May 23, 2003
PISCATAWAY, N.J. - Notre Dame's first seven appearances at the BIG EAST baseball tournament never featured a consistent offensive presence - with the Irish combining to hit an average of just .230 in those 28 games, with a high mark of .295 at the 2000 tournament - but the slumping ND offense has picked a perfect time to boost its production, as 13 hits and yet another strong outing from senior righthander Ryan Kalita propelled Notre Dame into the BIG EAST championship game with Friday's convincing 9-3 victory over Rutgers at Commerce Bank Ballpark.
Notre Dame (42-15) - which continued to play without injured BIG EAST pitcher of the year Chris Niesel - advances to Saturday's championship round after starting 2-0 for the second straight season an the Irish again will face Rutgers in the double-elimination format, with the Scarlet Knights (35-19) needing to beat the Irish twice to claim the title (the first game is slated for 3:30 EDT, with the final game at 7:00 if necessary).
Rutgers rallied in Friday's elimination game to knock out West Virginia, battling back from a 4-0 deficit before holding on for an 8-7 win over the Mountaineers.
Notre Dame tacked on 13 hits after pounding out 17 in Thursday's win over WVU (ND's most hits ever in 30 all-time BET games), with the Irish now batting .405 in the tournament while owning an 18-4 scoring edge. By comparison, Notre Dame won its first BIG EAST title in 2002 despite batting just .208 in four games and totaling 26 hits (four fewer than the current team total).
The Irish pitching staff also has elevated its production, after entering the postseason ranked 19th in the nation with a 3.47 ERA. Kalita's seven innings included an unearned run before freshman righthander Ryan Doherty was touched for a pair of unearned scores in the eighth - with the ND pitching staff now owning an 0.50 tournament ERA and .221 opponent batting average, plus 22 strikeouts and just three walks.
Four Irish players paced the offense with multiple hits, led by an impressive all-around game from freshman rightfielder Cody Rizzo. A rare soccer/baseball two-sport star in his native Southern California (where those sports are played in different seasons), Rizzo hit 3-for-3 vs. RU with a key two-run double down the rightfield line, a pair of runs scored, his 25th time hit-by-pitch and a pair of stellar plays in the field. Rizzo is batting 5-for-7 in the tournament with four RBI, three runs scored and two HBPs.
The Irish once again put multiple runs on the board in the first inning, claiming a 2-0 lead, before breaking things open with six runs in the fifth (for a 9-1 cushion). Notre Dame's 17-game midseason winning streak included 10 "big innings" of five-plus runs but those flurries had dried up in recent weeks, with just five big innings in the last 24 games before Friday's six-run eruption (ND's 19th overall inning with 5-plus runs and 11th with 6-plus).
Kalita (6-1) improved to 13-1 for his ND career while proving his worth as a second team all-BIG EAST selection, scattering seven hits and one walk while using his typical combination of strikeouts (6) and groundball outs (12) to account for 18 of his 21 outs (including a pair of double plays). Kalita now owns a 0.87 career ERA in four career appearances vs. RU (including the '02 title game), plus 18 Ks, 7 walks and 21 hits allowed in 20.2 innings.
Junior second baseman Steve Sollmann collected his 30th multi-hit game of the season (2-for-5, R) while junior first baseman Matt Edwards (2-for-4, R) chipped in with his 24th and freshman DH Matt Bransfield added his own 2-for-4 game (RBI, R). Junior catcher Javi Sanchez had a rare 0-for-0 game that included a walk and three sacrifice bunts (one of them plating Rizzo on a squeeze play).
Doherty - who still has not allowed an earned run since the season opener, spanning 13 appearances and 22.2 innings - closed the game by striking out five of the nine batters he faced, allowing the pair of unearned runs on a Steve Normane home run.
POSTGAME NOTES UPDATE - ND's situational hitting edges in the BET have included batting .409 with 2 outs (.250 by opponents), a .357-.273 edge in batting with runners in scoring position and eight leadoff batters on base (four by the opponents) ... Sollmann (.379) and Edwards (.376) continue to sit close atop the team batting charts ... Rizzo's 25 HBPs rank 15th in the NCAA single-season record book and already place him 7th on the ND career list ... ND went with all righthanded hitters, with Bransfield, freshman LF Craig Cooper (1-for-4, RBI, R) and freshman 3B Greg Lopez (1-for-4, R) each factoring into the scoring after not starting vs. WVU ... Sanchez has three hits, three walks and three sac. bunts in nine plate appearances at the '03 BET ... 9th-year ND head coach Paul Mainieri now is four wins shy of his 400th career win with the Irish (396-157-1; 728-436-1 in 21 overall seasons) ... ND now leads the RU series 16-11 (4-3 in the BET) ... the Irish are 5-1 in their last six BET games ... ND hit just .192 in the three-game series at RU two (May 10-11) ... Sollmann swiped his 33rd stolen base of the season to move into 4th on the ND season SB list (he and his brother Scott, who had 52 SBs in '96, are the only ND players with 33-plus since Pat Pesavento had 38 in '88 and '89) ... Sollmann - who hit just .245 in his previous games vs. RU - is batting 16-for-30 in his last six games (.533), dating back to the May 13 Cincinnati game ... his 243 career hits have tied Brant Ust ('97-'99) for 10th in ND history, with only All-Americans Steve Stanley (257) and Dan Peltier (247) totaling more career hits as juniors ... Edwards is hitting at a .500 clip (13-for-26) in his last six games ... Rizzo has nine RBI in his last six games (he posted his 18th multi-hit and 11th multi-RBI game of the season vs. RU) ... the team ERA dipped to 3.37 (2nd-best since '94), with Doherty dropping below 2.00 (1.93, after sitting at 68.18 following the opener vs. Dayton) while Kalita lowered his ERA to 3.29 ... the ND pitchers now own the 5th-highest strikeout total in team history (440, just 14 behind the 2000 staff and 16 back of the '98 staff) ... the staff's 2.36 K-to-walk ratio ranks 4th in the ND record book ... Sollmann boosted his career batting avg. to .368 (5th in ND history) ... Doherty now is averaging 15.2 Ks per 9 IP (40 in 23.1), with a 5.7 K-to-walk ratio (40/7) and a .209 opponent batting avg. ... Sollmann needs four more hits to become the 8th ND player with 90-plus hits in a season (his brother Scott had 93 in '95).
Rutgers 0-0-0 0-1-0 0-2-0 - 3 8 3 Notre Dame 2-0-0 1-6-0 0-0-X - 9 13 2
Shaun Parker (L, 4-3), O.J. DeChristofano (5), Chris Lillis (5), Erik Dial (7) and Alberto Vasquez, Colin Gaynor (8).
Home Run: Steve Normane, RU (1 on in 8th; 8th of season).
Double: Cody Rizzo (ND).