) that clinched Notre Dame's 10th consecutive trip to the BIG EAST Championship.
Notre Dame (33-22-1, 14-9-1 BIG EAST) - the first team ever to make 10 straight trips in the 21-year history of the BIG EAST Baseball Championship (Rutgers is next, with eight straight from '96-'03) - edged ahead of Pittsburgh (15-10; 31-20 overall) to claim the third seed for next week's four-team BIG EAST tournament, to be held May 26-28 at Commerce Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater, N.J. The Irish will face second-seeded Boston College (17-8; 36-18) in Thursday's second game (7:00 EDT; 6:00 in South Bend) of the double-elimination tournament, following the 3:30 game between top-seeded St. John's (19-4; 39-14) and the Panthers.
The winners of Thursday's games will meet on Friday at 3:30 while the losers will play a noon elimination game. The second elimination game will be played Friday night (7:00), with the championship games slated for Saturday at 3:30 and 7:00 (if necessary).
Notre Dame will be seeking to extend its unprecedented run to four consecutive BIG EAST tournament titles, as no previous team had won more than two straight BIG EAST tournament trophies. The Irish went a combined 12-12 in their first seven trips to the BIG EAST tournament before going 9-2 to win the '02, '03 and '04 titles.
The Irish now take a much-needed break from competition, after a rare and grueling stretch that included eight high-pressure games during the past seven days.
The game vs. BC will reunite Notre Dame with the team it faced during a key turning point of the 2005 season. The Irish had lost the series opener to the Eagles on April 9 in Brockton, Mass., leaving Notre Dame with a 14-14 overall record and just 3-4 in the BIG EAST standings. That's when head coach Paul Mainieri made the key shift of moving freshman Brett Lilley from second to third base and the Irish responded by going on a 7-0-1 run in BIG EAST play.
Despite that April awakening, the Notre Dame players had their backs against the wall once again this week after a rare five-game losing streak in BIG EAST play. The Irish responded by winning their final four BIG EAST games - plus gaining a split with 17th-ranked USC - to enter the postseason on a roll.
Notre Dame's strong play at home salvaged the season, as the Irish went 23-4-1 (.839) for the program's third-best winning pct. at Eck Stadium in the facility's 11 seasons (the '97 team was 25-2/.926 at home while the '02 team went 26-3/.897 at The Eck).
A look back at the 2005 schedule shows that Notre Dame had the toughest road to claiming a spot in the BIG EAST Tournament, as the Irish had to face each of the other top teams (SJU, BC, Pitt and RU) on the road. The unbalanced 10-team, 25-game BIG EAST schedule also resulted in ND being scheduled to face the league's bottom two teams (Georgetown and Seton Hall) just twice but the Irish rose to the challenge by closing with the four clutch wins.
Sophomore righthander Jeff Samardzija (7-1) improved to 5-1 in BIG EAST games this season, after delivering another big-game performance to clinch his team's postseason berth. The two-sport star allowed three runs on nine hits in 7.0 innings, locating 70% of his pitches for strikes (73 of 105) while striking out four WVU batters. Sophomore lefthander Mike Dury then yielded a leadoff single in the 8th but junior righthander Ryan Doherty closed the door, ultimately facing only five batters over the final two innings with a pair of strikeouts and key double-play ball.
Saturday's game wraps up an impressive series for the Notre Dame pitching staff, which limited the potent West Virginia offense to just five runs and a .237 team batting avg. (well below its .312 season avg.) in the three games. The Irish pitchers combined for a 1.80 series ERA, struck out 16 and walked just three while allowing 22 hits in the 25 innings.
Senior first baseman Matt Edwards and junior outfielder Craig Cooper both went on hitting streaks at the end of the 2004 season and the team's key run-producers could be primed for a similar run through the '05 postseason.
Cooper (3-for-3, RBI, 2B) extended hit hitting streak to 10 games and now sits atop the BIG EAST record book with a .448 career batting average in BIG EAST games (47-for-105), moving ahead of former Rutgers player Joe Cirone (.443; '97-'00). Cooper ends the regular season with a .403 batting average in 2005 BIG EAST games and likely will repeat as the league batting champ (TBA; he hit .470 in '04 BIG EAST games), something done just once previously in BIG EAST history (BC's Kevin Penwell had the top BIG EAST batting avg. in '95 and '96).
Edwards (4-for-4, RBI, R, 2B), batting behind Cooper in the cleanup spot, registered his second four-hit game of the season and picked up his 189th career RBI, tying Jeff Wagner ('96-'99) for 5th in the ND record book and now just 32 shy of the record set by '93 graduate Eric Danapilis (Edwards can apply for a 5th year of eligibility in 2006).
Junior rightfielder Cody Rizzo (2-for-3, R, 2B, HBP) continued his recent surge while Lilley (1-for-3, BB, HBP) and junior centerfielder Alex Nettey (2-for-4, RBI, 2B) each scored two runs from the top of the order.
Lilley and Rizzo's HBPs give ND 118 for the season, moving into 4th in the NCAA record book behind Nevada's 1997 team (125), Long Beach State's 1998 squad (124) and the 2004 College of Charleston team (122). Lilley's 25 HBPs are three shy of Rizzo's Notre Dame record and rank 19th in the NCAA record book.
