June 3, 2006
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Greg Dombrowski tossed his fourth complete game of the season while the Kentucky batters totaled nearly as many walks (10) as hits (11), as the Wildcats eliminated Notre Dame from the NCAA Lexington Regional in Saturday's 10-4 game at Hagan Stadium. Kentucky is the top seed in the regional and ranked 13th by Baseball America while 15th-ranked Notre Dame was the 3rd seed in a regional that also includes the 25th-ranked College of Charleston. The Irish - playing their 14th consecutive game away from home - were one of just a handful of teams that faced the tough task of opening the NCAAs by playing two top-25 teams, with the earlier game being a 16-inning loss to Charleston in which Notre Dame left 17 runners on base (including 11 in scoring position).
(Note: this recap now includes additional game details, photos, quotes and some updated notes ... look for more upcoming season wrapup releases on und.com , including: a look back at the many team records set in 2006 (plus an overall season review); an updated preview of next week's MLB draft; a tribute to All-Americans Craig Cooper and Jeff Manship, along with ND's other postseason award winners; and a preview of the summer-league plans for the returning players).
Notre Dame (45-17-1) had not gone 0-2 in 22 previous postseason tournaments during the 12-year Paul Mainieri era and the program as a whole had played 36 straight postseason tournaments (dating back to 1960) without an 0-2 finish. Kentucky (43-16) picked up the first NCAA Tournament win in its program's history and staved off elimination after having lost to Ball State on Friday night.
Dombrowski (10-2) scattered nine hits and two walks while striking out four in a 113-pitch outing that included 20 groundball outs (six via three different double-play balls).
The Notre Dame pitching staff headed into the NCAAs with an average of just 2.6 walks per 9.0 innings, good for 2nd-best in the ND record book. Walks proved to be a major part of Notre Dame's undoing in the loss to the Wildcats, as six Irish pitchers combined for 10 walks in the game - with six of those free passes resulting in runs. It marked the first time in 55 games (and second time all season) that the Notre Dame pitchers had totaled more than six walks in a game and was one shy of the season-high (11), set versus then-#15 Texas A&M in the third week of the season (ND rallied to win that game, 5-4).
Only two weeks ago, the Irish pitching staff had totaled just one walk in 27 innings during the road sweep of Villanova.
Senior lefthander Tom Thornton (7-3) - making his 53rd career start (tied for second in ND history - suffered the loss, after allowing four runs on seven hits and two walks in 4.0 innings (plus one K in the 70-pitch stint). Thornton entered the game having walked just five batters all season but he opened the 4th inning with back-to-back walks, possibly the first time he was walked two straight in his Irish career.
Kentucky made the walks hurt as Michael Beltram bunted the runners over before Billy Grace drove a two-run single up the middle. Two batters later, Shaunn Lehman connected on a 2-out, 0-1 pitch, homering to right-center for the 4-1 lead and his eighth home run of the season.
Notre Dame had several chances to stay in the game but the Irish hit just 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position and 1-for-9 with 2-outs. Clutch hitting had been a trademark of the ND offense this season - as the Irish were hitting at a .334 clip with runners in scoring position in 61 games prior to the NCAAs before going just 4-for-33 (.121) with RBI chances during the two games in Lexington (also 3-for-27/.111, with 2-outs).
The Irish had claimed an early lead after scoring in the 1st inning for the 31st game this season, yielding a final 1st-inning scoring edge of 65-35 for the season. Craig Cooper drove the first pitch from Dombrowski through the right side of the infield for an opposite-field single and his 96th hit of the season. The senior first baseman and All-American served as the leadoff batter in 54 games this season and reached base 69% of the time (27-of-54) when opening the game for the Irish offense.
A throwing error on Brett Lilley's ensuing sacrifice bunt gave Notre Dame the chance at a big inning early in the game but Jeremy Barnes and Steve Andres followed with groundouts, bringing Cooper around to score for an unearned run and the 1-0 lead.
Cooper nearly sparked another run-scoring inning in the 3rd, ripping a ball that was caught by the sliding leftfielder for a leadoff flyout (Lilley then singled but Barnes grounded in to a double play).
The hosts cashed in an error charged to Cooper for three unearned runs and a 7-1 lead in the 6th. With two outs and two runners on base, Cooper made a great play on a ball hit by Antone DeJesus but his throw was off-target with pitcher Jeff Manship covering the bag. One run scored on that play and two more came home moments later, on Collin Cowgill's single to left.
Manship - who just was named a third team Louisville Slugger All-American, by Collegiate Baseball magazine - was guilty of issuing seven walks in his 3.2 innings, with half of his six runs coming unearned. The junior righthander had started in each of his previous 14 appearances this season but was used out of the bullpen in five of his 12 appearances during the 2005 season.
The game yielded another high strikeout total for Manship (8), marking the ninth time this season he totaled eight-plus Ks. Fellow All-American Aaron Heilman is the only Notre Dame pitcher to post more strikeouts in a season than Manship's 111, with Heilman totaling 118 in both 1999 and 2000 (he also had 111 Ks in '01).
