May 27, 2004
BRIDGEWATER, N.J. – In a high-pressure game that was destined to be decided by the “little things,” it was only fitting that a gamble by Notre Dame coach Paul Mainieri made the difference as the 7th-ranked Irish scored in the bottom of the 9th to edge Boston College, 3-2, in Thursday’s first-round matchup at the BIG EAST Baseball Championship.
Notre Dame (47-10) – which has climbed 37 games over .500 for the first time in the program’s 112-year history – will return to Commerce Bank Ballpark for Friday’s pivotal winners-bracket game (3:30 EDT, 2:30 in South Bend) versus an upstart St. John’s squad that posted its third straight win over Pittsburgh during a span of the last six days (4-2). The winner of the ND-SJU game then advances to Saturday’s title-game round (3:30, then 7:00 if necessary) in the four-team, double-elimination tournament – while the loser would have to return Friday night to play in a 7:00 elimination game vs. BC (30-26) or Pittsburgh.
The game featured a pitching showdown between two of the four pitchers who earned 1st team all-BIG EAST honors, in top-rated prospects Chris Lambert (BC) and Grant Johnson (ND). Neither of the junior righthanders factored in the final decision while the BIG EAST co-pitcher of the year Lambert owned the statistical edge after allowing a pair of unearned runs, two hits and a two walks in eight innings (with eight strikeouts). Johnson logged seven innings for another strong outing of his own, yielding just one earned run (and one unearned run) on five hits and a single walk in seven innings (with 6 Ks).
The Irish now have compiled a 191-59-1 four-year record (.763) from 2001-04, making the current seniors the winningest class in the program’s history (besting their predecessors in the class of ’03, at 190-67-1).
Another junior righthander, Chris Niesel, is slated to take the mound for the Irish on Friday after not pitching in the 2003 BIG EAST Tournament due to a finger injury (Johnson missed the entire 2003 season while returning from shoulder surgery). Niesel did not pitch in the split vs. SJU earlier this season (he had pitched two days earlier vs. BC) but the 2003 BIG EAST pitcher of the year and All-American owns a 2.19 ERA and 1-0 record in two previous starts vs. the Red Storm (8 Ks, 3 BB and 16 H in 12.1 IP).
Both teams had cashed in errors while using small-ball strategies and timely hitting to scratch across two runs each in the first eight innings of action. As the game stretched into the 9th, the Eagles threatened to reclaim the lead they had lost when the Irish plated two in the 5th. Senior lefthander Joe Thaman lost Ryan Morgan to a leadoff walk and Garrett Greer then attempted to bunt the runner over – but senior catcher Javi Sanchez pounced on the spinning ball and threw a bullet to shortstop Greg Lopez for the key forceout of the lead runner.
Josh DiScipio then walked on four pitches and the Irish brought in freshman righthander Dan Kapala to face Dave Preziozi. BC countered with lefthanded pinch-hitter Shawn McGill, who worked ahead in the count 3-1. But Kapala battled back and blew a fastball by McGill to leave the go-ahead run at second.
Kapala – who now has allowed just 4-of-19 inherited baserunners to score this season – then zoned in on striking out 9-hole hitter Marco Albano, going fastball-slider-fastball for a second straight swinging strikeout.
Plenty of drama was waiting moments later, as Lambert’s 123-pitch outing came to an end with closer Mike Gauthier taking the mound. Sanchez – whose second home run of the season had forged a 1-1 tie in the final regular-season game (a 2-1 win over Virginia Tech) – took the first pitch for a strike and was hit by the second, putting the winning run on base with no outs.
Mainieri then made a rare lefty-for-lefty switch by sending freshman Danny Dressman to the plate in place of sophomore Steve Andres.
“Danny can do several different things with the bat and that clearly was a bunting, or hit-and-run, situation,” said Mainieri during the postgame press conference. “We gambled that they would be expecting the bunt.”
