April 26, 2003
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – A record-setting Eck Stadium crowd of 2,816 was treated to another Notre Dame one-run win and then another blowout by the 16th-ranked Irish, as the hosts strengthened their spot atop the BIG EAST standings with a 3-2, 11-4 doubleheader sweep of Connecticut in sunny Saturday-afternoon action.
Notre Dame (33-9, 12-2 BIG EAST) – which has the distinction of being 8-1 in one-run games while winning 19 times by five-plus – rallied to the lead with a pair of sixth-inning runs in the seven-inning opener before turning in yet another high-scoring inning in the nightcap, pushing across seven in the fourth for an 8-1 cushion. Saturday’s opener represents the fist time this season that Notre Dame has overcome a late-inning deficit to win a game, due in part to the team’s high average margin of victory and strong stating pitching.
Connecticut (19-19, 7-11) fell to ninth place in the race for one of four BIG EAST Tournament spots, with each of the other series involving contenders – Virginia Tech at Rutgers, West Virginia at St. John’s and Seton Hall at Boston College – washed out by rain (those teams will attempt to play two on Sunday and once on Monday).
Sophomore righthander John Axford (9-0) – who entered the week as one of five undefeated pitchers in the nation with eight-plus wins – picked up the win in game two for his 13th consecutive winning decision with the Irish, good for the fifth-longest winning streak in the program’s history. Since 1928, only Aaron Heilman – a four-year All-American and currently the New York Mets leading triple-A prospect – has posted a longer winning streak among Notre Dame pitchers during that 75-year span, winning all 15 of his decisions in 2001. Axford’s six-innings lowered his season ERA to 2.21 while his opponent average dipped to .215, with his 119-pitch outing including just one run allowed on four hits and six walks (plus six strikeouts, four groundouts and two popups).
Freshman righthander Ryan Doherty (2-0) – who has not allowed an earned run in his last eight outings and 15.2 innings – picked up the first win in relief of senior Ryan Kalita. Doherty (whose ERA dipped to 2.76) set down the side in the sixth but hit the leadoff batter and allowed a one-out single in the seventh, bringing senior closer J.P. Gagne out of the bullpen for his ninth save of the season (tied for third-most in ND history) and the 15th of his career (second all-time and five shy of John Corbin’s record).
The Irish defense continued its strong play, going error-free for the 15th and 16th time this season.
Notre Dame’s top hitters in the doubleheader included sophomore first baseman Matt Edwards (4-for-8) and junior second baseman Steve Sollmann (3-for-7), who returned to action after missing two games with a wrist injury. Edwards added to his BIG EAST-leading RBI total (now 51, with three on Saturday) while Sollmann his safely in both games to extend his career-best hitting streak to 13 games (and 22 of the last 23), with his season batting average landing squarely on .400 (64-for-160).
The Irish trailed 2-0 in the opener and saw their chances dwindling before sophomore shortstop Matt Macri stepped in versus sophomore righthander Nick Tucci (3-5) to start the bottom of the fifth – with Macri parking the first pitch he saw over the leftfield fence to put Notre Dame on the board.
The go-ahead rally came one inning later, with another first-pitch from Tucci starting things for the Irish as freshman rightfielder Cody Rizzo took first on a hit-by-pitch (extending his ND record to 20 HBPs). Freshman leftfielder Brennan Grogan then walked on four pitches and Edwards drove a 1-0 pitch up the middle, taking second on the throw to third as Rizzo scored to tie the game.
Righthanded closer Mike James was called out of the ‘pen with the go-ahead run on third and issued an intentional walk to Kris Billmaier, loading the bases. Junior catcher Javi Sanchez then supplied the go-ahead RBI and nearly sent an infield single through the left side, with shortstop Brett Burnham lunging to make the make the force throw at third and avoid further damage.
Gagne inherited runners on the corners with one out in the seventh and final inning of the opener, setting down Huskies leading hitter Peter Soteropoulos on a called third strike (2-2 count) before inducing Burnham’s game-ending groundout to the first baseman Edwards (on a 1-2 count).
The second game saw Notre Dame erupt for its second 7-run inning of the week, with 11 runners coming to the plate in the fourth. Four Irish hits were helped by two stolen bases, a hit batter, a balk, a wild pitch, a throwing error, a sacrifice fly and a base on balls. Big hits in the inning (both to left) included Macri’s RBI double and Sollmann’s run-scoring single on an 0-2 pitch (helping end the day for 2-2 freshman Tim Norton) – with Edwards later greeting reliever Bob Barton by launching a two-run double to the left-center gap.
Kalita allowed two runs on seven hits and one walk in his five innings, with five strikeouts and five groundouts while dropping his season ERA to 3.93 (his 1.97 ERA in BIG EAST games is just behind Axford’s 1.96 atop the ND charts).
NOTES: UConn had won the previous four games vs. ND (no BIG EAST team ever has won five straight vs. the Irish) ? ND’s team ERA remained at 3.35 … Edwards is batting 10-for-20 with nine RBI in his last six games (after a 1-for-20, 1-RBI slump)… freshman IF Matt Bransfield hit 2-for-2 in the second game and is 8-for-15 in his last six games played ? the Irish scored a 1st-inning run for the fifth time in the last six games, after scoring in the 1st inning of just 11 of the previous 36 games … ND’s 19 wins by 5-plus runs are just two shy of the 2002 team’s entire total of wins by 5-plus (21) ? the 7-run 4th is ND’s 17th “big inning” (5-plus runs) of the season and 14th in the last 22 games (also tied for the 4th-highest scoring inning of ’03) … ND now is 56-7 in April during the past three seasons and is 38-4 in its last 42 home games … Gagne’s nine saves trail only Corbin (11 in 2000) and Mike Coffey (10 in ’89) in the ND record book … ND continues to near a +100 record over the past three seasons (132-40-1) ? Sollmann swiped his 53rd career stolen base (7th in ND history, one behind former teammate Paul O’Toole) … top ND win streaks include Ed Walsh (17, ’26-’28), Frank “Dreams” Scanlan (16, ’07-’09), Heilman (15, ’01) and Herb Kelly (14, ’12-’14).
Connecticut 0-0-1-1-0-0-0 - 2 8 0Notre Dame 0-0-0-0-1-2-X - 3 5 0
Nick Tucci (L, 3-5), Mike James (6) and Mike Leonard.
Ryan Kalita, Ryan Doherty (6; W, 2-0), J.P. Gagne (7; SV, 9) and Javi SAnchez.
Home Run: Matt Macri, ND (solo in 5th, 3rd of season).
Double: Mike Mocerino (UConn).
Connecticut 0-0-1-0-0-0-2-0-1 - 4 10 2Notre Dame 1-0-0-7-0-0-1-2-X - 11 14 0
Tim Norton (L, 2-2), Bob Barton (4) and Tyler Stefkovich.
John Axford (W, 9-0), Matt Laird (7; SV, 1) and Javi Sanchez, Steve Andres (9).
Doubles: Matt Edwards (ND), Kris Billmaier (ND), Matt Macri (ND).