by Pete LaFleur
In Thursday’s pre-tournament press conference at the NCAA Baseball Championship’s Starkville Regional, Notre Dame head coach Paul Mainieri made the point that his squad “respected the other teams” in the four-team regional but was “in awe of nobody.” And following a 24-hour stretch that saw the Irish play the final four games of the tournament-a loss to the host team and two elimination-game wins before a near-win in the title matchup-both of Mainieri’s primary sentiments came to the forefront in a surreal scene on Sunday night at Dudy Noble Field.
Notre Dame (46-18)-which overcame a lengthy tornado-induced delay and a 6-1 deficit to beat Tulane in Sunday’s early-morning hours-made the 30-minute return from Columbus to Starkville shortly before noon, needing a pair of wins in order to advance to the 16-team super-regional round. The sleep-deprived Irish proved more than up to the task in the first game, scoring seven runs in front of nearly 11,000 fans while little-used junior righthander Danny Tamayo performed like a battle-tested veteran, using his tough changeup for a three-hit complete game as Notre Dame forced a winner-take-all game with a 7-0 victory in the 2:00 p.m. game.
In an ND season that has included a collection of baseball rarities and unforgettable moments, nobody was fully prepared for the battle that the Irish and Bulldogs provided in the 5:30 finale (or for the postgame scene).
Notre Dame came back to tie the score in the decisive game on four different occasions-even overcoming a two-out flyball that was lost in the lights and was followed by a two-run home run for MSU in the 8th. But the hosts provided the final thrust, as regional MVP Ty Martin led off the bottom of the 9th with a home run to give MSU a 10-9 victory and a date with Clemson in next week’s best 2-of-3 super-regional round.
The ensuing moments of the postgame celebration provided a scene that only could be bettered by Notre Dame’s unending battle through the loser’s bracket. As Martin’s ball sailed over the fence-just to the left of dead-center field-the denizens of MSU’s famous “leftfield lounge” (which actually extends throughout the outfield area) hopped the fence and headed towards the celebration near home plate.
Yet several of the fans in the center-field area made a beeline straight for one of their adopted heroes-Irish sophomore centerfielder Steve Stanley-who painstakingly had lost track of Phillip Willingham’s two-out fly ball in the lights before Travis Chapman gave MSU (41-17) a 9-7 lead with his home run in the bottom of the 8th.
While Irish freshman rightfielder Brian Stavisky jogged over to console Stanley, the MSU fans beat him to the target and helped Stavisky walk the distraught Irish centerfielder to his dugout.
But the affection of the record-setting contingent of MSU fans was not limited to Stanley, as countless spectators decked out in maroon and white went out of their way to thank and recognize anyone in Notre Dame garb (including parents) for an unforgettable three-day regional. Even 45 minutes after the game had ended, a devoted group of several hundred MSU fans had remained to recognize the Notre Dame team as it made a final exit from the field.
The entire postgame ritual-including a crush or reporters seeking comments from Mainieri and senior first baseman Jeff Felker-combined seamlessly with the many memorable in-game moments and a fan base that produced a gate of 47,000-plus over the seven games … quite simply, it all gave new definition to the term “you had to be there.”
The 11-player all-regional team was comprised solely of Notre Dame and MSU players (Tulane beat South Alabama but twice saw ND rally from 8th-inning deficits to beat the Green Wave, 8-4 and 10-6). Notre Dame’s five all-regional representatives included Tamayo, the slick-fielding and clutch-hitting Felker, sophomore catcher Paul O’Toole, junior shortstop Alec Porzel and freshman leftfielder Kris Billmaier (whose presence in the starting lineup provided an undeniable spark to the Irish offense.)
O’Toole-who also was named to the 1999 all-South Bend Regional team-endured an interesting relationship with the Dudy Noble faithful, who repeatedly booed the Irish catcher after a pushing-and-shoving altercation at the plate in the teams’ initial meeting (an 8-1 win by MSU on Saturday). But the spirited O’Toole won over many of the fans when Sunday night rolled around and they turned out in droves to acknowledge his hard-nosed play that nearly helped the third-seeded Irish pull off the low-percentage upset.
Lost amidst the clearer memories of the second game was Tamayo’s sparkling 105-pitch performance earlier in the day-which represented just the second shutout by a Notre Dame pitching staff in 57 all-time NCAA games, and the first since the 1957 College World Series. It also marked the first time since 1983 that MSU was blanked in NCAA regional play (ending the Bulldogs’ regional scoring streak at 58 games) and was just MSU’s fourth loss at home in the 2000 season, in 31 games.
Tamayo (3-1)-who underwent “Tommy John” reconstructive surgery in March of ’99 and was limited to 23 innings pitched this season-took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of Sunday’s opening game and faced just 30 batters overall (three over the minimum) while allowing one walk, with one strikeout, 10 groundouts and 15 flyouts in the longest outing of his career (his previous best was a five-inning effort to record a series-clinching win over Rutgers on May 14, 10-6). MSU lefthander Joey Collums (2-2) was touched for four runs on four hits and two walks over the first 2.1 innings.
