May 23, 2002

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BRIDGEWATER, N.J. – The Notre Dame baseball team took an important step towards capturing its first BIG EAST tournament title in Thursday’s first day of action at Commerce Bank Ballpark, as the 18th-ranked and top-seeded Irish used another efficient offensive performance and the strong pitching of freshman Grant Johnson to defeat fourth-seeded Rutgers, 8-3, in the first game of the double-elimination tournament.

Notre Dame (42-14) – winners of eight straight and 33 of its last 37 – advances to Friday’s winners bracket game (3:30 EDT, 2:30 in South Bend) versus second-seeded Virginia Tech, which edged Boston College in a 2-1 pitchers’ duel between lefthander Joe Saunders and BC righthander Chris Lambert (who served up John West’s go-ahead solo home run in the eighth).

Rutgers (32-21) – which has dropped nine of its last 10 games versus the Irish – saw its ace pitcher and one of the nation’s top prospects, junior righthander Bobby Brownlie, lose to Notre Dame for the second time in the last four weeks.

The Irish will send another freshman righthander to the mound on Friday, as freshman Chris Niesel (2-0 in seven previous starts) will draw his first start since April 7, due to a five-week bout with mononucleosis. Niesel was eased back into action during the final two series of the regular season, registering saves versus Villanova and Boston College while totaling 4 1/3 shutout innings (dropping his ERA to 4.11), with five strikeouts, one walk and one hit allowed.

The Hokies are expected to start a righthander, most likely Jason Bush (4.58, 6-4, 70 Ks in 94.1 IP, .300 opp. batting avg.) or fellow senior Chip Runyon (6.52, 6-7, 83 Ks in 77.1 IP, .329 opp. batting avg.).

Notre Dame swept an April 12 doubleheader from Virginia Tech at Eck Stadium (2-1, 4-2) but the Hokies posted a pair of wins over the Irish at the 2001 BIG EAST Tournament (4-3, 5-2).

The winner of the ND-VT game moves on to Saturday’s championship round, with games at 3:30 and 7:00 (if necessary) while the loser must play in Friday’s elimination game (7:00) versus the winner of the noon elimination game between BC and Rutgers.

Notre Dame cashed in eight hits for eight runs, with just six runners left on base. After struggling to convert its scoring chances during the first half of the season, the Irish now have totaled 39 more runs (181) than runners left on (142) during the last 21 games (since the April 17 Toledo game) – with the team batting .382 with runners in scoring position during that 21-game span (53 points higher than the .329 overall avg. in those 21 games).

By contrast, ND’s first 35 games included a -64 ratio of runs (226) to runners stranded (290), with just a .302 batting average with runners in scoring position (below the .313 overall avg. in those games).

Senior centerfielder Steve Stanley and sophomore first baseman Joe Thaman paced the Irish attack from opposite sides of the batting order while several other players provided timely plays.

Stanley – who bounced back from a 1-for-8 series vs. BC – lived up to his stature as the first repeat BIG EAST player of the year in the conference’s 18-year history, batting 3-for-4 with a walk, RBI and three runs scored.

Thaman continued his recent hitting streak by going 2-for-3 in the No. 9 hole, with a sacrifice bunt and two runs scored. The 6-4, 210-pound lefthander is batting .500 (9-for-18) in the last seven games, with 12 RBI, eight runs and four sac. bunts in that stretch.

Johnson (7-4) posted his fifth consecutive winning decision while joining junior Peter Ogilvie (7-2) as the team’s co-leaders in victories. The 6-6, 220-pound righthander held RU to a pair of runs (one earned) on nine hits and two walks over the first seven innings, with seven strikeouts. Junior righthanders Brandon Viloria and J.P. Gagne then closed out the opening win.

Johnson – the fourth Notre Dame freshman ever to start on the mound in the BIG EAST Tournament – located 72 of his 99 pitches for strikes while lowering his season ERA to 3.35, including a 2.61 in his last five outings (with 23 Ks, 12 walks and 26 hits allowed in those 27.2 innings). Johnson joined J.P. Gagne (no decision in 4-3 loss to BC in 2000) as the only ND freshman pitchers ever to start Game 1 of the BIG EAST Championship.

Brownlie (6-6) was touched for seven runs (six earned) on six hits and three walks in five innings of work, with just three strikeouts (he had no Ks in a 6-5 loss to ND on May 4).

Stanley – whose single to left field helped stoke the Irish four-run rally that beat Brownlie 19 days earlier – served an early notice that the Irish were up to the challenge, surprising leftfielder Jeff Frazier by driving a 1-0 pitch to the warning track for an opposite-field triple that opened the bottom of the first. Three batters later, senior third baseman Andrew Bushey plated his classmate with a sacrifice fly to center field for the early 1-0 lead.

