April 25, 2004
PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Matt Bransfield homered in both games while Grant Johnson and Joe Thaman combined in limiting Pittsburgh to three hits over the first eight innings of the nightcap – but the fourth-ranked Notre Dame baseball team still found itself on the wrong end of an 8-6, 7-6 doubleheader sweep in BIG EAST Conference action Sunday at Trees Field.
The pair of losses are a rarity for the Irish, who had not lost back-to-back games all season while being swept for just the fifth time in 78 all-time BIG EAST doubleheaders. It also ended an ND streak of 24 straight BIG EAST doubleheaders without being swept, dating back to the first weekend of conference play (at Connecticut) during the 2002 College World Series season.
Notre Dame (32-8, 12-5 BIG EAST and Pittsburgh (26-10, 10-4) are part of a close four-team race atop the BIG EAST standings, with St. John’s (12-5) using a sweep of Rutgers (11-4) on Sunday to help tighten up the race. The standings are based on winning percentage, meaning that Rutgers remains in first, followed by Pittsburgh with ND and SJU tied for third. Following the 26-game conference slate (RU already has lost two games to a rainout), the top four teams will advance to the BIG EAST Tournament – with Boston College currently a distant hopeful in fifth place at 6-6 (BU and RU were rained out on Friday).
The pair of disappointing losses completes a unique start to the season in which Notre Dame spent seven of the first nine weekends (plus a handful of weekdays and all of Spring Break) away from home. In fact, the Irish are slated to play at home on just four weekends during the entire 2004 season, including the final two BIG EAST series vs. Rutgers and Virginia Tech.
The Irish rallied to forge a 5-5 tie in the 5th inning of the 7-inning opener, only to see the hosts answer with three runs in the bottom of the 5th. Notre Dame then led 6-3 and was three outs away from heading home with a split, only to see the Panthers rally for four runs in the bottom of the 9th for the 7-6 win.
Bransfield hit his ninth home run of the season in the opener and left the yard again in game 2, on a two-run shot to dead-center field. It raised Bransfield’s season home run total to 10, second-most in the BIG EAST behind Pittsburgh two-way star PJ Hiser (who hit his 14th of the season on Sunday).
Junior third baseman Matt Macri (seventh of season) and sophomore leftfielder Craig Cooper (fifth) also homered in the nightcap, giving the Irish 42 home runs in 40 games played this season.
Johnson yielded only three hits in 4.2 innings of work – but they included back-to-back home runs from the cleanup hitter Hiser and Tom Cashman (forging a 2-2 tie in the 2nd). The junior righthander ultimately allowed three runs while striking out six and walking just two in his 84-pitch outing.
Thaman came on to get the final out in the 5th and the senior lefthander was in line for the win after 3.1 shutout innings (with two walks and one K). Notre Dame then handed the ball to sophomore Ryan Doherty (4-1), who had converted all seven of his previous save opportunities this season. But the Panthers rallied behind a walk, single and hit batter before leadoff hitter Ben Copeland stroked a one-out, two-run double and Spamer followed with the game-tying single through the left side of the infield.
Another walk loaded the bases and ended Doherty’s seven-batter stint but freshman righthander Dan Kapala came on to strike out the dangerous Hiser with a high fastball. The game then ended when a low throw from Kapala squirted past Javi Sanchez and allowed Copeland to score as the winning run.
Freshman righthander Jeff Samardzija (2-2) – who caught a touchdown pass in Saturday’s Blue-Gold football scrimmage before flying to Pittsburgh on Saturday night – failed to complete the challenging two-sport weekend after being charged for eight runs on 10 hits and two walks in the first four innings of the opener, with 4 Ks (the final two runs on Samardzija’s total came on bases-loaded walks issued by Thaman).
Bransfield sparked the comeback in the opener by leading off the 4th with a solo shot, driving a 1-2 pitch from the righthanded Hiser over the fence in left-center. Zach Sisko and Cody Rizzo followed with singles and Sanchez added a sacrifice fly for a 5-2 deficit.
