June 5, 2004
A pair of home runs and strong bullpen pitching allowed top-seeded Notre Dame to turn seven hits into a 6-5 victory over second-seeded UC Irvine Saturday morning at Frank Eck Stadium in the first elimination game of the South Bend Regional of the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship. The Irish (50-11), ranked as high as fifth in the national polls, avoided going 0-2 in a postseason series for the first time since the 1960 NCAAs and became just the second team in the country to win 50 games this season.
Sophomore left fielder Craig Cooper sent a two-out, three-run homer over the left-field fence in the third to give Notre Dame a 4-0 advantage, and he gave the Irish the lead for good with a sacrifice fly in the sixth inning. Cody Rizzo then broke out of a slump with a home run in the sixth that proved to be the difference for the Irish.
Joe Thaman, Dan Kapala, and Ryan Doherty combined to pitch 4.0 innings in relief, giving up just one run on four hits, while striking out five and not walking a batter. It continued a trend of strong performances for the Notre Dame bullpen, which is 19-2 with 14 saves and a 2.97 ERA this season.
"Our bullpen were the real heroes of the game today, especially Joe Thaman and Dan Kapala," said Irish head coach Paul Mainieri. " What Ryan Doherty does speaks for itself, but those setup guys that got us to the ninth inning with a lead really got the job done."
The Irish advance to play Saturday evening at 7:05 p.m. (EST) against the loser
of the afternoon contest between third-seeded Arizona and fourth-seeded Kent
Notre Dame, which has won 17 of its last 19 games, joined Texas as the only Division I squads with 50 victories this season and tied its school record for wins in a season, set by the 2002 team that reached the College World Series.
The Anteaters, who were eliminated from the tournament, lost their fifth consecutive game to finish the season 34-23-1. UCI, which dropped 10 of its final 13 contests, went 0-2 in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1971 in Division II action. The Anteaters were making their first-ever appearance in the Division I NCAA Championship.
Junior righthander Grant Johnson (6-0) started and gave Notre Dame five innings that were good enough to get the win despite not having his best stuff. He allowed four runs, three earned, on six hits, while striking out four. Johnson, who came into the game on a hot streak with a 3-0 record and 1.55 ERA in his last five starts, struggled with his control, walking three, hitting two batters, and throwing just 64 strikes in 108 pitches.
For the second day in a row, Irvine had a number of opportunities to score runs, but struggled to come up with timely hits. The Anteaters ended up stranding 12 men on base - including leaving them loaded in both the fourth and fifth - for the second game in a row.
"It was a frustrating two games," said UCI head coach John Savage. "We left a lot of runners on base. It was a carbon copy of last night. We swung the bats very well the last two days, but just didn't get that big hit. That was the big difference."
The second through sixth hitters in the UCI lineup combined for all 10 of the Anteaters' base knocks (three more than the Irish managed on the day), accounting for all of Irvine's runs and RBI in 24 official at-bats for a .417 average. Four Anteaters registered two hits apiece, including Matt Anderson, who finished the season with 94 to tie the UCI school record for hits in a season.
Glenn Swanson (6-4) took the loss for UCI, giving up all six runs - five of them earned - on seven hits in 6.0 innings. The Irvine bullpen did not allow a hit in 2.0 innings of work.
Matt Macri and Steve Sollmann joined Rizzo with two hits apiece. Sollmann's fifth-inning single marked the 300th of his career. He is just the second Irish player to register 300 career hits, joining former standout center fielder Steve Stanley, who had 385 from 1999-2002.
After struggling to come through with clutch hits in Friday's loss to Kent State, the Irish benefited from some early inaccuracy by Swanson to score a first-inning run, equaling their output against the Golden Flashes. Sollmann lined a one-out single up the middle to be Notre Dame's first baserunner. Swanson, who is tied for second in the Big West Conference with four pickoffs, then sailed a pickoff attempt past the first baseman into right field, which allowed Sollmann to advance all the way to third. Swanson's next pitch went to the backstop, allowing Sollmann to score.
Cooper put Notre Dame up 4-0 with a two-out three-run homer to left in the third inning. It was his 10th of the season, making Cooper the fourth Irish player with double-digit home runs, which marks a first in the 112-year history of the Irish program.
Irvine had a chance for a big inning in the fourth, but could plate just three runs. Six of the first seven Anteater batters reached base, with the other laying down a sacrifice bunt. The big hit came from junior right fielder David Kennedy, who tripled by a diving Rizzo to the wall in right to drive in a pair of runs. It was just Kennedy's second extra-base hit of the season and his first three-bagger after he led the Big West Conference in triples in 2003. UCI's next batter, sophomore catcher Mark Wagner, singled in Kennedy to cut the lead to 4-3. Johnson then walked Kyle Ryckebosch and hit Gary Dudrey to load the bases with just one out, but the Notre Dame junior struck out Matt Fisher and got Anderson to ground to second to get out of the inning with the lead.
UCI again had the bases loaded with only one out in the fifth, but the Anteaters scored just once. Johnson got Wagner to foul out to first base, but then hit Ryckebosch with a pitch to allow Jordan Szabo to score the tying run. Dudrey then flew out to right to end the inning.
The Irish loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the inning and took the lead on a sacrifice fly from Cooper, but could not get any more.
Rizzo led off the bottom of the sixth with a home run to right to give Notre Dame a 6-4 advantage. The Irish right fielder came into the game with just one hit in his last 15 at-bats, but he was 2-for-3 against UCI.
UCI pulled within one with a run in the seventh. Stewart and Kennedy led off the inning with singles and Wagner laid down the Anteaters' fourth successful sacrifice bunt of the day to move them to second and third. Kapala then came in to pitch for the Irish and got pinch hitter Greg Wallis to fly to center. Though Stewart did not take advantage of the medium-deep fly out to try to score, he then crossed the plate on a Javi Sanchez passed ball.
Kapala pitched 1.2 innings to extend his streak of scoreless innings to 8.1 innings, over his last six outings. He allowed just one hit on Saturday and struck out two, including cleanup hitter Cody Cipriano with a man on second to get out of the eighth.
Doherty pitched the ninth, striking out two of the four batters he faced to get his 12th save in 13 opportunities this season.
The Irish won the first-ever meeting between the schools, improving to 20-1 in their last 21 games against first-time opponents.