The Irish came right back with two runs in the second, sparked by Thaman’s two-out, opposite-field double down the leftfield line. Stanley then smacked a 1-2 pitch into left field for an RBI single, moving to second on the throw and taking third on the play due to Frazier’s errant toss. Sophomore second baseman Steve Sollmann added his own two-strike hit, driving a 2-2 offering into the left-center gap for the 3-0 lead.

Sophomore shortstop Javier Sanchez saved at least one run in the top of the fourth, executing a full-extension dive behind the bag to snare a sharply-hit grounder from Steve Normane – before flipping the ball to Sollmann to start the stunning 6-4-3 double play.

The Irish then used that momentum to tack on three more runs in the bottom of the fourth, with Sanchez fittingly sending a 1-0 pitch to left for a leadoff single, followed by Thaman’s sac. bunt and Stanley’s full-count walk. Sollmann sent the next pitch to the left side and RU was poised to turn its own rally-killing double play, but third baseman Ryan Lillis threw well wide right of the second-base bag to keep Stanley on the bases (he took third on the play, with Sanchez scoring).

Junior leftfielder Brian Stavisky made the error sting even more, drilling a 1-0 pitch into right-center to plate two more runs on his fifth triple of the season and 14th of his career.

The Knights had a chance to jump back into the 6-0 game in the top of the fifth, with one out and the bases loaded. But Johnson struck out Frazier on a 1-2 pitch and Normane sent a groundout to Sollmann to end the threat.

Moments later, senior catcher Paul O’Toole – who now has reached base in six of nine appearances vs. Brownlie during ND-RU games (4-for-6, with a home run, double, walk and two times hit-by-pitch) – manufactured a seventh Irish run, reaching when Brownlie hit him with a 1-1 pitch before moving up on Matt Bok’s groundout, a stolen base and Kris Billmaier’s RBI groundout.

Singles from Thaman and Stanley, plus Bushey’s walk and a balk by lefthanded reliever San Atchinson, added another ND run in the sixth.

NOTES: Johnson’s 74 Ks are the third-most ever by an ND freshman, behind Aaron Heilman’s 78 in 1998 and the 77 Ks posted by David Sinnes in 1990 … Sinnes (9-2) and fellow 1990 freshman Pat Leahy (8-1) are the only ND freshmen ever to post more wins than Johnson’s current total (four others have totaled seven Ws) … ND now holds a 13-8 series edge vs. RU (the teams have split four BIG EAST Championship meetings) … Sanchez owns the longest active hitting streak on the team (seven games) and has scored in eight straight … O’Toole notched his 228th career game played, tying former teammate Jeff Felker (’00) for sixth in the ND record book while Bushey (730) moved into ninth on the ND career at-bats list … Stanley (244) is on the verge of claiming another ND career record, needing just two more runs to match Pat Pesavento’s standard (246, from ’86-’89) … the Irish now have outscored their opponents by 38 runs (51-13) in the 5th inning … Stanley’s 435 total bases leave him five shy of ND career home run leader Jeff Wagner (’99) for fifth on the ND career TB list … Stavisky’s 14 triples are tied with Shaun Fitzmaurice (’63-’64), George Restovich (’94-96) and Randall Brooks (’94-’97) for third ND history, trailing only J.J. Brock (16, ’94-’98) and Scott Sollmann (24, ’94-’96) … ND players have posted more than five triples in a season just 11 times … ND’s strong offensive execution includes a team-record number of total sacrifices (86, besting the 76 in 1988), including 53 sac. bunts (four shy of the ’89 record) and 33 sac. flies (five off the ’94 record) … the ND pitchers (402) cracked 400 Ks for the fifth time in ND history (the 2001 staff had 420 Ks) … Stanley’s triple was the 11th of his career (10th place in ND history) … Stanley pushed his career hit total to 365, just one shy of tying former North Carolina State star Jake Weber (’95-’98) for fifth place on the NCAA Division I hits list … Stanley entered the postseason ranked fifth in the nation for season batting average (.449, up to .454) … ND’s 3.46 team ERA ranked 10th in the nation heading into the postseason (now down to 3.41).

RUTGERS 0-0-0 0-0-0 2-0-1 – 3 10 2

NOTRE DAME 1-20 3-1-1 0-0-X – 8 8 3

Bobby Brownlie (L, 6-6), Sean Atchinson (6), Jason Bergman (7) and Mike Popowski.

Grant Johnson (W, 7-4), Brandon Viloria (8), J.P. Gagne (9) and Paul O’Toole.

Home Run: Jeff Frazier, RU (solo in 9th; 13th of season)

Triples: Steve Stanley (ND, 11th of career); Brian Stavisky (ND, 14th of career),

Doubles: Joe Thaman (ND), Val Majewski (RU).