April 27, 2003
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Chris Niesel continued to roll with his sixth consecutive winning decision while Greg Lopez picked up the Notre Dame offense by batting 3-for-3 from the bottom of the batting order as the 16th-ranked Irish completed a three-game sweep of visiting Connecticut, 6-3, in BIG EAST Conference action Sunday afternoon at Eck Stadium.
Notre Dame (34-9, 13-2) is assured of first place alone atop the BIG EAST standings, after West Virginia (11-3) split its Sunday doubleheader at St. John’s. Rutgers (12-3) stayed on Notre Dame’s heels after taking two from Virginia Tech (10-6), with the Hokies still in the battle for a spot in the four-team BIG EAST Tournament (as are idle Pittsburgh, at 10-7, St. John’s, now 9-7, and Boston College, up to 7-7 after two wins over Seton Hall). The SJU-WVU, RU-VT and BC-SHU series all are scheduled to conclude with a third game on Monday.
Connecticut (19-20, 7-12) saw its BIG EAST postseason hopes fade in the loss, despite making some noise in the fifth that cut Notre Dame’s lead to 5-3.
Niesel (6-1) – now victorious in 29 of his last 31 decisions (dating back to his senior season at Aquinas High School) – posted seven strikeouts while allowing three runs, six hits and one walk in six innings of work. The sophomore righthander nearly took a shutout into the sixth inning but Tony Mallozzi’s two-out drive to the left-center gap squirted out of lunging senior centefielder Kris Billmaier’s glove, with two runs scoring on the double before DH Peter Soteropoulos (who also started on the mound) made it a two-run game with an RBI single up the middle.
Notre Dame’s 1-8 batters combined for just five hits but Lopez provided key production from the No. 9 hole, with the freshman third baseman driving a first-pitch, two-out single into right-center for a 5-0 lead in the fourth before leading off the bottom of the seventh with a hit to the same spot (on a 1-2 pitch, with Lopez advancing to score after an outfield error, balk and wild pitch).
Junior second baseman Steve Sollmann (1-for-2) extended his career-best hitting streak to 14 games (23 of the last 24) – longest by an ND player since Steve Stanley’s 16-game tear in 2000 – while scoring two runs from his leadoff spot. Sophomore first baseman Matt Edwards had a first-inning sacrifice fly and RBI double in the third, pushing his BIG EAST-leading RBI total to 53. Freshman DH Matt Bransfield – who is batting 9-for-18 in his last seven games played – did his part in the 8-hole, with an RBI double and run scored in the third inning as the Irish built their early 3-0 lead.
Brandon Viloria logged a scoreless eighth inning to lower his career ERA to 2.45, good for second-best in Notre Dame history among pitchers with 60-plus innings (behind Nick Palihnich’s 2.36 from 1959-61). Fellow senior righthander J.P. Gagne then closed the game for his 10th save of the season, just one shy of John Corbin’s ND-record total from the 2000 season.
POSITION PLAYER NOTES – Sollmann made his first error in 19 games and has totaled just 5 Es in his last 58 games with the Irish (13 total Es in the ’02 and ’03 seasons) … Edwards is batting 11-for-22 with 11 RBI in his last seven games … Sollmann swiped his 25th stolen base of the season (11th-best in the ND record book) while pushing his career SB total to 54 (tying former teammate Paul O’Toole for 6th in ND history) … Edwards’ RBI total (53) nearly has matched ND’s team leaders from the 2002 season (when Andrew Bushey had 59 and Brian Stavisky 57) … Billmaier is the only ND player to appear in all 43 games this season and is on the verge of becoming the 16th Irish player ever to log 200-plus career games (197) … the ND defense now has totaled 29 games with no errors (16) or one error (13), with the .972 team fielding pct. a full seven points ahead of the standing team record … ND’s current three-man weekend rotation – Niesel (6-1, 10-1), classmate John Axford (9-0, 14-2) and senior Ryan Kalita (5-0, 12-0) – have combined for a 20-1 record in 2003 and 36-3 in their ND careers.
PITCHING NOTES – ND’s staff ERA dipped one point to 3.34 … Viloria – who currently is being considered for Academic All-America honors, along with Sollmann and Gagne – issued his first walk of the season but still owns the ND record for lower career walk average (1.40 BB per 9 UP) … Gagne made his 85th career appearance, 2nd-most in ND history and seven back of Chris Michalak’s record total (92, ’90-’93), and needs three more Ks to crack that ND career top-10 list (with 189).
TEAM NOTES – The Irish now own a 91-26 (.778) record in seven-plus seasons of BIG EAST play, with Paul Mainieri owning the best BIG EAST winning pct. in the league’s history … ND’s 70 all-time BIG EAST series now have included 55 series wins, eight even series and just seven series wins by the opponent … the Irish are 57-7 in April during the past three seasons and 39-4 in their last 43 home games … since starting 0-4 in 2002 BIG EAST play, ND has gone 31-6 in its last 37 BIG EAST games … ND is nearing a +100 victory margin over the past three seasons (133-40-1).
WEEK IN REVIEW – ND scored 65 runs (10.8 per game) and hit .344 in the six games, led by Bransfield (.545, 6-for-11, 3 RBI, 5 R, 2 BB), Edwards (.526, 10-for-19, 9 RBI, 2 R, 3 2B, 2 BB, SB) and Sollmann (.462, RBI, 5 R, 2 2B, 2 BB, 2 SB) … the Irish made just four errors during the week in 219 fielding chances, for a .982 fielding pct. … the ND pitchers posted a 2.08 ERA for the week, with a .241 opponent batting average, 55 Ks and 20 BB.
Connecticut 0-0-0 0-3-0 0-0-0 – 3 6 1
Notre Dame 1-0-2 2-0-0 1-0-X – 6 8 1
Peter Soteropoulos (L, 2-3), Erik Drown (5) and Mike Leonard.
Chris Niesel (W, 6-1), Brandon Viloria (8), J.P. Gagne (9; SV, 10) and Javi Sanchez.
Doubles: Steve Sollmann (ND), Matt Edwards (ND), Matt Bransfield (ND), Tony Mallozzi (UConn).