May 26, 2006
By Pete LaFleur
CLEARWATER, Fla. - Cody Rizzo didn't want to take any chances that Friday night could have marked the end of his Notre Dame baseball career. Knowing that winning the BIG EAST Tournament always is the preferable route towards claming a spot in the NCAAs, the rightfielder made several big plays - both defensively and offensively - in the 5-3 comeback victory over St. John's, as the top-seeded and 18th-ranked Irish avenged a 10-1 loss to the 4th-seeded Red Storm earlier in the day. Several other members of the senior class delivered clutch contributions in one of their final games in a Notre Dame uniform, helping send the Irish on to Saturday's winner-take-all title game at Bright House Networks Field with No. 3 seed Louisville at 1:00 p.m. EDT (live on ESPN-U).
(Note: it's a busy time in Clearwater but there still are plenty of offerings to be posted on und.com, including photos from both of Friday's games and tournament quotes - stay tuned, with content to be added as time permits).
Notre Dame (44-15-1) saw its record-setting win streak in the BIG EAST Tournament end at nine games but the rally in the second game with St. John's (40-19) kept the Irish alive, as they seek to extend their unprecedented run of BIG EAST Tournament titles to five. No other team in the 22-year history of the event has won more than two straight BIG EAST Championships and Notre Dame's title in 2003 marked the first time since the early years of the event (1985-86, by St. John's) that a team had won back-to-back crowns.
Six seniors were in the starting lineup for Friday's tense elimination game and the five position players filled key roles in a game where runs were a precious commodity. Rizzo combined with Craig Cooper (both 2-for-4), Steve Andres, Alex Nettey and Greg Lopez to deliver five of the team's seven runs and three of the team's four RBI while the battle-tested seniors scored three of the five runs. Five of Notre Dame's seven hits in the game were doubles, including two from Cooper and one each by Rizzo and Nettey.
Not to be overlooked was the spirited leader of the pitching staff, senior lefthander Tom Thornton. "Tall Tom" - whose 52 career starts now trail only Tom Price and Darin Schmalz in Notre Dame history - had pitched in plenty of big-game situations during his Notre Dame career and answered the call once more with his team starting elimination in the face. The 6-foot-5 southpaw improved to 7-2 for the season and 27-11 in his career (tied for 7th on the ND career wins list), allowing single runs in the 2nd and 4th innings while limiting a hot-hitting SJU offense to five hits and no walks in 7.0 full innings or work. The Academic All-America candidate struck out three, locating 74-percent of his pitches (64-of-91) for strikes. Thornton did not allow a leadoff batter to reach in the game.
The senior class has tasted defeat at the BIG EAST Tournament just once previously, in a similar scenario versus Rutgers (RU won the first game but the Irish rebounded to win the rematch and claim that four-team event). Saturday's game with Louisville will mark the first time since 2001 that Notre Dame will be facing a team in the tournament that has fewer BET losses (and ostensibly greater pitching depth) than the Irish.
The 10-1 loss marked just the third time all season - and first time since the second week of the season - that the Irish have not been competitive into the late innings (also third time that Notre Dame has lost by more than five runs).
Notre Dame - now 26-16 all-time in the BIG EAST Tournament, with wins in 13 of its past 15 games - has reached 44 wins for the 12th time in its history. A win over Louisville in the title game would mark the program's 11th season with 45 wins and would produce the seventh season in which the Irish have reached 30 games over .500.
Rizzo first made a splash at the BIG EAST Tournament during his freshman season, batting 6-for-13 to help win the 2003 BIG EAST Tournament. His hits that week in Bridgewater, N.J., were overshadowed by no fewer than four elite-level defensive plays in right field, including a pair of sliding catches and a leaping catch to rob Rutgers standout Johnny DeFendis of a home run.
