May 24, 2002
BRIDGEWATER, N.J. – When Matt Bok joined the Notre Dame baseball program prior to the 2000 season, the Irish weren’t sure what to expect from the Georgetown transfer who hit .283 with just 18 RBI in his rookie season. But with Friday’s game versus Virginia Tech on the line in the top of the eighth, the switch-hitting DH added yet another hit to his 2002 collection of clutch plays – with his two-run double lifting Notre Dame back into the lead en route to an 8-4 victory that puts the Irish on the inside track to claim their first BIG EAST Conference tournament title.
Notre Dame (43-14), which posted its ninth straight win and 25th in the last 27 games, now can claim the title in the double-elimination format by beating Rutgers once in Saturday’s championship round at Commerce Bank Ballpark. The first game will be played at 3:30 EDT (2:30 in South Bend), with a second game to follow if necessary (at 7:00).
Rutgers (34-21) must beat Notre Dame twice on Saturday to claim the title. The Scarlet Knights actually will be the home team in Saturday’s first game, due to a system that mirrors the one utilized in the NCAA Tournament, whereby the home teams alternate based on how many times a team already has been the home squad (coin flips often are needed, with ND losing the toss vs. VT for today’s game). RU and ND both have been the home team once but the Knights already have been the visitor twice, with the Irish assured of being the home team in Saturday’s potential second game (ND also was the visitor in three of its five NCAA games last year at Eck Stadium).
Notre Dame will send junior righthander Peter Ogilvie (3.45, 7-2) to the mound versus Rutgers, with seven other Irish pitchers available out of the bullpen. Rutgers will counter with junior lefthander Tom Crohan (4.76, 5-4), who was the loser in a brief starting stint during a 7-2 game earlier this season vs. the Irish (1.2 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 5 BB).
Virginia Tech (33-25) was four outs away from knocking the Irish off the inside track to the league title and the corresponding automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament, but Bok and sophomore rightfielder Kris Billmaier supplied a pair of two-run hits as the Hokies’ 4-3 lead was turned into a 7-4 deficit.
Bok and Billmaier proved to be the hitting stars from the middle of the lineup (sixth and seventh spots), with the pair combining for six of ND’s eight RBI and three of seven hits.
Freshman righthander Chris Niesel had a strong five-inning effort in his first start in seven weeks, following a five-week bout with mononucleosis and a pair of saves versus Villanova and Boston College. The first-team prep All-American allowed just one run (on a Chris Hutchison home run) while scattering six hits, no walks, five strikeouts and six groundouts over his 66-pitch outing, with 45 of his pitches going for strikes.
Junior righthander J.P. Gagne (7-4) fittingly picked up the victory in four innings of relief work, after suffering a pair of tough losses to the Hokies during the 2001 season (3-2 in the regular season and 5-2 in the tournament).
Gagne joined Bok in reprising their efforts from Notre Dame’s key 2-1, 11-inning win over Virginia Tech in the first game of the April 12th doubleheader at Eck Stadium. That game ended when Bok stroked a pinch-hit triple and scored the decisive run – but it was Gagne’s five strong innings (3 H, BB, K) that helped the Irish outlast VT ace lefthander Joe Saunders in a game that ultimately made the difference in ND earning the tournament’s top seed (both the Irish and Hokies went 18-8 in BIG EAST play, with ND owning the 2-0 head-to-head tiebreaker).
Friday’s outing had a bumpy start for Gagne, who inherited a 3-1 lead but gave up three runs (one unearned) in the bottom of the sixth. But the veteran of 57 collegiate outings buckled down to retire the final nine Hokies batters, on four groundouts, four flyouts and a strikeout.
“I fell behind batters in that first inning and they got to hit their pitches instead of trying to hit mine,” said Gagne, who boosted his career record to 19-10. “We got a great diving stop from (first baseman) Joe Thaman in the seventh and I basically was able to work ahead in the count those final three innings.
“It means a lot to beat Virginia Tech twice this season in games that were so important to the team. I had a couple of tough losses versus them last season and I’m just glad I had the chance to help the team in this type of situation.”
Notre Dame has won the winners bracket for the first time in its seven BIG EAST seasons (the tournament featured six teams from prior to 2001), with the Irish playing their way through the losers bracket and into the championship round in 1996 (losing to West Virginia in the second game) and 1998 (losing to Rutgers in one winner-take-all game).
The Irish will be looking for the program’s first conference tournament title since winning the 1994 Midwest Collegiate Conference tournament (ND also won the MCC tourney in 1989, ’91, ’92 and ’93).
