June 6, 2004
The University of Arizona (33-24-1) hit three home runs and manufactured a decisive score in the seventh to win an NCAA regional championship for the first time since 1986, defeating top-seeded Notre Dame 7-6 Sunday afternoon at Frank Eck Stadium in the South Bend Regional of the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship. The Wildcats, who stood 15-14 in early April, won their third straight NCAA game after coming in with a five-game losing streak in postseason action.
“We were very fortunate to come out on top of a very good baseball game,” said Arizona head coach Andy Lopez. “My team is a young and resilient group that has been in this situation before. I told them at the beginning of the season that this might be how we have to win games.”
The Wildcats advanced to the Super Regionals for the first time in school history. Arizona will take on the winner of the Palo Alto Regional (Long Beach State and Stanford played in the regional final Sunday afternoon) next weekend in an attempt to return to the College World Series for the 15th time, but first since winning the national title in ’86.
Jason Donald hit a two-run homer in the fourth to put Arizona ahead for the first time and Richard Mercado and Nick Hundley blasted back-to-back shots in the sixth.
The Irish hit four – including two by Matt Edwards – out of Eck Stadium, which featured a stiff wind blowing out most of the day. The seven combined homers matched the second-most in the 11-year history of the facility.
Sophomore righthander John Meloan threw 141 pitches and got the win for Arizona, striking out nine and giving up six runs (five earned) on seven hits in 8.0+ innings. He improved to 9-0 on the year.
After Notre Dame’s Cody Rizzo tied the game in the top of the inning with a three-run homer, Arizona wasted no time in manufacturing a run to take the lead, a tally that would be the difference in the game. Freshman reliever Dan Kapala walked Trevor Crowe to lead off the inning. Jeff Van Houten laid down a sacrifice bunt to move him to second and Jordan Brown singled through the left side to score Crowe and put the ‘Cats ahead.
Notre Dame got just a pair of baserunners in the last two innings, both coming from walks. In the eighth, Cooper walked with one out, but a pair of fly outs stranded him at first. Freshman pinch hitter Danny Dressman walked to lead off the ninth, but was then picked off.
Wildcat junior Koley Kolberg, who three 99 pitches in getting the win as Arizona’s starter in game one of the regional on Friday, came on to pick off Dressman and then strike out a pair of Irish All-Americans, Matt Macri and Steve Sollmann, to end the game. Kolberg, who was named the MVP of the South Bend Regional, earned his second save of the season, both coming against top teams in the last two weeks. He preserved Arizona’s 7-6 victory at USC on the final day of the regular season. In three relief appearances this season, Kolberg retired all nine batters he faced, striking out six of them.
Edwards continued to be a Wildcat killer, hitting home runs to both left and right for his second multiple-homer game of the season. The Irish first baseman now stands 6-for-8 in three games against Arizona over the last two seasons, with two home runs, a triple, and seven RBI.
Meloan, who has been susceptible to the long ball this season, surrendered runs only on Notre Dame’s homers. Edwards led off the third with his 11th slam of the season, an opposite-field blast to break out of a 1-for-14 slump. The following inning saw Steve Andres go deep, banking a ball off the sign in right displaying Notre Dame’s conference and NCAA accomplishments. It continued the torrid hitting for the Irish leftfielder, who was 6-for-11 with three RBI and four runs scored in this regional. Edwards then went deep to left in the fifth, and Rizzo added a three-run shot down that line in the seventh to tie the game at 6-6.
After failing to get a baserunner in their first time through the lineup, the Wildcats adjusted to Irish freshman Jeff Samardzija to put together a big inning in the fourth. Trevor Crowe led off with a single to center and Jeff Van Houten scored him with his sixth triple of the season. After a strikeout, Moises Duran singled to left to tie the game at 2-2, and Jason Donald pulled a ball over the “Jake Kline Field” sign in left to put Arizona ahead. It was Donald’s eighth homer of the season, but his first in more than two months.
Samardzija left after 5.1 innings after giving up five runs on seven hits and striking out six.
Back-to-back home runs to center in the sixth inning extended Arizona’s lead to three. Mercado, who had five hits in the regional, sent a blast into the batter’s eye to chase Samardzija. Reliever Joe Thaman, making his third appearance of the weekend, then saw Hundley send one deep to center and off Rizzo’s glove over the fence, making the score 6-3.
Notre Dame ended the season with a 51-11 record, which set a school record for victories in a season. The Irish failed to advance out of their own regional for the third time in four tries since 1999. Notre Dame, ranked as high as fifth in the national polls, had won 16 of 17 heading into the NCAAs.
“Our kids played hard right until the end,” said Irish head coach Paul Mainieri. “If you were in our dugout, it was nothing but optimism and positive talk. We all believed we were going to do it. It’s been a great year. The people in the community just embraced our team. They gave us a lot of energy.”
SOUTH BEND REGIONAL ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM
MVP – Koley Kolberg, Arizona
P – Tom Thornton, Notre Dame
P – Koley Kolberg, Arizona
C – Mark Wagner, UC Irvine
1B – Matt Edwards, Notre Dame
2B – Steve Sollmann, Notre Dame
3B – Matt Sega, Kent State
SS – Jason Donald, Arizona
OF – Steve Andres, Notre Dame
OF – Derek Decater, Arizona
OF – Jeff Van Houten, Arizona
DH – Richard Mercado, Arizona