April 3, 2007

The Notre Dame baseball team is slated to return home for one game today (April 3, vs. Oakland; 5:05 EDT) before jumping back in the trusty Royal Excursions team bus, for a BIG EAST series at Cincinnati on April 5-7 (games first two days at 6:30 p.m. EDT, followed by a 1:00 game on the 7th). Sophomore RHP Brett Graffy will be the first of several ND pitchers who are expected to see time in the Oakland game while senior RHP Dan Kapala is the probable game-1 starter vs. Cincinnati (followed by sophomore RHP David Phelps in game-2, with the game-3 starter TBA).

Oakland is expected to start senior RHP Scott Boleski while Cincinnati’s probable rotation (still yet to be confirmed) includes three sophomores: RHP Chris Blevins, LHP Dan Osterbrock and RHP Michael Hill. Notre Dame’s 10-0 series margin vs. Oakland includes a 15-1 win in 2006. The Irish lead the series with Cincinnati, 19-8, but the teams did not face each other during the 2006 BIG EAST regular season or postseason. The most recent game in the ND-Cincinnati series – a 10-4 win for the Irish, at Eck Stadium on March 22, 2005 – saw current junior shortstop Brett Lilley become the first Notre Dame player ever to collect five hits in a home opener.

Some updated quick notes on the Irish follow below:

EXTREME LIVING – Notre Dame’s offense has shown the potential for big innings and high run totals throughout the 2007 season, but that success at the plate has been countered by several other games with low hit and run totals for the Irish … those extremes include a .412 combined team batting average in the 12 wins this season, with the Irish averaging 14 hits and 10 runs per game in those victories (highlighted by a 4-1 win over a TCU team that was ranked as high as 12th at the time, plus a 16-6 victory over then-#7 Nebraska) … on the flip side, ND is hitting just .184 in its 14 losses (avg. of 7 hits and 3 runs per game in the defeats) … eight of the wins have featured double-digit hits from the Irish (plus two with 9, an 8-hit win and one with 7) while nine of the losses have seen ND manage just 2-5 hits.

HITTING IT ON THE HEAD – The team that has finished with the edge in hits has gone 22-4 in games involving ND this season … the Irish are 11-3 when outhitting the opponent but just 1-11 when the opposing team collects more hits … ND’s three losses when outhitting the opponent this season have featured other key stats … the 9-4 loss to UNC Wilmington (11-8 hit edge for ND) saw the Irish lose a midgame lead, after giving away six unearned runs in the pivotal 6th inning … most recently, the Irish gave South Florida 17 “freebies” (BB, HBP, WP, E, PB, SB) in the game-2 loss (13-10; ND had 14-12 hit edge) … the next day, the Irish stranded 14 runners and gave up seven late runs in the series finale loss to the Bulls (9-1; 13-9 hit edge for ND).

FIVE IS THE MAGIC NUMBER – The steady performance of the ND pitching staff has caused the Irish to be 10-1 this season when scoring 5-plus runs, but that success rate falls off significantly when ND has scored just 0-4 runs (2-13, including 1-10 when held to 0-3 runs).

RARE LATE-GAME DRAMA – Notre Dame’s 26 games this season have featured very few late-game comebacks (by either team) … in fact, the team leading at the end of the 6th inning is 20-3 this season (9-1 when ND leading, 11-2 when opponents are up), plus a 21-2 record for teams with a lead at the end of the 7th (9-0 ND, 12-2 opponents) and 23-1 for teams entering the 9th with a lead (10-0 for ND, 13-1 for opp.’s).