On Friday night, the former high school soccer standout was up to more of his old tricks. Rizzo's first big defensive play came in the top of the 7th, with SJU batting in a 2-2 deadlock. Chris Anninos flared a 1-2 pitch down the rightfield line and the ball was about to smack into the short wall in foul territory - but Rizzo's quick feet and anticipation skills had him in position to make a low, lunging, backhanded stab as he tumbled into the wall. A cloud of dust flew up and Rizzo popped up with the ball, tossing it to nearby second baseman Jeremy Barnes as the Irish recorded the second out of the inning.
The next two SJU batters (Brendan Monoghan and Gil Zayas) reached on singles - making Rizzo's play even more significant - and Thornton then stranded the runners on the corners when Jeff Grantham sent a groundball to the right side.
The drama was even higher one inning later, after the Irish had scored in the bottom of the 7th for a 3-2 lead. With freshman closer Kyle Weiland on the mound, SJU's dangerous leadoff hitter Will Vogl reached when his groundball skipped under the glove of shortstop Greg Lopez (just his 10th error of the season). Brian Dirr's sacrifice bunt advanced the runner and Sam DeLuca then slapped a single through the right side.
Rizzo already had showcased his arm from the outfield earlier in the tournament, nailing a West Virginia runner at the plate, and he was in the spotlight once again as SJU sent Vogl home for the potential tying run. Rizzo steadied himself and threw a strike, with the ball bouncing once a few feet in front of the plate. The trajectory of the bounce forced junior catcher Sean Gaston to lurch back as he collected the ball on the third-base side. Vogl had a clear path to the plate but Gaston quickly lunged forward and applied the tag for the huge second out of the inning. Weiland's wild pitch then put DeLuca in scoring position but he caught cleanup batter Chris Joachim (a .400 hitter) looking at a full-count strike to close the threat.
Notre Dame had scored the go-ahead run in the 7th with freshman righthander Colin Lynch (2-2) on the mound. Rizzo sparked the sequence by scorching a leadoff double into the left-center (on a 1-2 pitch) before showing his baserunning skills by scooting to third on Cooper's flyout to right. Lynch then recorded a strikeout but hit Barnes with the next pitch before Andres delivered a key opposite-field stroke on the ensuing pitch, sending a dipping linedrive into left field. The leftfielder Dirr was able to make a lunging as he came forward but the ball trickled out of his glove, as Rizzo came home for the 3-2 lead (Andres technically did not receive an RBI but the well-struck ball definitely but the pressure on the outfielder to make the tough play).
Cooper's two-run double in the 8th provided the eventual final margin. Gaston reached to lead things off, on an opposite-field single into left (yet another 2-strike hit, on a 1-2 count), and Nettey bunted him over before Lopez coaxed a key full-count walk. A two-out wild pitch then left runners on the corners and Cooper ripped his team-leading 19th double of the season into left field, completing yet another clutch full-count turn at the plate for the Irish offense.
Weiland already has smashed the Notre Dame record for saves in a season and ranks among the national leaders in that department this season. His 16th save (in 17 chances) had some tense moments but the rookie righthander ultimately allowed one run on three hits, a walk and a wild pitch while striking out three of the eight batters he faced.
SJU's final stand included Anthony Smith's leadoff single (0-1 pitch), a one-out walk by Monoghan (full count) and a groundball that put with runners on the corners with two outs. Ryan Mahoney then dropped a first-pitch, pinch-hit single into shallow left (with the outfield playing deep) and Smith trotted home for a 5-3 score. Vogl - who had led off the earlier game with his 14th home run of the season - next came to the plate as the potential go-ahead run but he went down swinging to end the game, missing on an 0-2 pitch from Weiland.
SJU scored the game's first run in the 2nd, when Smith pulled a 1-1 pitch over the left-field fence for just the second home run allowed by Thornton all season. Joachim later was hit by a one-out pitch in the 4th, advanced on a balk and scored on Smith's single through the right side for the 2-0 lead.
