May 29, 2004
BRIDGEWATER, N.J. – The Notre Dame baseball team managed just a 12-12 record in its first six trips to the BIG EAST Championship but the last three visits have ended with the Irish hoisting the big trophy, as seventh-ranked Notre Dame became the first team ever to win three straight BIG EAST baseball tournament titles after riding five home runs to Saturday’s 11-5 win over Boston College.
Notre Dame (49-10) now enters the NCAAs with the nation’s second-most victories and second-best winning percentage (.831), trailing only Texas (50-13) and Oral Roberts (48-9, .842) in those respective categories. Texas was able to play three extra regular-season games (59 total) due to three exempted games at Hawaii while ORU won the Mid-Continent Conference title. East Carolina had entered the week with a 47-9 record but went 1-2 at the Conference USA Tournament.
The NCAA will unveil the 16 regional sites tomorrow afternoon (Sunday) on ESPN, between coverage of game 11 and game 12 from the Women’s College World Series (approximately 3:10 EDT, 2:10 in South Bend).
The 64-team field, regional pairings and top-8 national seeds then will be announced Monday on ESPN2 (noon EDT, 11:00 a.m. in South Bend).
The Irish enter the NCAAs with wins in 16 of their last 17 games while the team’s 49 total wins are one shy of the team record set by the 2002 College World Series team (50-18). Notre Dame also has won nine of its last 11 games in the BIG EAST Tournament and became the first team to go undefeated in winning the BIG EAST title since Seton Hall did it in 2001 (seven others have claimed the tourney title with undefeated marks).
Junior third baseman Matt Macri (3-for-5, 3 RBI, 2 R, BB) took home the tournament MVP honors while joining sophomore rightfielder Craig Cooper (2-for-3, 4 RBI, 2 R, BB, HBP) in hitting a pair of home runs in the title game. Sophomore DH Matt Bransfield – the BIG EAST RBI leader who was overlooked in the all-BIG EAST voting – also launched a home run as part of Notre Dame’s crushing six runs in the top of the 1st (marking the 10th time in the last 13 games that the Irish have scored in the 1st).
Sophomore lefthander Tom Thornton (8-2) worked through some bumpy moments to pick up the win, scattering eight hits, just one walk and a hit batter over 7-plus innings while recording three outs via strikeouts and 12 more on groundouts. Freshman righthander Jeff Samardzija and sophomore closer Ryan Doherty (a native of Toms River, N.J.) each threw an inning to close out the game.
Half of Notre Dame’s 10 hits left the yard, pushing the team’s home run total to 63 (more than double the 2003 team’s HR total of 31). The Irish totaled 15 other baserunners, including seven who reached on walks and five who were hit-by-pitch (pushing ND’s season total to 104 HBPs, good for 6th in NCAA history).
The Irish opened the game by putting six straight batters on base with one out, en route to a six-run inning that included three hits, four walks, two hit batters and three wild pitches. Senior second baseman Steve Sollmann started things with a single up the middle on a 2-2 pitch – putting him alone in 2nd place on the ND career hits list with 297 – before Bransfield launched a 1-0 pitch over the 25-foot secondary wall in left field for his 12th home run of the season (momentarily tying Macri for the team lead).
Senior catcher Javi Sanchez then walked on four pitches and moved up on a pair of wild pitches from junior righthander Joe Martinez. Sophomore leftfielder Steve Andres added his team-leading 41st walk of the season (on a full count) and Cooper then displayed his quick wrists and pretty swing while sending the next pitch over the fence in left-center for his eighth home run of the season and a 5-0 lead. Martinez (2-4) then wanted nothing to do with the hot-hitting Matt Edwards, walking the junior first baseman on four pitches to end his 0.1-inning stint at 26 pitches.
Righthanded closer Mike Gauthier was next on the hill for the Eagles and uncorked a wild pitch before registering the second out on a ball hit back to the mound. But the damage continued when Greg Lopez was hit with a 2-2 pitch, Macri walked on five pitches and Sollmann was hit by a 2-0 pitch to force home a run.
Notre Dame then added single runs in the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th while Thornton and the relievers snuffed out a handful of BC chances. Cooper completed the rare feat of home runs in back-to-back innings by smacking an 0-1 pitch that hit high off the leftfield wall. The Irish then opened the 3rd with singles from Cody Rizzo, Lopez and Macri to claim an 8-3 lead.