The gamble paid off, as the BC middle infielders were shifting to their left to position for the bunt. But Dressman came out swinging at the first pitch and skipped an opposite-field single through the left side, with Sanchez motoring all the way to third on the surprise hit-and-run.
“We were hoping that they would be looking for the bunt and throw a fastball away. It executed the way we wanted it,” said Mainieri.
Andres owns a 4-for-9 batting mark as a pinch-hitter this season but the rest of the team had been just 2-for-36 as pinch-hitters before Dressman’s clutch delivery.
“When I first came out of the dugout, coach Mainieri told me to be ready to hit-and-run and then later he told me that’s what we were going to do,” said Dressman, who served as the team’s starting centerfielder during the first half of the season.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes. I’m a freshman and a lot of these guys have proven themselves. I’ll do whatever my role is to help the team win.”
The Eagles then issued an intentional walk to BIG EAST batting champ Craig Cooper, setting up a force at any base as 7-hole hitter Matt Edwards strode to the plate.
Thursday’s game had several layers of symmetry to previous ND-BC matchups, capped by the game-deciding hit. Six weeks ago at Eck Stadium, the Irish and Eagles were locked in a 4-4 game in the bottom of the 8th, with Gauthier on the mound and Edwards at the plate. Edwards came through that day with a 2-out double down the leftfield line, plating two runs to cap the 6-4 win.
The same two combatants were on center stage with the BIG EAST Tournament opener on the line, as BC shifted Drew Locke into the left side of the infield to plug up Edwards’ options. But the junior first baseman wasted little time in deciding the outcome, driving a 1-0 pitch into left field to end the game.
“When I saw they were intentionally walking ‘Coop,’ I was just grinning ear-to-ear because I wanted to get I the batters box and take my shot at it,” said Edwards.
“They brought the outfielder in because they didn’t want me to chop one through the infield, since the guy is a slider and breaking-ball pitcher. I was sitting back looking for something offspeed, although I hit a fastball off him in the regular season. I sat back on it, got the pitch I wanted and hit it hard to left field. It felt great.”
Johnson (who located 73 of his 107 pitches for strikes) worked out of trouble in his final two innings to maintain the 2-2 score. Locke reached on a hit-by-pitch to start the 6th and Ryan Morgan later added a 2-out walk – but Johnson induced a Greer flyout to the leftfielder Andres for the third out.
Preziozi then sent a 1-out single through the left side in the 7th but Johnson rolled up a 6-4-3 double play, started by Lopez’s tough backhanded stab.
Notre Dame forged the 2-2 tie in the 5th, in what could have been a big inning when Cooper ripped a linedrive to the right side (it was snared by the first baseman Preziozi). Edwards then fell behind Lambert 0-2 before battlting back to earn a huge full-count walk.
“Lambert is one of the best pitchers you could ever face and I was seeing the ball well, but he can put it in places that are tough to hit,” said Edwards. “He tried to get me to chase a couple but I was able to battle back and get the walk, which basically started things off for us.”
Lambert hit sophomore centerfielder Cody Rizzo with the next pitch (extending his ND career record to 48, including 20 HBPs this season) before Lopez went the other way to hit a scorcher off Preziosi’s glove, loading the bases.
Matt Macri then went down swinging and Steve Sollmann hit a rightside groundball – but the second baseman DiScipio threw high on the short toss to first and Rizzo followed Edwards home to tie the score.
DiScipio also had made the costly error the last time that Notre Dame faced Lambert, during the final week of the 2002 regular season (Lambert took a 6-0 lead and no-hitter into the 4th inning of that ’02 game but the Irish scored seven runs, five of them unearned, en route to a 10-6 win).
Boston College – who also had not faced Johnson since ’02 – opened the scoring in the 1st, as leadoff batter Eric Wright won a 10-pitch battle before poking a single into center. Wright then swiped second with one out before Johnson worked ahead in the count to the batter(0-2) but Locke sent the next pitch up the middle for the 1-0 lead.