SLIPPING AWAY – The first half of the 2006 season has seen the Irish lose five times by a margin that was created by unearned runs … ND also held middle-inning leads in each of those tough losses:

• Feb. 17 – Texas State 2, ND 1 … Bobcats scored winning run in the 8th, with the help of a costly catchers-interference play (ND led 1-0 entering the 5th)
• Feb. 23 – UNC Wilmington 9, ND 4 … the Irish made 3 errors in the 6th, as UNCW scored 6 unearned runs to turn a 3-1 deficit into a 7-3 lead
• March 2 – Stetson 5, ND 4 … a 1st-inning passed ball allowed the homestanding Hatters to score what proved to be a costly unearned run, sparking their comeback from an early 4-0 deficit (ND still led 4-3 in the 7th before Stetson scored the final two runs).
• March 16 – Florida Gulf Coast 5, ND 3 … ND jumped out to a 3-0 lead on the home team Eagles but allowed a pair of unearned runs in the 5th and another in the 8th (the Irish still led 3-2 in the 6th, before a pair of FGCU runs).
• March 24 – USF 13, ND 10 … 10 runs were not enough to overcome single unearned runs allowed by ND in three different innings (1st, 2nd and 6th), ultimately helping to wipe out a 5-2 Irish lead heading into the 6th inning.

FREEBIE FACTS – First-year Notre Dame head coach Dave Schrage began tracking the stat of “freebies” during the past few years at Evansville … the freebie stat takes into account six categories (walks, hit batters, wild pitches, errors, passed balls and stolen bases) in which a team helps its opponents by putting runners on base or allowing them to advance (without the benefit of a hit) … ND’s current freebie total is 234 (90 BB, 31 HB, 13 WP, 46 E, 17 PB, 37 SB), for an average of 9.0 freebies allowed per game … by comparision, Schrage’s record-setting 2006 Evansville squad averaged just 5.5 freebies per game en route to a 43-22 final record (UE’s 354 total freebies in ’06 included 160 BB, 49 HB, 27 WP, 65 E, 10 PB and 43 SB) … ND’s 2007 opponents have compensated by giving the Irish 232 freebies (8.9/gm), with the near-identical freebie totals for ND and its opponents closely mirroring the near-.500 record (12-14) … the first 26 games of ND’s 2007 season have seen an average disparity of more than 3.0 freebies per game between the winning team (7.5) and the loser (10.6) … ND’s current freebie avg. includes 8.1 in its wins but 11.3 in the losses (the opponents are 6.9 in their wins, 9.8 in losses).

UNPRECEDENTED RELOADING – A check of recent Notre Dame teams and the other current BIG EAST squads reveals that ND’s 2007 team has faced a very unique challenge in replacing large chunks of key personnel from the previous season (in addition to the ND program undergoing what is just its third coaching change since the early 1980s) … the season-ending surgery for senior catcher Sean Gaston (before the ’07 campaign had even begun) meant that the Irish had lost six starting position players from the 2006 team … in addition to Gaston, the losses included: All-America 1B and BIG EAST player of the year Craig Cooper; Academic All-America and all-BIG EAST SS Greg Lopez (a two-year team captain); LF Matt Bransfield (a former all-BIG EAST performer and league RBI leader); standout defensive CF Alex Nettey; and another top defensive performer in RF Cody Rizzo, who also filled in admirably as the team’s backup catcher … a sampling of the 17 previous ND teams shows that none faced the challenge of replacing six position starters … in fact, the only thing comparable came in 2003, when five starters graduated from the 2002 College World Series team (one of them the DH, with four starters in the field returning for ’03) … as if the personnel turnover in the field were not a tall enough task, the Irish also had to replace the entire 3-man weekend pitching rotation from the ’06 team (Jeff Manship, Jeff Samarardzija and Tom Thornton) … each of those pitchers had been an all-BIG EAST selection during their careers (Manship was the ’06 BIG EAST pitcher of the year and an All-American) and all three went on to be selected in the 2006 MLB draft, the first time more than two pitchers from an ND baseball team have been picked in the same draft … the sampling of the previous 17 seasons reveals that none of those ND teams had to replace all three of their top starting arms from the prior season … only five times since (at least) 1989 – in ’93, ’99, 2001, ’03 and ’04 – has an Irish team even faced the task of replacing two top starting pitchers … a similar check of the current BIG EAST teams likewise reveals that ND’s reloading challenge is the steepest in the 12-team league … Georgeown, West Virginia and Cincinnati (each with 5) are the only teams that had to replace more than four of their nine offensive starters from 2006 (compared to ND’s replacing of 6) … six different BIG EAST teams (see chart below) returned 6-8 offensive starters, twice as many (or more) as the Irish … the other 11 teams averaged 5.7 returning starters to the offensive lineup, plus an average return of nearly two of the three pitchers from the weekend rotation (1.9, compared to none for ND) … the 11 other BIG EAST teams returned an average of 7.6 starters from the nine offensive players and top three pitchers (well more than ND’s total of three returning starters).