Irish freshman righthander J.P. Gagne-who had a short start in Saturday’s 10-6 win over Tulane-gave up five hits and two runs in the first one and one-third innings of Sunday’s second game. Sophomore Matt Buchmeier and senior Scott Cavey then kept the Irish close into the late innings before senior John Corbin (5-4)-who tossed five innings and 98 pitches into the wee hours of Saturday night to beat Tulane-closed out the game.
MSU righthander Jeff Hunter failed to hold multiple leads in the Sunday night game, giving up six runs on 10 hits and one walk over the first 6.2 innings, with three Ks. Righthanded relievers Adam Larson and Steven Dowe then managed just two outs before ace lefty Kevin Donovan (7-4) closed the game, after logging 150-plus pitches in MSU’s opening win over South Alabama on Friday.
ND HEAD COACH PAUL MAINIERI: “This crowd is the most knowledgeable baseball fans that you would ever want to meet. … This was a tremendous baseball game and I can tell you that it’s the greatest game that I’ve ever been involved with. In a way my heart bleeds for our team to have lost this game but in another respect I’m so grateful that they had the chance to experience it. They will never forget this moment as long as they live.”
ND SENIOR FIRST BASEMAN JEFF FELKER: “We gave everything that we had. The fatigue really didn’t bother us at all. It was the greatest baseball experience of my life. Every single pitch, the crowd is in on it. Win or lose, this is the best way to go out because we gave it everything.”
GAME 1 SCORING RECAP
* Billmaier sparked the Irish in the 2nd with a 2-2 single up the middle and Stavisky reached on a fielder’s choice before stealing second and taking third on Matt Nussbaum’s groundout … O’Toole then drilled a 1-0 pitch over the trees beyond the RF fence, negating the customary throwback of opposing HRs from fans in the “lounge” area just beyond the fences.
* ND surged to a 4-0 lead in the 3rd, with Stanley sending a leadoff single to left and Felker ending Collums’ day with a one-out, 1-2 single to right … Billmaier greeted righthander Chris Young with a run-scoring single through the left side and Stavisky followed with a 1-2 RBI single up the middle.
* MSU’s first baserunner came in the 5th, when Martin walked on a 3-1 pitch with one out … but Tamayo rolled up a 5-4-3 double play to get out of the inning.
* ND posted its third two-run inning in the 5th … Felker led off with his 59th career double down the RF line and Stavisky drew a one-out walk before Nussbaum’s groundout and O’Toole’s two-run double to right-center.
* Phillip Willingham broke up the no-hitter with one out in the 7th, on a 1-2 single to right-center … Knott then sent a one-out, 1-2 single to center but Tamayo forced Martin into an infield popup … MSU’s third and final hit came in the 8th, when Jamie Rock sent a leadoff single through the left side … but Tamayo served up a fielder’s choice groundball and two flyouts to end the inning.
* ND’s final run came in the 8th, after consecutive singles to left by O’Toole and Andrew Bushey and an error by the 1B Jon Knott.
GAME 2 SCORING RECAP
* MSU energized what had become a dormant crowd by plating a run in the bottom of the 1st, thanks to Shane Kelly’s leadoff double down the RF line, Willingham’s groundout and Chapman’s RBI single to left.
* Felker answered moments later with his 7th home run of the season and the 23rd of his career, driving an 0-2 pitch over the fence in right-center.
* The hosts retook the lead in the bottom of the 2nd, after Daron Wright’s one-out bunt single, an error by the 1B Felker and Matthew Maniscalo’s RBI single through the left side … MSU then claimed a 3-1 lead in the 3rd, when Martin’s 2-2 single to right plated Chapman.
* ND forged a 3-3 tie in the 4th, sparked by Stanley’s leadoff triple to right-center … Porzel then delivered on a 1-2 count with a double to left and moved up on Felker’s groundout before scoring on Stavisky’s two-out, 2-2 single up the middle.
* MSU answered with three runs in the bottom of the 4th, after Maniscalo’s leadoff walk on a full count, Chapman’s two-out walk on four pitches and Knott’s 16th home run of the season (a first-pitch shot to left-center).
* O’Toole kept the Irish coming in the 5th with a leadoff double down the LF line on a 2-2 count, before scoring on groundouts by Bushey and Matt Bok for a 6-4 game … but MSU came back with another run, after singles by Rock and Wright and Ryan McGrath’s run-scoring double-play ball.
* ND forged a 7-7 tie with two runs in the 7th and another in the 8th … Bushey drew a full-count walk with one out in the 7th before scoring on Bok’s single to left, Stanley’s sac. bunt and Porzel’s two-run single to center … Nussbaum then singled in his final career at-bat, on an 0-2 hit through the right side with one out in the 8th … O’Toole sent the next pitch up the middle (moving pinch runner Ben Cooke to third) and Bushey worked to an 0-2 count vs. Dowe before sending the game-tying single down the RF line … Ken Meyer loaded the bases with a pinch-hit walk but Dowe worked out of the inning with consecutive infield outs.