The Eagles added a run in the 3rd, cashing in a fly ball that sailed over Andres’ head and was ruled a two-base error. Wright then bunted Marco Albano to third and Locke chopped the next pitch through the left side for a two-run cushion.
(Notes follow below boxscore, including notes from Wednesday night’s awards banquet)
BOSTON COLLEGE (30-26) 1-0-1 0-0-0 0-0-0 – 2 6 1
#7 NOTRE DAME (47-10) 0-0-0 0-2-0 0-0-1 – 3 4 1
Chris Lambert, Mike Gauthier (9; L, 5-3) and Garrett Greer.
Grant Johnson, Joe Thaman (8), Dan Kapala (9; W, 2-0) and Javi Sanchez.
(no extra-base hits)
POSTGAME NOTES – Johnson lowered his ERA slightly, from 1.58 to 1.54 … ND lost the coin toss and will be the visitor in Friday’s game … 15 of Johnson’s 21 outs came via Ks (6) or groundouts (9) … ND now has won the first game in 7 of its last 8 postseason tournaments (all but the 4-3 loss to Stanford in the 2002 College World Series) …the Irish never have gone 0-2 in a postseason tournament during the 10-year Mainieri era (18 total; 10 conference, 6 regionals, the ’02 Super Regional and ’02 CWS) … ND improved to 9-3 in 1-run games while BC fell to 5-12 … ND’s bullpen now owns a 3.02 ERA, 19-2 record, .233 opp. batting avg. and 2.5 K-to-walk ratio (188/74) in 214.2 IP … by comparison, the BC bullpen entered the day with a 10-9 record (now 10-10), 4.29 ERA and .258 opp. avg. … Johnson’s last five outings include a 0.62 ERA, wins in all four starts, 28 Ks, 11 BB and 15 H in 29 IP … ND extended the 2nd-longest scoring streak in the program’s history to 143 games (372 of the last 373) … ND has reached 47 wins for the fifth time … Johnson is 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA in two career BIG EAST Tournament spots (4 R/2 ER, 14 H, 13 Ks, 3 BB in 14 IP) …ND had gone just 6-7 when being outhit by the opponent prior to BC owning a 6-4 hit edge … the Irish now are 31-4 when making 0-1 errors (1), 40-3 when the opponent has single-digit hits and 35-6 when issuing just 0-3 walks … ND’s 98 HBPs now rank 8th in NCAA history (Sanchez picked up his 14th and 15th of the season) … Lopez logged his 16th straight error-free game.
MORE MAINIERI QUOTES – “I was stunned by how much (Lambert) has improved since his freshman year. He’s the total package now. He was out there throwing 2-0 changeups for strikes. He’s a bond-fide Major Leaguer. … Grant did not have hit best stuff but he always finds a way to get the job done. He makes the big pitch when he needs to – he’s just a winner. …We’ve got the capability to win 3-2 or 11-10 and our infield defense is outstanding. It has kept us in a lot of games.”
Grant Johnson QUOTES – “I could not find the rhythm and was able to battle through seven innings. When the other pitcher has a day like Lambert did, it puts extra pressure on you because you need to keep it a low-run game. .. This game was pretty hyped-up to start with but I was happy with the way I battled and as always the defense behind me was stellar. … I’d rather have the team win than a pitcher-of-the-year award. In the end, it’s not worth that much to get those awards.”
