May 22, 2003
BRIDGEWATER, N.J. – It has been 15 years since St. John’s became the only team ever to lose its opening game and go on to win the BIG EAST Conference baseball tournament and Notre Dame had no interest in trying to become the second team ever to pull off such a rally in the double-elimination tournament – so the Irish used a classic formula to advance past West Virginia, 9-1, in Thursday-night action at Commerce Bank Ballpark.
The formula included an impressive showing in all phases of the game: senior closer J.P. Gagne drew the start in place of injured sophomore and 2003 BIG EAST pitcher of the year Chris Niesel, with the wily Gagne delivering seven strong innings in his first start with the Irish since the middle of the 2002 season; eight different players registered hits as the Irish collected their most hits (17) ever in 29th all-time BIG EAST Tournament games; and the team’s 21st error-free game of the season featured several high-level plays from both corner infielders and shortstop Matt Macri.
When it was all said and done, Notre Dame (41-15) had advanced into the winner’s bracket of the four-team tournament and next will face Rutgers (a 6-0 winner over Virginia Tech) in Friday’s pivotal second game (3:30 EDT, 2:30 in South Bend). The winner of that game then advances to the championship round and will have two cracks at winning the tournament and claiming the league’s automatic NCAA bid. West Virginia (35-18) next faces the Hokies in a noon elimination game, with the winner of that game facing the loser of the ND-RU game on Friday night at 7:00.
The ND-RU game and the 7:00 elimination game both will be broadcast live on CSTV (DirectTV channel 610), with the network also slated to rebroadcast those games in coming weeks.
Senior righthander Ryan Kalita – who tossed seven shutout innings of relief to beat Rutgers in the 2002 BIG EAST title game – is ND’s probable starter versus the Knights, who may counter with lefthander Shaun Parker. Niesel’s condition is being evaluated on a day-by-day basis and he possibly could return to action at some point during the tournament.
Gagne already had set the ND record for saves in a season (12) before earning his first start since a game vs. St. John’s on April 6, 2002. That game vs. SJU was his 33rd career start with the Irish – including two in the BIG EAST Tournament and four in the NCAAs – but Gagne’s previous 46 outings all had been out of the bullpen, adding to the drama of how he would respond new challenge.
The team tri-captain and Academic All-America candidate was more than up to the challenge, with his unique pitching skills already showcased earlier this season in six-inning relief stints versus Wake Forest and Rutgers. Gagne (4-4) retired the first nine batters he faced en route to allowing just one run, in his seventh and final inning, while racking up a career-best nine strikeouts and allowing just one walk to go along with six hits (three of which came in the 7th).
WVU’s seventh-inning score represented the first earned run versus Gagne in his last 25 innings (spanning 10 appearances), with his season ERA dropping to 2.01.
The Irish opened the game with three runs in the top of the first and went on to add single runs in six innings, with top hitters including junior second baseman Steve Sollmann (4-for-6, RBI, run), freshman leftfielder Brennan Grogan (3-for-5, 2 R) and junior catcher Javi Sanchez (3-for-3, RBI, 3 R). Sollmann and Grogan led a 10-for-19 effort from the top four batters in the lineup.
Sophomore righthander Shawn Miller (6-3) – who was the hard-luck loser in a pitching duel vs. Niesel three weeks ago at ND’s Eck Stadium – suffered a rocky outing, allowing seven runs (six earned) on 13 hits, four walks, four wild pitches and a hit batter.
Notre Dame’s three-run first included Sollmann’s leadoff single through the left side (on a full count), a first-pitch, one-out single to left by senior DH Steve Andres and sophomore third baseman Matt Edwards’ first-pitch, opposite-field single to right. Miller then served up a popup and worked to another full count, with Macri drawing the walk to plate the game’s first run.
Freshman rightfielder Cody Rizzo then delivered the big blow, sending a two-out single up the middle (on a 1-1 pitch) to plate two runners for a 3-0 lead.
POSTGAME NOTES UPDATE: freshman LHP Tom Thornton closed the game by facing seven batters in the final two innings, allowing one hit while lowering his season ERA to 1.92 (4th-best ever by an ND freshman) … Sanchez posted his second 3-hit game of the season and first since March 29 vs. Georgetown … Gagne logged his 91st career appearance, just one shy of Chris Michalak’s ND record … WVU trailed 6-0 in the 4th before putting two runners on base but Edwards made a tough stab, stepped on third and sent a low throw across the diamond, with junior Joe Thaman making the tricky scoop for the rally-killing double play … Macri added yet another high-end play in the 7th, leaping high to snag a linedrive and help strand two runners … Gagne retired six of the first seven leadoff batters he faced … Gagne owned just a 9.31 ERA in his six previous postseason starts, with 36 hits allowed in 19 innings during those games … Gagne moved past Alex Shilliday (’99) into 8th on the ND career innings list (296.1), just one behind ’93 grad David Sinnes (297.1) … he also joined Shilliday and Pat Leahy (’92) in a tied for 8th on the ND career wins list (25-14), with Gagne, Shilliday, Darin Schmalz (’97) and Aaron Heilman (’01) the only ND pitchers to win 25-plus since ’94 … Gagne also passed Brian Piotrowicz (’90, 201) into 9th on the ND career Ks list, just one back of Tom Bujnowski (’57) … Sanchez hit .284 on the road during the 2003 regular season but just .250 at home … Sollmann posted his 29th multi-hit and third 4-hit game of the season (sixth of his career, plus a 6-hit game) … Sollmann’s 241 career hits are two better than his brother Scott totaled in his three-year career (’94-’96), with Scott owning a slight edge in career batting avg. (.370-.367) … Sollmann bumped his season avg. to .382 and needs two more hits to tie Brant Ust (’97-’99) for 10th in ND history … Sollmann swiped his 32nd stolen base of the season, tying former teammate Steve Stanley for the 4th-best season SB total in ND history … the Irish now are 4-4 in BIG EAST Tournament opening games, including three wins over WVU …ND posted its 21st win over the season by 5-plus runs … ND combined to hit just .230 in seven previous BIG EAST Tournaments, with the 17 hits besting the team BET record of 16 set vs. Pittsburgh in 2000 … Sanchez has hit 8-for-17 in five career BET games (5 BB, 7 R, 3 RBI) but had been just 2-for-17 in five previous games vs. WVU … Sollmann entered the day with just 4-for-20 career batting in the BET and 3-for-20 vs. WVU (he is batting .560/14-for-25 in his last five games) … Macri (41) and Sollmann (48, 30 of last 32) have combined for 89 error-free games up the middle this season … Grogan is batting 6-for-11 vs. WVU this season … in the earlier 3-game series vs. WVU, the Irish hit just .190 with runners in scoring position and .083 with 2 outs (compared to 6-for-14 with RBI opp.’s and 6-for-12 with 2 outs on Thursday) … WVU has combined to hit just .214 in four games vs. ND this season, well below its .335 season avg.
Notre Dame 3-1-1 1-0-1 0-1-1 - 9 17 0West Virginia 0-0-0 0-0-0 1-0-0 - 1 7 1
J.P. Gagne (W, 4-4). Tom Thornton (8) and Javi Sanchez.
Shawn Miller (L, 6-3), John Ripple and Travis D’Amico, J.C. Souza (7).
Doubles: Javi Sanchez 2 (ND), Kurtis Clinton (WVU).