BIG EAST Returning Starters (offensive/max. 9 … weekend pitchers/max. 3 … total/max. 12)

Seton Hall … 8 … 3 … 11
St. John’s … 7 … 2 … 9
Rutgers … 7 … 2 … 9
South Florida … 6 … 2 … 8
Louisville … 6 … 2 … 8
Connecticut … 7 … 1 … 8
Pittsburgh … 5 … 2 … 7
Cincinnati … 4 … 3 … 7
Villanova … 5 … 2 … 7
West Virginia … 4 … 2 … 6
Georgetown … 4 … 0 … 4
Notre Dame … 3 … 0 … 3

Note: the other 11 teams returned an average of 5.7 offensive starters and 1.9 weekend pitchers (avg. of 7.6 returned from the top-12 starters/9 offensive and 3 pitchers)

APRIL AWAKENINGS – Notre Dame’s slow start to the 2007 season (12-14) compares similarly to the first seasons of the program’s two previous head coaches, as the 1988 team entered April with just a 14-12 mark (under 1st-year coach Pat Murphy) while Paul Mainieri’s first ND team in 1995 was just 11-10 as it entered April … the 1988 team responded with a 25-10 record the rest of the way to finish 39-22 and win its divisional title in the Midwest Collegiate Conference (followed by a 1-2 showing in the MCC Tournament) … the ’95 team similarly used a 29-11 record during April and May to win finish 40-21, with an MCC divisional title and a runner-up placing at the MCC Tournament … the ’88 and ’95 teams failed to make the NCAA Tournament field (the event featured just 48 teams prior to ’99) but the strong closes to both seasons vaulted the program on to NCAA appearances in the following seasons (’89 and ’96) … the 1995 and 2007 teams have another interesting parallel, as the ’95 squad lost senior catcher Bob Lisanti to a season-ending injury in the opener vs. Texas … Lisanti returned for a 5th year in 1996 and was a leader of that 44-win team – with current senior catcher Sean Gaston hoping to take a similar path and return for his 5th year in 2008 (after preseason shoulder surgery wiped out his 2007 season).

TOUGH FOES – The casual fan may not recognize some of Notre Dame’s 2007 opponents, but many of these teams are top baseball talents that are forecasted to be in the 2007 NCAA field … the Irish already have played 10 games vs. teams currently in the top-100 of the RPI (per www.warrennolan.com): Stetson (11), Coastal Carolina (15), Nebraska (48), South Florida (49; three-game series), TCU (56), Texas State (66) and Central Michigan (73), plus #104 Iowa and #105 UNC Wilmington … nine of the Irish losses have come at the hands of teams from the above list, with other top-100 games still remaining vs. Louisville (41; three-game series), Michigan (63) and Rutgers (102; three-game series) … Baseball America picked seven of ND’s 2007 opponents – TCU, Stetson, Michigan, Illinois-Chicago, Central Michigan, Harvard and Prairie View A&M – to win their conference tournaments and advance to the 2007 NCAAs (BA also tabbed Nebraska to finish 2nd in the Big 12 and make the ’07 NCAAs) … three other teams on ND’s 2007 schedule (UNC Wilmington, Ball State and Sacred Heart) were 2006 NCAA participants, as were Nebraska, TCU, Stetson, Michigan and PVA&M.