The Irish batters again delivered in the clutch, with several hits to the opposite field and an aggressive approached that yielded a number of first-pitch hits. Notre Dame players also rapped out five of the game's seven doubles, with the WVU offense managing just one other extra-base hit.
Sophomore lefthander Wes Osbourn (7-4) suffered the loss after failing to get through the 2nd inning (1.2 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 2 BB, 28 pitches).
Osbourn opened his start by hitting Lilley with a 2-0 pitch and the Irish cashed in the chance, after a groundout, Cooper's single through the left side and a first-pitch single to left field off the bat of Edwards. It marked the 52nd run scored by the Irish in the 1st inning this season.
The Irish came right back to score four times in the 2nd inning. Rizzo pulled a single through the left side to start the big inning and sophomore catcher Sean Gaston sent the next pitch down the rightfield line for an opposite-field double. Osbourn then lost Greg Lopez on a four-pitch walk and had the chance to avoid major trouble after rolling up a run-scoring double-play ball. But Lilley coaxed a full-count walk and Nettey drilled the next pitch into center field for an RBI single that ended Obsourn's brief stint.
Cooper then jumped on an 0-1 pitch from junior righthander Kevin Korzun, pulling a two-run double down the leftfield line for the early 5-0 cushion.
Edwards led off the 3rd with an opposite-field drive into the right-center gap, for his 18th double of the season and 48th of his career. He then swiped third base with one out and raced home when catcher David Carpenter sailed his throw down the line.
WVU jumped back in the game in the 4th, after Lee Fritz placed a leadoff single down the leftfield line and Stan Posluszny sent a 1-0 pitch over the rightfield fence for his 12th home run of the season. Kyle Matuszek's double and a Doug Nelms single suddenly put the tying run on deck and Brandon Drespling added a one-out single through the right side for a 6-3 game.
Nelms had taken third base on an outfield fielding error and he broke for home on Carpenter's leftside groundout - but the shortstop Lopez opted to go home and threw to Gaston for the huge tagout. Samardzija then induced a flyout from Tyler Kuhn to leave a pair of runners on base.
The visitors had another chance in the 5th after a leadoff single from Justin Jenkins, with two dangerous hitters waiting in the wings. But Samardzija responded by rolling up a pair of groundballs, including a double-play off the powerful bat of Posluszny.
The Mountaineers had another leadoff single in the 6th (by Kyle Matuszek) but Samardzija rolled up a groundout, struck out pinch-hitter Troy Ridgley and served up a flyout to end the threat.
The Irish capped the scoring with another run in the 7th. The inning featured three opposite-field singles and could have seen Notre Dame break the game open, instead leaving the bases loaded. Nettey sent a 1-out double into the right-center gap and moved up on a wild pitch before scoring on Cooper's sacrifice fly. Edwards then slapped a 2-2 pitch through the right side and freshman DH Tony Langford deposited the next pitch into right field before Korzun hit Rizzo with the next pitch. Freshman lefthander Ryan Hill then entered the game and rolled up a groundout to maintain the four-run deficit.
Posluszny pulled the first pitch he saw from Dury through the right side to start the 8th and the Irish then called Doherty out of the bullpen. The big righthander quickly squashed the threat, striking out Matuszek and inducing a double-play ball from Nelms.
UPDATED TEAM NOTES - Lilley has totaled 59 free passes this season (25 HBP, 34 walks) to go along with 67 hits ... the ND offense has at least one HBP in 22 consecutive games and in 51 of 56 games this season ... Cooper is batting .487 in his current 10-game hit streak (18-for-37, 8 R, 5 2B, 16 RBI, 2 HR, 3 BB, HBP, 4 Ks, SAC, SB) ... Nettey (10-for-33, 3 RBI, 2 R) and Rizzo (11-for-29/.379, 6 RBI, 9 R) each have hits in 8 of the past 9 games ... ND's six games this week included a 2.42 staff ERA in 52 IP (45 H/.227 opp. avg., 13 BB, 33 Ks), a .361 team batting avg. and 8.7 runs per game (6 HR, 15 2B, 22 BB, 9 HBP, 22 Ks) ... ND now is 27-2 when leading at the end of the 6th inning, 22-3 when holding the opponent to 0-3 runs, 20-3-1 when outhitting the opponent and 19-8-1 when scoring a 1st-inning run ... ND now leads the WVU series 31-13 (22-10 in Mainieri era), including 14-5 at ND (8-5 at Eck Stadium) ... the Irish are 12-3 in the past 15 games vs. WVU ... the 2nd-longest scoring streak in ND history now stands at 203 games (434 of last 435; 673 of 679 in Mainieri era) ... the ND pitchers allowed just 9 HRs at home this season ... Lilley's 46 error-free games this season include 23 in 28 games at 3B (7 Es) ... since Lilley's shift to 3B, ND has just 33 Es in 28 games (0-1 Es in 21) ... his classmate Ross Brezovsky has just one E in the past 11 games (at 2B).
West Virginia (25-30, 10-15 BIG EAST) 0-0-0 3-0-0 0-0-0 - 3 10 1
Notre Dame (33-22-1, 14-9-1 BIG EAST) 1-4-1 0-0-0 1-0-X - 7 14 2