The Irish forged the 5-5 tie with three runs in the 5th, with Macri drawing a leadoff walk before Matt Edwards and Bransfield delivered RBI doubles down the respective right and leftfield lines. Lefthander Mike Bassage (3-0) then took the mound and retired the next two batters before Sanchez displayed his season-long clutch hitting, going the other way on a two-out, 1-2 pitch and driving the gap in right-center to score Bransfield with the tying run.
Sanchez added another clutch hit with two outs in the 2nd inning of the nightcap, doubling down the leftfield line on a 1-2 pitch from righthander TJ Gornati before watching Cooper launch the next pitch over the leftfield fence.
The Irish reclaimed the lead in the 3rd (3-2) when Macri turned on an 0-1 pitch and sent a towering blast to left. Notre Dame then stretched to 5-2 in the 5th thanks to Macri two-out walk (on four pitches) and Bransfield’s first pitch drive that carried over the centerfield wall.
A Danny Dressman single vs. righthanded and walks from Macri and Bransfield later preceded a 7th-inning sacrifice fly from Steve Andres, yielding the 6-3 cushion that carried into the 9th. Righthanded reliever Paul Nardozzi (4-2) walked Bransfield and served up the sac. fly but he was not charged with a run while closing out the final 2.2 innings for the win.
NOTES – The Irish now are just 12-5 while playing without injured All-America second baseman Steve Sollmann … the absence of freshman Sean Gaston (out with mononucleosis) forced Sanchez to catch all 30 innings during this week’s games vs. Seton Hall and Pittsburgh …Doherty saw his scoreless innings streak end at 15.0 while Mike Scanzano’s single halted an 0-for-31 combined streak of opponent batters vs. Doherty … Sunday marked ND’s first visit to the unique setting of Trees Field since the 2001 season, when first team all-BIG EAST performers Aaron Heilman and Danny Tamayo posted matching 3-0 shutouts (Tamayo had a pair of nine-inning BIG EAST shutouts in that 2001 season, as the last ND player to record that feat until Tom Thornton did it this season at West Virginia) … the ND pitching staff entered the day with the 2nd-best walk avg. (2.73 BB/9 IP) in the program’s history but the Irish pitchers issued six games in both games (12 in 15 IP, or 7.2 BB per 9 IP) … the BB/9 IP record belongs to the Heilman/Tamayo-led 2001 staff (2.48).
Notre Dame 0-0-0 2-3-1 0 – 6 11 0
Pittsburgh 1-0-4 0-3-0 X – 8 12 0
Jeff Samardzija (L, 2-2), Joe Thaman (5), Dan Kapala (5) and Javi Sanchez.
PJ Hiser, Mike Bassage (5; W, 3-0), Eli Friedman (6; SV, 5).
Home Run: Matt Bransfield, ND (solo in 4th; 9th of season).
Triple: Matt Macri (ND).
Doubles (all ND): Bransfield, Matt Edwards, Steve Andres.
Notre Dame (32-8, 23-5 BIG EAST) 0-2-1 0-2-0 1-0-0 – 6 10 2
Pittsburgh (26-10, 10-4 BIG EAST) 0-2-0 0-1-0 0-0-4 – 7 6 0
Grant Johnson, Joe Thaman (5), Ryan Doherty (9; L, 4-1), Dan Kapala (9) and Javi Sanchez.
TJ Gornati, Paul Nardozzi (7; W, 4-2) and Mike Zambriczki.
Home Runs: Craig Cooper, ND (1 on in 2nd; 5th of season), PJ Hiser, Pitt (solo in 2nd; 13th of season); Tom Cashman, Pitt (solo in 2nd; 6th of season); Matt Macri (solo in 3rd; 7th of season), Matt Bransfield (1 on in 5th; 10th of season).
Doubles: Steve Andres (PITT), Javi Sanchez (ND), Ben Copeland (PITT).