Lopez was hit by a 1-0 pitch to lead off the 5th and motored all the way around when Bransfield stroked an 0-1 pitch into the right-center gap for a 2-out double.
The Irish kept the Eagles at arm’s length with another run in the 7th, when Macri greeted freshman righthander Kevin Boggan by drilling a 2-2 pitch over the leftfield fence to reclaim the team home run lead with 13 (yielding a 10-3 lead).
Macri then opened the 9th with his fifth leadoff home run of the season, depositing a 2-0 pitch over the centerfield fence to cap the scoring. His 14 home runs tie for 9th-place in the ND record book (the last ND player to hit 15-plus was Brant Ust’s 17 in ’99).
** see notes and quotes below linescore **
Notre Dame 6-1-1 0-1-0 1-0-1 – 11 10 3
Boston College 2-1-0 1-0-0 0-1-0 – 5 10 2
Tom Thornton (W, 8-2), Jeff Samardzija (8), Ryan Doherty (9) and Javi Sanchez.
Joe Martinez (L, 2-4), Mike Gauthier (1), Kevin Boggan (7) and Garrett Greer.
Home Runs: Matt Bransfield, ND (1 on in 1st, 12th of season); Craig Cooper (2 on in 1st, solo in 2nd, 8th and 9th of season); Matt Macri, ND (solo in 7th and 9th, 13th and 14th of season); Ryan Morgan, BC (solo in 8th, 7th of season).
Doubles: Bransfield (ND), Mike Flynn (BC).
NOTES – Macri’s MVP performance included batting .429 in the three games (6-for-14, 5 RBI, 2 R, 2 HR, BB, 3 Ks, SF, SB), to go along with several high-level plays at the hot corner while posting his 48th, 49th and 50th error-free games of the season … other top hitters in the tournament included Lopez (.455, 5-for-11, R, 2 HBP, K, 3 Es), Bransfield (5-for-14, 4 RBI, 2 R, HR, 3B, 2B, K) and Edwards (3-for-9, 3 RBI, 4 R, HR, 3 BB, HBP, K, E) … ND hit .269 as a team with a 23-9 scoring edge (.510 slugging, 6 HR, 2 3B, 3 2B, 12 1B, .398 on-base, 14 BB, 9 HB, 20 Ks, .908 OBS, SF, 3 SAC, SB, .953 fielding, 6 Es) … the ND pitchers posted a 1.67 staff ERA and .260 opp. batting avg. in the tournament (16 Ks, 6 BB, 21 H in 27 IP) … the only teams in Div. I history with more HBPs than ND are Nevada (125 in ’97), Long Beach State (124 in ’98, 114 in ’99), Arizona State (115 in ’00) and San Jose State (105 in ’00) … Thornton allowed 3-of-8 leadoff batters to reach base but then held BC to 4-for-14 batting with runners on base and just 1-for-9 with 2 outs … ND’s 25-baserunner attack was sparked by five leadoff baserunners … top hitters in the 15 games during May/post-finals have included Macri (.468 batting/29-for-62, 16 RBI, 18 R, .935 slugging, 7 HR, 3B, 6 2B, 6 BB, 2 HBP, 6 Ks, .514 on-base, 1.449 “OBS”, 5 SB, 2 SF, 4 Es/.897) and Cooper (.449, 22-for-49, 16 RBI, 15 R, 4 HR, 5 2B, .796 slugging, 10 BB, HBP, 7 Ls, .550 OB, 1.346 OBS, 5 SB, 2 SAC, 0 Es) … ND posted double-digit hits for the 34th time this season (29-5 in those games), also improving to 30-2 when scoring 7-plus runs, 38-3 when holding the opponent to 0-5 runs and 16-2 when issuing 0-1 walks … the Irish now have won by 5-plus runs 26 times this season … the ND pitching staff’s impressive surge includes a 1.92 staff ERA and .230 opp. batting avg. in the last 11 games (98 IP, 82 H, 74 Ks. 25 BB) … Macri has hits in 12 of the last 13 games … Bransfield is batting 5-for-10 in the last two games (ending a 2-for-17 slump) … Lopez is batting 9-for-22 in his current 6-game hitting streak.