BIG EAST SCHEDULE REMINDERS – The 2007 season marks the second year of the current format in which most of the weekly BIG EAST series consist of single 9-inning games on (primarily) a Friday-Saturday-Sunday rotation … as a reminder, there no longer are makeup days for BIG EAST series (aside from day-2 or day-3 of the series becoming a doubleheader to replace an earlier rainout) … in the past, Mondays often were used as makeup days for BIG EAST series … some series will shift slightly from th Fri.-Sat.-Sun. format to accomodate the Easter holiday, finals and graduation schedules, and the final week of the regular season (no Sunday game, due to the impending BIG EAST Tournament) … Friday’s ND-Cincinnati game is starting after 6:00 (due to Good Friday) and Easter Sunday is not available as a makeup day.

Here’s a look at the updated BIG EAST Conference statistical leaders (including ranks for upcoming opponent Cincinnati):

Notre Dame Team Offense Ranks Among BIG EAST Teams
1st – triples (9) and sac. bunts (31) … CIN is 5th in triples (4) and 9th in sac. bunts (13)
6th – slugging pct. (.404) and walks drawn (99) … CIN is 5th in slugging (.427) and 2nd in walks (138)
7th – batting avg. (.290), runs socred (155), doubles (41) and low strikeouts (170) – CIN is 8th in batting (.280), 3rd in runs (184), 5th in doubles (46) and 8th in low Ks (183)
8th – on-base pct. (.379) … CIN is 7th (.383)
10th – stolen bases (27) … CIN is 2nd (74)

Notre Dame Team Pitching Ranks Among BIG EAST Teams
4th – ERA (3.86) and low opp. batting avg. (.261)… CIN is 5th in ERA (4.29) and 2nd in low opp. avg. (.240)
5th – low walks per 9 IP (3.62) low home runs allowed (10) … CIN is 10th in both BB rate (4.37) and low HRs allowed (19)
10th – steikeouts per 9 IP (6.75) and saves (2) … CIN is 2nd in K rate (8.27) and 9th in saves (3)

Notre Dame Team Fielding Ranks Among BIG EAST Teams
8th – fielding pct. (.955) and double plays turned (16) … CIN is 6th in fielding (.9590 and 10th in DPs (15)
11th – fewest stolen bases allowed (37) … CIN is 12th (43)

Notre Dame Pitchers Among BIG EAST Leaders

David Phelps
3rd in ERA (1.58)
5th in wins (4-2)
7th in innings pitched (45.2)
8th in strikeouts (39) and low opp. batting avg. (.232)

Jess Stewart
8th in appearances (11)

Notre Dame Position Players Among BIG EAST Leaders

Brett Lilley
1st in triples (3) … also only BIG EAST player to score 5 runs in a game this season (vs. Western Michigan)
5th in runs (31) and on-base pct. (.500)
11th in batting avg. (.385)

A.J. Pollock
10th in batting avg. (.391) … note that ND joins West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers as the only BIG EAST teams with multiple players hitting .385 or higher … also note that Pollock is one of four ND players with 5-hit games this season (vs. WMU), none have 6-plus hits … ND’s Matt Weglarz had a 3-double game this season vs. TCU (matched by two other BIG EAST players in ’07)

Mike Dury
5th in home runs (6)
6th in slugging pct. (.624)
9th in total bases (46)

Ross Brezovsky
2nd in triples (2)

Note: In conference games only, ND currently ranks 8th in ERA (5.02), 9th in batting (.245) and 10th in fielding (.952) while Cincinnati is 4th in league ERA (3.51), 5th in batting (.284) and 9th in fielding (.954) … Lilley owns a 1.251 OPS (on-base pct. plus slugging pct.) in league play, good for 4th-best among BIG EAST players (his .706 league slugging is 5th while his .545 league OB is 6th).