THREE IRISH PLAYERS EARN FIRST-TEAM ALL-BIG EAST HONORS, FIVE OTHERS ALSO HONORED – Three Notre Dame players – senior 2B Steve Sollmann, junior 3B Matt Macri and junior RHP Grant Johnson – received 1st team all-BIG EAST honors at Wednesday’s tournament banquet … sophomore OF Craig Cooper – the first player ever to lead the BIG EAST in batting avg., on-base pct. and slugging pct. – received 2nd team honors, as did junior RHP Chris Niesel and sophomore closer Ryan Doherty … senior C Javi Sanchez and sophomore SS Greg Lopez were 3rd-team selections … ND’s led the BIG EAST with eight selections, followed by Pittsburgh and Boston College with six each … upcoming opponent BC placed two on the 1st team (co pitcher of the year Chris Lambert and junior OF Jason Delaney), plus 2nd-teamers Ryan Leady (senior SS) and Drew Locke (junior OF) and 3rd-team picks Garrett Greer (senior C) and Kevin Shepard (junior LHP).
SOLLMANN JOINS ELITE COMPANY WITH FOURTH ALL-BIG EAST HONOR – Steve Sollmann joins two former ND players – DH Jeff Wagner (1st team, ’96-’99) and RHP Aaron Heilman (2nd team in ’98, 1st team ’99-’01) – as the third BIG EAST player ever named to the all-conference team four times … Sollmann also was a 1st team selection in 2001 (when he also earned BIG EAST rookie of the year) before earning 2nd-team honors in 2002 and ’03, when he was edged by Virginia Tech’s Marc Tugwell (the ’03 BIG EAST co-player of the year) … Sollmann also is the fifth ND player ever to be named 1st team all-BIG EAST in multiple seasons, joining Wagner, infielder Brant Ust (’97, ’98 and ’99, at three different positions), Heilman and CF Steve Stanley (’01, ’02) in that distinction … Sollmann’s .444 batting avg. in conference play would have ranked 2nd among the BIG EAST leaders behind teammate Craig Cooper (.470) but he was shy of the minimum 2.5 ABs per team game, after missing half of the BIG EAST season (13 of 26) due to a fractured jaw … since returning after the finals break (starting May 9 at UConn), Sollmann is batting 16-for-40 (.400) while helping the Irish win 13 of the last 14 games (the Irish are 29-4 overall this season with Sollmann in the lineup and were 15-6 when he was out with the injury).
ALL-CONFERENCE PITCHER NOTES – Notre Dame pitchers now have combined for 16 all-BIG EAST honors in the past nine seasons … ND pitchers have been 1st team all-BIG EAST seven times, including three times by Aaron Heilman (’99-’01), plus Brad Lidge (’98), Danny Tamayo (’01), Chris Niesel (’03) and Grant Johnson (’04) … 2nd-team pitchers have included Darin Schmalz (’96, ’97), Heilman (’98), Alex Shilliday (’98), Ryan Kalita (’03), Niesel (’04) and Ryan Doherty (’04) while J.P Gagne was a 3rd-team pick in ’01 and ’03 … Niesel becomes the fourth ND pitcher ever named all-BIG EAST in multiple seasons, joining Heilman, Schmalz and Gagne in that distinction … Lidge earned BIG EAST pitcher of the year in ’98, as did Heilman in ’00 and ’01 and Niesel in ’03.