Billmaier – who missed the 2001 BIG EAST Tournament due to a back injury – snapped out of his hitting slump by smacking his third career home run versus the Hokies, a two-run shot to that yielded a 2-0 run in the second. Senior third baseman Andrew Bushey led off by reaching on a throwing error by the first baseman Chris Winterfeldt before Billmaier delivered with two outs, driving a 1-1 pitch from senior righthander Chip Runyon over the leftfield fence for his third home run of the season and 10th of his career.
Bushey’s sacrifice fly later plated senior centerfielder Steve Stanley, who had doubled, for a 3-1 Irish lead.
The Hokies’ big hit in the sixth came on a two-run blast from Brad Bauder, who sent a 3-1 pitch to left-center for his 14th long ball of the season. A pair of errors and a passed ball then pushed home the go-ahead run, for a 4-3 game.
Stanley’s leadoff walk (on five pitches) sparked the Irish rally in the eighth and ended the day for Runyon, who had a solid outing last season in VT’s 3-2 win over ND. Senior lefthander Pat Pinkman then recorded two outs but hit Bushey with a first-pitch offering before plunking Paul O’Toole on a 2-2 pitch, loading the bases.
Bok then settled in for just his 17th righthanded at-bat of the season but came through with the decisive hit, bouncing a 1-0 pitch past the third-base bag for the go-ahead double. VT opted to have righthander Matt Dalton face the righthander Billmaier, who golfed the first pitch into right field for two more runs and a 7-3 cushion.
The Irish have posted 19 come-from-behind victories this season while plating the go-ahead run in the final three innings of nine victories this season. Bok has been a principle player in three of those late wins, including the 2-1 and 8-4 games vs. VT and the 5-4 midseason win over Western Michigan (when his single scored Javier Sanchez for the game-ending hit).
CHRIS NIESEL: “I was very excited to get this start and felt pretty good out there. I was able to get my curveball over for strikes and kept the ball down for the most part. I got a little tired there at the end but all in all it felt great to get back out there.”
MATT BOK: “I actually had been working on my righthanded swing earlier this week and I felt confident in that situation. This was just a great win for our team and we have a lot of guys stepping up right now.”
KRIS BILLMAIER: “I’d been hitting the ball hard lately and hoped it was a matter of time before they started fall. On the home run, he hung a curveball and I was able to knock it out. We’re excited for tomorrow. We know we still have some work to do but this has been a great comeback from where we were early in the season.”
NOTES: Stanley’s 2-for-4 day lifted his season average to .455 and his career average to .385 while moving into the No. 5 spot on the NCAA Division I career hits list, with 367 … former North Carolina State star Jake Weber (’95-’98) had 366 in 248 games (Stanley has played 244) … next up on the list are two former Wichita State greats: Tim Raley (’84-’87, 370 hits in 273 GP) and Jim Thomas (’79-’82, 373 hits in 288 GP) … junior SS Javier Sanchez singled and scored in the 9th, pushing his hitting streak to eight games (longest active streak by an ND player) while scoring for the ninth consecutive game … Billmaier has hit 8-for-20 in five career games versus the Hokies (3 HR, 8 RBI) … Hokies 2B Marc Tugwell went 0-for-4, after hitting 13-for-24 in seven previous games vs. ND … Stanley’s pair of runs tied him with Pat Pesavento (’89) for the ND career record (246) … O’Toole made his 218th start, tying Mike Coss (’88-’91) for sixth in ND history … O’Toole’s run was his 187th, tying Scott Sollmann (’94-’96) for 7th in the ND record book … ND dropped its team ERA to 3.42 while Niesel lowered his to 3.88 (he has allowed just one run in 9.1 innings since returning to action).
#18 Notre Dame 0-2-0 0-0-1 0-4-1 – 8 7 2
Virginia Tech 0-0-0 0-1-3 0-0-0 – 4 9 2
Chris Niesel, J.P. Gagne (6; W, 7-4) and Paul O’Toole.
Chip Runyon, Pat Pinkman (8; L, 3-4), Matt Dalton (8) and Jed English.
Home Runs: Kris Billmaier, ND (1 on in 2nd; 3rd of season, 10th of career), Chris Hutchison, VT (solo in 5th, 6th of season), Brad Bauder, VT (1 on in 6th, 14th of season).
Doubles: Steve Stanley, ND (15th of season, 45th of career), Matt Bok, ND (12th of season), John West 2 (VT), Bauder (VT).