A two-out walk by Barnes (3-1 pitch) ended the night for freshman RHP Justin Gutsie (5.1 IP, UER, 4 H, 2 BB, K). Senior lefty Justin Muir then struggled to find the strike zone, walking Andres on a full-count before the first baseman Joachim bobbled Brezovsky's sharply-hit groundball (the error loaded the bases). Gaston's four-pitch walk forced home the first Irish run and the game was tied moments later when Muir plunked Nettey on the next pitch, the team-leading 23rd HBP of the season (and 42nd of his career) for the senior centerfielder.
GAME 2 NOTES - Thornton's 52 career starts trail only Price (56) and Schamlz (53) in ND history while his 328.2 career innings move him past Alan Walania into 4th on that ND list, behind Aaron Heilman (393.2), Price (390) and Brian Piotrowicz (337.2) ... Thornton's 203 Ks move him past Piotrowicz into 11th in ND history, two behind former teammate J.P. Gagne and three back of 1950s standout Tom Bujnowski ... Thornton has allowed just one walk in his past seven outings (30.2 IP) and has lowered his season walk avg. to 0.57 per 9 IP (2nd only to Price's 0.49 in '94) ... Thornton's 1.68 career walk avg. remains 3rd in ND history, just behind Walania (1.64) and Brandon Viloria (1.61) ... Thornton also pushed his season K-to-walk ratio to 11.4 (57/5), still 2nd in the ND record (Price had a 12.14 ratio in '94; 85/7) ... Thornton still has allowed just two earned runs during the key 5th-7th innings this season (0.72 ERA, in 25 IP) ... Cooper doubled once in the first and twice in the night game, giving him 52 career doubles (passing Craig Counsell, Jeff Wagner, Brant Ust and Matt Edwards into 7th place on that ND list) ... Cooper's 91 hits this season are tied with Mike Amrhein's 1997 total for 8th in ND history (next up is Pesavento with 92 in '89 and Scott Sollmann with 93 in '95) ... Cooper's 259 career hits moved him past Dan Peltier into 8th on the ND career hits list (Amrhein is next, with 267) ... his season batting avg. sits at .425 (6th-best in ND history) ... Rizzo (230; 7th), Lopez (227; 9th) and Cooper (218; 14th) all rank among ND's career leaders in games played while Lopez is 10th with 214 career starts ... Lopez's 563 career assists move him past Alec Porzel into 4th in ND history (Steve Sollmann had 629, J.J. Brock 619 and Pesavento 617) ... ND's 63 sac. bunts are three shy of the team record (66, in '02) ... ND's 18 saves have tied that team record (also '02 and '03) ... the ND piching staff' 480 strikeouts are two shy of tying the team record (483, in '02) ... the staff maintains a 3.10 K-to-walk ratio that would best the team record of 2.92 (set in '01) ...
GAME-1 NOTES - Sophomore LHP George Brown (5-0) picked up the win in just his second start of the season (8 IP, UER, 6 H, BB, 4 Ks) ... BIG EAST pitcher of the year and junior RHP Jeff Manship (9-2) took the loss (2 IP, 5 R, 6 H, 2 BB, K), allowing his 6th and 7th home runs of the season (the rest of the staff has allowed just 8 HRs) ... Manship's strikeout was his 103rd of the season, good for 5th in ND history behind three Aaron Heilman totals (118 in 1999 and 2000; 111 in '01) and Danny Tamayo's 106 in '01 ... SJU's 17 hits matched the 2nd-most vs. the Irish this season (only sixth opponent with double-digit hits) ... Cooper grounded into a double play for just the third time this season and first time in his past 44 games played ... Cooper entered the postseason as the nation's leading runscorer and scored for the 77th time this season, suddenly tied with Steve Stanley's total during the 2002 College World Series for 4th in the ND record book (Cooper has 5 runs in the BET) ... former late 1980s standouts Pat Pesavento (88 in '89; 81 in '88) and Peltier (81, in '89) own the top runs scored totals in ND history ... Cooper's 189 career runs scored remain 9th in ND history, two behind Paul O'Toole's 191.
Notre Dame 1-0-0 0-0-0 0-0-0 - 1 6 0
St. John's (40-19) 0-1-0 1-0-0 0-0-1 - 3 8 2