ND’S ALL-CONFERENCE POSITION PLAYER HISTORY – Notre Dame now has produced an all-BIG EAST second baseman six times in nine BIG EAST seasons, starting with Randall Brooks (’96) and Brant Ust (’97) and continuing the past four seasons with Steve Sollmann … Matt Macri follows Ust (’98) and Andrew Bushey (’01) as ND’s third 3B ever to be 1st team all-BIG EAST (Bushey went on to earn 3rd team honors in ’02) … Craig Cooper becomes ND’s fifth OF ever to earn 1st or 2nd team all-BIG EAST honors, joining 1st-teamers Scott Sollmann (’96), Brooks (’97) and Steve Stanley (’01, ’02, also 2nd team in ’99) plus three-time 2nd-teamer Brian Stavisky (’00-’02) … former RF Kris Billmaier also earned 3rd team all-BIG EAST honors in 2003 … Lopez is the fourth Irish shortstop to earn all-BIG EAST honors and next season will be looking to match the honors of former 1st-teamers J.J. Brock (’98), Ust (’99) and Alec Porzel (’01, also 2nd team in ’02) … Sanchez follows 2nd-teamers Mike Amrhein (’97) and Paul O’Toole (’01, ’02) as the third ND catcher to be an all-BIG EAST pick … in addition to the players mentioned above, ND’s 52 all-time all-BIG EAST picks include four-time 1st-team DH Jeff Wagner (’96-’99), current junior 1B Matt Edwards (1st team in ’03, named as a 1B while also playing 3B) and 3rd-team DH Matt Bok (’01, ’02) … ND’s all-time BIG EAST honorees now include 26 on the 1st team (7 RHPs, 4 2B, 4 OF, 4 DH, 3 3B, 3 SS, 1 1B), plus 18 on the 2nd team (7 RHPs, 5 OF, 3 C, 2 2B, 1 SS) and eight during the four years of the 3rd team (2 RHP, 2 DH, plus single honorees from 3B, OF, SS, C) … the most common recipients have been pitchers (16) and outfielders (10), plus six 2B and DHs, five SS, four C and 3B, and Edwards at 1B.
BIG EAST HONORS YEAR-BY-YEAR – Notre Dame’s eight all-BIG EAST selections are its second-most ever, trailing only the 10 from the 2001 team that fashioned a BIG EAST record-setting 18-game winning streak in conference play (finishing 22-4 to set another league record) … when looking only at 1st and 2nd-team selections (the 3rd team did not begin until ’01), the ’04 team’s total of six on the 1st or 2nd team matches the 2nd-most ever by an ND team (behind the 8 in ’01) … here’s a look at ND’s year-by-year BIG EAST honorees:
Year: Ist Team … 2nd Team … (1st and 2nd Team) … 3rd Team … Total
1996: 3 … 1 … (4) … NA … 4
1997: 3 … 2 … (5) … NA … 5
1998: 4 … 2 … (6) … NA … 6
1999: 3 … 1 … (4) … NA … 4
2000: 1 … 2 … (3) … NA … 3
2001: 6 … 2 … (8) … 2 … 10
2002: 1 … 3 … (4) … 2 … 6
2003: 2 … 2 … (4) … 2 … 6
2004: 3 … 3 … (6) … 2 … 8
TOTAl: 26 … 18 … 8 … 52
COOPER RIDES LATE PUSH TO SWEEP OF BATTING STATS – Notre Dame sophomore OF came on strong at the end of the season to lead the BIG EAST in conference batting avg., on-base pct. and slugging pct. but it was not enough to claim 1st-team honors … Cooper is just the fifth BIG EAST batting champ not to earn 1st team all-BIG EAST honors, with the others including Villanova’s Kevin Cain (’89), BC outfielder Kevin Penwell (’95), Rutgers SS Darren Fenster (’99) and WVU outfielder Lee Fritz (’03) … nine previous BIG EAST batting champs have gone on to earn the league’s MVP award, including former ND players Brant Ust (’98) and Steve Stanley (’02).
BRANSFIELD TAKES RBI TITLE BUT NO HONORS – Sophomore DH Matt Bransfield ranked among the top BIG EAST power hitters all season and ran away with the RBI title (33 in league play) but was overlooked in the all-conference balloting … the 19 previous BIG EAST seasons have featured 26 players who led/shared the lead in RBI during BIG EAST games … 19 of those 26 RBI leaders ended up being 1st team all-BIG EAST selections (led by six players of the year) while three others were 2nd team (the 3rd-team designation began in 2001 and includes one other RBI champ) … that adds up to 23 of 26 previous BIG EAST RBI champs receiving all-conference honors (22 on 1st or 2nd team), with every RBI champ from 1994-2003 earning all-BIG EAST honors … the only previous RBI champs to not earn all-BIG EAST each competed from 1985- 93, when only one team was named: Boston College’s Roger Daley (’85), Joe Hayward (’91) and Chris Taylor (’93).