Paul Mainieri Quotes: “Cooper led the BIG EAST in hitting and is a great hitter. That first inning was awesome when Bransfield gave us that early lead and then Coop stepped up and hit that big home run. You could just sense the relief that it gave our team. We were pretty confident with our defense and Tom on the mound. I still don’t feel like we’ve played a great game. We had chances to blow the game open. We strive for perfection and are getting closer. Hopefully, next weekend we’ve saved our best game. It’s a great group of kids who worked hard, played together and listened to the coaches. For six years, this was our Achilles heel. And now we come out here and play very relaxed. (Doherty) has been phenomenal. He has not done the job only one time all year. When we lost J.P Gagne, I felt he was the toughest player to replace but Ryan has done a tremendous job, as have our setup men Joe Thaman and Dan Kapala. I like to have someone who slugs in that leadoff spot and Macri is a pretty good hitter to have in that leadoff spot. I’m so happy for that kid to be playing the way he is playing, with the way it started for him with the injury and then the inconsistency he had last year. We’ve got enough power in the middle of the order. When a starting pitcher has to face Macri at the top of the order, that’s a pretty challenging thing. You throw a strike to him early in the game and he’s liable to hit it out. In those first six years, we never played poorly but we just had a bad break and then the pitching ran thin. And now our team is really relaxed and confident that if they just go out and play their game, good things can happen. Tom settled into the game and was getting his pitches down and started beating them into the ground and our defense took over. We could have scored 17 or 18 runs. The story of this team has been a different day it’s a different hero. Somebody always seems to pick up the slack and when you have that talent 1-9 there’s no pressure on certain players to carry the team – and I think that’s the definition of a team. David Grewe, our hitting coach, deserves so much credit. They have a great approach, are very aggressive but also have great discipline. You don’t often see us swinging at a lot of bad pitches. I’m not sure what more we can do. We were 7-0 against top-25 teams. We won our league by three games. We were 3-0 at the conference tournament. We have won 49 games and only lost 10. Now it’s in the committee’s hands. I feel like we do deserve a top-8 national seed. If we don’t get it, it won’t be the end of the world and we’ll do what we have to do. But I’m just focused on the Regionals and getting the job done.”
Matt Macri Quotes: “Every guy goes up there fighting. Every year we have certain goals but it’s an honor to win three straight. We had a lot of guys go down this year but other guys have stepped up. I’ve put in a lot of hard work all year and it has paid off, as it has for the team. We’ve worked hard all year and when it comes down to tournament time, it pays off. I do like batting leadoff. I have not done it too much in the past but not I’m up there getting more comfortable. I like to set the tone and be aggressive. The first home run was a curveball that he hung a little bit. I was just trying to battle, he got ahead with a couple strikes early. I fouled off a few and then he missed. The second one was a fastball on the outer half and I put a nice cut on it and drove it that way. I feel real comfortable at the plate and in the field. A lot of that is because I’ve been able to play every day. I’ve been able to play all year without injury, being able to play without any limitations on what swing you take. I’m able to go out there and play my game. I like to go up there as the first batter and send a message to the pitchers that we are going to be aggressive all day. Every batter is pulling his weight, with situational batting, hitting for some power, getting on base. There’s no easy out in the lineup. We are driven to get that early lead and then get more. It sets the tempo early in the game.”
Craig Cooper Quotes: “When we put up six runs in the top of the first, it demoralizes them and our pitcher can just come out and throw the ball over the plate. We’ve been doing that lately and it’s helped us get the wins. I was hitting the ball real hard earlier in the tournament. Chris Lambert is a real tough pitcher The swing was there and it was just a matter of it falling. I’ve been struggling trying to find a hit, hitting the ball hard just trying to find some holes. My swing felt good but my timing was just a little bit off. The first home run was a fastball up and I was able to stay on top of it and drive it into the gap. The second one was a split-finger that he hung up on the inside corner and I was able to turn on it and get my hands up. We are giving pitchers a lot of runs early in the games.”
Tom Thornton Quotes:”I had to battle for everything I got, after a slow start. But our offense got us off to a great start, these guys are the story. I was able to get some rollovers on the changeups. I feel a little more aggressive now than I was a month ago. Our guys are coming out and swinging it as well as anyone in the country right now and I’d put our position players up against anybody. The seventh was one of my better innings. I was more focused and more aggressive.
Ryan Doherty Quotes: “The last outs are some of the most important ones, so you really want to be out there for those. When we hit the ball well, we are a ridiculously good team. Our pitchers went out there and battled so I’m real pleased with this weekend. If we keep putting up runs like this, I’m going to become obsolete. If we want to keep putting up 11 or 12 runs a game, I will not complain a bit.”