TRENTON, N.J. – Sophomore Alec Porzel hit another two-run home run while his classmate Aaron Heilman picked up an unorthodox save, as No. 1 seed Notre Dame finished off No. 6 seed West Virginia, 7-2, in the resumption of their rain-suspended baseball game Thursday afternoon at the double-elimination BIG EAST Championship, which is making its debut at Waterfront Park, home of the minor-league Trenton Thunder.
Notre Dame (42-14) will play No. 4 Seton Hall at 3:30 Friday. The Pirates lost to Providence 10-9 after coming back from a 9-1 deficit. The third-seed Friars will play No. 2 Rutgers, which downed No. 5 St. John’s, 13-9, in Thursday’s second game. West Virginia (29-27) will face St. John’s in an elimination game on Friday at noon.
The Irish extended their winning streak over West Virginia to five games and now own a 4-2 mark versus the Mountaineers in the BIG EAST Championship, with three straight wins (the teams have met in each of the past four conference tournaments). Thursday’s final represented the second-largest margin between the teams in the last 15 games of the series, which has seen four one-run games and six two-run games.
The game resumed with Notre Dame holding a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the seventh, with Irish runners on the corners. The top seed then added one run in the resumed inning and three in the eighth before WVU made things interesting with two runs and a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the ninth.
Heilman picked up his third save of the season and the 12th of his career (tying the Irish record) in unusual fashion. Heilman logged a 19-pitch seventh inning on Wednesday and returned to the mound on Thursday for a 20-pitch eighth inning. When the Irish stretched to a 7-0 lead in the top of the eighth, head coach Paul Mainieri elected to save Heilman’s arm for later in the tournament (possible for a starting role on Saturday).
Sophomore lefthander Mike Naumann took the mound but the Irish kept Heilman in the game as an insurance policy by placing him at first base and moving junior Jeff Felker to left field. But Naumann gave up five straight hits and Heilman had to return to the mound, where he induced Todd Neff into a game-ending double play.
Junior Tim Kalita (4-1) was credited with the win, after tossing five shutout innings on Wednesday. Kalita held WVU to two hits and one walk while totaling five strikeouts, seven groundouts and a huge double-play ball during his 75-pitch outing.
WVU senior righthander Jeremy Cummings (6-8) took the loss, despite setting down the first 10 Notre Dame batters on Wednesday. Cummings allowed four runs (two of them earned) on four hits and no walks, with eight Ks.
The game resumed with lefthander Matt Blethen forcing Andrew Bushey into a lineout to the shortstop. Righthander Steve Hendren then surrendered a groundball up the middle by Matt Strickroth, with Ken Meyer scoring the unearned run when shortstop Nate Reeser failed the make the play behind the bag.
WVU head coach Greg Van Zant continued to play the percentages on the mound, as five different pitchers recorded the final five outs for the Mountaineers. The strategy didn’t work in the eighth versus freshman catcher Paul OToole, who drew a one-out walk versus lefthander Derek Smith before stealing second base. Porzel then drilled a two-strike pitch over the yellow line in dead-center field, after homering to a nearby spot in right-center during Wednesdays action.
Porzel has just seven hits in seven career games vs. WVU, but those hits include four home runs. Four of his 11 home runs in 1999 have come during the last 10 games.
West Virginia’s ninth-inning rally included a one-out double to left by Todd Brock and Eddie Weightman’s single off Naumann’s glove (with the shortstop Porzel then throwing the ball away). Josh McMillen’s bunt single then loaded the bases, followed by Tim Neumark’s single up the middle and Jeremy Glessner’s RBI single to left.
PAUL MAINIERI: “If were fortunate enough to get to the end of the tournament, the rain may help us because Kalita could come back to pitch on championship day. We were fortunate enough to be the first seed in the tournament and got to play the first game. But all were thinking about now is playing a tough game tomorrow against either Seton Hall or Providence. … We are very fortunate to have a pitcher like Aaron Heilman. He has a very resilient arm and was our closer last year. He’s used to pitching consecutive days. … I wouldn’t say that any one part of our team game is superior to another. We have had a team this year that has done whatever it takes on a given day. Some days it has been the hitting and some days it has been the pitching and fielding. If you look at us statistically, we are not going to blow your socks off. We just go out there and get it done. And there seems to be a different hero every day. … Alec Porzel is the most underrated player in the BIG EAST and one of the most underrated in the nation. I wouldn’t trade him for anybody. And yet, when the awards come out you don’t see him mentioned. All he is is the most solid player on our team.”
ALEC PORZEL: “My goal with two strikes is always to hit the ball hard. We were’nt worried. We knew we had Heilman at first base if needed. … Playing shortstop is a big adjustment. You have to really concentrate on getting your footwork and throws in sync. Its a matter of rhythm and timing.”
NOTES: Heilman has thrown an even 100 innings, becoming the first Irish pitcher since 1994 to toss 100-plus innings in a season … Heilman tied the Irish career save record of 12, shared by Mike Coffey (1988-90) and Chris Michalak (1990-93) … the Notre Dame staff has totaled a team-record 15 saves for the season (the 1991 and 94 teams each totaled 14 saves) … Kalita picked up just the 13th decision of his career, despite 31 previous starts (he is 10-2 for his career, with 19 no-decisions … Notre Dame’s 63 home runs rank fourth in team history, behind the 1998 (73), 1997 (66) and 1993 (64) teams … the 1999 Irish staff has totaled an 452 strikeouts, in 470.2 innings. The Irish need to toss just five more Ks to break the team record set in 1998 (456) … Notre Dame posted just its 10th win of the season by more than four runs.
WEST VIRGINIA 0-0-0 0-0-0 0-0-2 2 8 2NOTRE DAME 0-0-0 3-0-0 1-3-0 7 9 2
Jeremy Cummings, Matt Blethen (7), Scott Hendren (7), Derek Smith (8), Jim Kirkland (8), Dan Cisneros (8) and Dwayne Smith. Tim Kalita, Aaron Heilman (7 and 9), Mike Naumann (9) and Paul OToole.