* MSU claimed its fourth lead of the night with two runs in the 8th, after Willingham’s two-out blast went for a double when Stanley lost the ball in the lights, followed by Chapman’s seventh home run of the season (to center, on a 2-0 count).
* ND’s final tying rally came with two outs in the 9th, as Stavisky sent a 1-0 double to left-center before Donovan hit pinch-hitter Matt Strickroth with an 0-2 pitch … O’Toole fittingly then came to the plate with the game on the line and the Irish were down to their last strike before the SS Maniscalo dropped the 2-2 popup in shallow CF (Strickroth scored all the way from first, sliding home as the Irish dugout erupted).
* Martin ended the game with his fifth home run of the season, sending a 2-0 pitch over the fence to deep left-center field.
NOTES: The 2000 season marked the first time that ND played two teams twice in the same NCAA regional (Tulane and MSU) … the Irish now are 6-6 in NCAA Tournament “rematch” games (since `57).
TOURNAMENT STATS: In addition to Tamayo, the stats for ND’s all-regional team members included: Billmaier (.421, 8-for-19, 4 RBI, R, 2B, 2 BB, HBP, 4 Ks, 0-1 SB, E), Felker (.409, 9-for-22, 5 RBI, 5 R, 3 2B, HR, 15 TB, 5 Ks, 2 SF, 1E in 54 chances), O’Toole (.333, 6-for-18, 4 RBI, 6 R, HR, 3 2B, 2 BB, 2 K, 1-1 SB, threw out two attempted basestealers) and Porzel (.318, 7-for-22, 4 RBI, 4 R, 3 2B, 10 TB, 2 BB, 2 E) … ND hit .310 in the five NCAA games, with 14 doubles, one triple, one home run, 16 BB, 35 Ks and 7-10 SB … the Irish posted a .966 fielding pct. in the NCAAs, with seven errors … the ND pitchers turned in a 5.52 ERA in the NCAAs, with a .283 opponent batting avg., 13 Ks and 18 BB.
RECORD BOOK UPDATE: Felker collected hits in each of his final seven games and finishes his career ranked 4th at ND in career games played (228), 3rd in starts (220, 2nd among four-year players, behind Craig Counsell’s 233 from `89-’92), 4th in at-bats (792), 6th in hits (246, moving past former classmate Brant Ust’s 243 total), 10th in triples (9), 3rd in doubles (59, two shy of the record held by `93 grad. Eric Danapilis) and 10th in times hit-by-pitch (16) … Porzel already is tied for 5th in ND history with 50 career doubles … Corbin’s 67 career appearances are tied for 7th in ND history … Stavisky’s 248 at-bats in 2000 rank 2nd in ND history, 10 back of Dan Peltier’s `89 total (Porzel’s 243 ABs in 200 are 3rd and Stanley’s 235 tied for 4th) … Porzel’s 24 doubles this season are 2nd-most ever by an ND player (Peltier collected 32 in `89) … Stavisky and Stanley each started all 64 games this season-ranking behind only Peliter, Pat Pesavento and James Sass on the ND games played and started lists (each logged 68 in `89, with the first two starting every game while Sass started 66) … Stanley’s 29 SBs tied Dan Bautch (’90) for 5th on the ND season list … Stanley’s 13 sacrifice bunts in 2000 were one shy of tying the ND record shared by three players … Corbin’s 30 appearances in 2000 have been bettered just twice in ND history (Mike Coffey made 37 appearances in `89, Aaron Heilman 31 in `98) … Felker’s 524 putouts this season rank 3rd in ND history while Porzel’s 182 assists are 6th .. ND’s 131 doubles broke the team record (127, `97) while the offense’s 7.81 at-bats per K rank 5th in ND history (best since `89) … the ND pitchers finished with 454 Ks, 3rd in the ND record book, while setting the team record with a 2.50 K-to-walk ratio (454/182) … the ND pitchers averaged just 3.00 walks/9 IP (3rd-best in ND history) … ND’s 545 innings pitched also is a team record while the Irish tied the team record for fielding pct. (since `82) at .965 (matching the `82 and `92 teams) while ND turned 57 doubles (3rd all-time, three shy of the `98 record).
MISSISSIPPI STATE 0-0-0 0-0-0 0-0-0 – 0 3 2
NOTRE DAME 0-2-2 0-2-0 0-1-X – 7 11 0
Collums, Young (3), Estel (6), Carroll and McGrath. Tamayo and O’Toole.
MISSISSIPPI STATE 0-1-0 2-1-0 2-1-2 – 9 15 1
NOTRE DAME 1-1-1 3-1-0 0-2-1 – 10 17 1
Hunter, Larson (7), Dowe (8), Donovan (8) and McGrath. Gagne, Buchmeier (2), Cavey (6), Corbin (8) and O’Toole.