Notre Dame wasted a prime chance to answer in the bottom of the 6th, as Cooper hit a leadoff single but was doubled up on Lilley's 4-6-3. Barnes then drove the next pitch over the centerfielder's head for his team-leading sixth triple of the season but Andres grounded out to end the threat.
Barnes is the 11th different Notre Dame player to total six-plus triples in a season and the third freshman to do so, joining Scott Sollmann (7, in '94) and Paul Failla (6, in `92) in that distinction. Barnes did not pick up any RBI at the NCAAs but still finished as the team leader in that category (49), becoming the first freshman to lead the Irish in RBI since future All-America centerfielder Dan Peltier had a team-best 39 RBI in his 1987 rookie season.
Kentucky padded its lead in the 7th when John Shelby pulled a double down the leftfield line and scored on a groundout by Ryan Wilkes.
The Irish cut the lead to 8-3 in the bottom of the inning when freshman pinch-hitter Evan Sharpley drew a leadoff walk and senior centerfielder Alex Nettey followed with a single to right. Senior Matt Bransfield then delivered as the inning's second pinch-hitter, following Nettey's lead by driving the gap in right-center to plate two runs with his 19th double of the season (tying Cooper for the team lead).
Bertram answered in the 8th with a two-run single that scored Coughlin and Cowgill, both of whom reached on walks. The Irish capped the scoring with a run in the bottom of the 8th, thanks to a leadoff double from Barnes and groundouts by Andres and Sharpley (RBI).
Game-3 post-game quotes
Notre Dame head coach Paul Mainieri - "If you play well enough, you get to play in the postseason. The bad note is only one team gets to hoist the trophy. Right now, our guys are distraught about not playing up to their potential. In time, they will be proud of their accomplishments. We just couldn't hit in the clutch all weekend when that has been our strength this season. Give all the credit to Kentucky."
"In the inning where Kentucky scored their four runs, those two walks hurt us. It's hard to explain because a guy like Tom (Thornton) has had five walks all season long. Our guys have been control pitchers this season. Our two guys (Thornton and Manship) have had great control all year and it's hard to explain.
"When you get to this point there aren't any creampuffs. We exhausted our closer in yesterday's tough game, which impacted who we started today. Things just didn't work out for us this weekend. Our kids walk away from this regional as champions. They should look back and be proud of themselves and their school."
Notre Dame senior LHP Tom Thornton - "I wish I could give you an explanation (about the walks) because I know they contributed to the loss. Kentucky is a quality team and you can't walk them. I wanted to be aggressive but I started nibbling. I got behind batters and got caught nibbling. The walks were uncharacteristic and shouldn't have happened because it hurt us today."
Notre Dame junior RHP Jeff Manship - "We have faced some tough lineups all year long and you just have to go out and do your best. They just did a real good job (offensively). ... I knew coming into the game that I was going to pitch. I just wanted to go out and do my best."
Kentucky head coach John Cohen - "I'm proud of our team. Dombrowski pitched his heart out. He got his 10th win and I believe it's the first time since 1987 that we've had a 10-game winner. He threw 113 pitches and I'd say 90 or so of them were fastballs. We turned a lot of double-play balls and did a better job of working the strike zone."
"I challenged our hitters. Last night the guys on the mound did a great job and the defense did a great job, but our hitters caved on breaking balls. I felt like we still could've done a better job on a few things (today). I could tell before the game in the locker room that the kids were ready - they were saying the right things and communicating a lot better."
"I would've been disappointed if they wouldn't have shown up today the way they did. They have great pride and character in representing this university and this state."
"(Lehmann's home run) was big. To me, it's even bigger that he is using the ballpark. He hit that ball to right field where it's a little bit shorter. I've seen this in my three years at Kentucky - when the ball goes out on the right side, the pitcher seems to get a little more frustrated because it's only 310. To recognize that and take advantage is what good hitters do."
3B Michael Bertram - "It's no secret that we have been struggling a little bit, but we're not worried. We know that at any moment in time, we can come through. We've been looking for a spark and Shaun Lehmann gave us that spark today. Our whole morale changed after that."
"Greg's been a warrior for us all year and he certainly stepped up big for us today. He does what he does, they hit ground balls and we make the plays behind him."
LF Shaun Lehmann - "It was definitely a momentum changer. I get a little excited sometimes, but I didn't think it was really anything out of the ordinary. I was just trying to get my teammates fired up."
RHP Greg Dombrowski - "I got in a groove. I tried to throw low strikes and let the other team pound the ball in the ground. They hit a lot of ground balls today and I just let the defense play behind me."
#13 Kentucky (43-16) 0-0-0 4-0-3 1-2-0 - 10 11 1
#15 Notre Dame (45-17-1 1-0-0 0-0-0 2-1-0 - 4 9 2
Greg Dombrowski (W, 10-2) and Sean Coughlin.
Tom Thornton (L, 7-3), Jeff Manship (5), Brett Graffy (8), Mike Dury (9), Sam Elam (9), Jess Stewart (9) and Sean Gaston, Cody Rizzo (8).
Home Run: Shaun Lehmann, UK (1 on in 4th; 8th of season).
Triple: Jeremy Barnes, ND.
Doubles: Barnes (ND), Matt Bransfield (ND), Ryan Strieby (UK), John Shelby (UK).