May 24, 2003
BRIDGEWATER, N.J. – Sometimes the journey is more valuable than the reward … but sometimes that reward isn’t too shabby either.
The Notre Dame baseball team fittingly took a couple more steps in a rollercoaster season by engaging in a wild eight-hour showdown versus BIG EAST Conference rival Rutgers, with Saturday’s first game in the BIG EAST championship round seeing the Irish roar back from a 9-1 deficit to snatch an 11-9 lead. The Irish were three outs away from closing out the title only to see RU stage the final rally with six runs in the top of the 9th, for a 15-11 win that forced a winner-take-all title game. With the wind taken out of its sails, ND headed back to the team bus to regroup before doing battle again with the Knights.
And in a week that saw a pair of senior righthanders lead the Irish to victory in earlier tournament wins over West Virginia and RU, who else but fourth-year righthander Matt Lair would be the title-clinching pitcher in the decisive 11-3 game? Laird’s first start in more than three years took its place among the most noteworthy pitching performances in ND baseball postseason history, with his complete-game effort making Notre Dame the first team to repeat as BIG EAST champions since St. John’s took home the trophy in 1985 and ’86 (the first two seasons of BIG EAST baseball).
The win held extra significance for Laird, the hard-luck loser in the 5-3, 19-inning loss at Rutgers on May 11 after logging 5.2 strong innings out of the bullpen.
Junior catcher Javi Sanchez – who filled in as ND’s starting shortstop during the 2002 College World Series season – was one of several Irish players who picked up his production with the arrival of the postseason. Sanchez received the Jack Kaiser Award as the most outstanding player, after setting a tournament record for batting average (.727, 8-for-11) while getting the job done on eight other plate appearances with four walks and four sacrifice bunts (including one in the 11-3 game that came on an 0-2 count). Sanchez had a hand in 11 of ND’s impressive 40 runs in the four tournament games (6 RBI, 5 runs), with his other tournament stats including three doubles, a stolen base and 35 of 36 innings behind the dish.
Notre Dame (43-16) now awaits Sunday’s announcement of the 16 NCAA regional host sites (on ESPN at approximately 3:00 EDT/2:00 in South Bend, between games of the softball World Series) and Monday’s release of the 64-team NCAA Tournament field (ESPN-2, 12:30 EDT/11:30 in South Bend) – with the Irish receiving the BIG EAST’s automatic NCAA bid.
The Irish offense completed its runaway all-time best offensive performance in eight trips to the BIG EAST Championship, smacking 11 hits in the first game and then 12 more in the clincher for a four-game total of 52 hits that doubled the team’s hit total from the 2002 BET (when the Irish hit .208, compared to .361 in this year’s tourney).
With sophomore righthander and 2003 BIG EAST pitcher of the year Chris Niesel still sidelined on a day-to-day basis with a finger injury, Notre Dame maintained its pattern from the first two games of the tournament by starting two more senior righthanders, Peter Ogilvie and Matt Laird, in Saturday’s games vs. Rutgers. Rough outings from Ogilvie and sophomore John Axford (2.1 relief innings), coupled with a suddenly-slumping ND offense that managed just one hit in the first five innings, placed the Irish in the 9-1 hole before a 6-run bottom of the 6th sparked the fantastic finish.
Laird – whose 67 previous appearances with the Irish had included just nine starts as a freshman (the last coming May 3, 2000, versus Oakland) – allowed just nine balls out of the infield in his 37 batters faced, with his 27 outs including 18 via groundballs and six on strikeouts (plus an infield lineout and just two flyouts). The Bellaire, Texas, native avoided the big inning while scattering nine hits and just one walk over the gutsy 128-pitch outing (81 located for strikes), with one of RU’s three runs coming unearned.
Here a look at some of the other key moments and notes from the two games:
* Sanchez (2-for-3, RBI, R, BB) was one of three ND players with multiple hits in the decisive game, as was steady sophomore 3B Matt Edwards (3-for-4, bases-clearing 2B in the 1st, R, BB) and surging junior 1B Joe Thaman (3-for-4, 3 RBI, including first home run of ’03 on 2-run shot in the 9th) … senior CF Kris Billmaier displayed more of his patented postseason magic, launching a 2-run blast over the RF fence in the 3rd before walking and scoring in the 7th (after a pair of doubles, a walk and three runs scored in Saturday’s earlier game) … Edwards’ 3-run double in the 1st was preceded by singles from junior 2B Steve Sollmann and freshman LF Brennan Grogan (beat out a sac. bunt) before freshman DH Steve Andres was hit by a pitch.
* Sanchez also led the way in the 15-11 game (3-for-5, 3 RBI, R, 2B), as did Billmaier (2-for-4, 3 R, 2 2B) and Andres (2-for-2, 3 RBI, R, BB) … Andres greeted relief pitcher Erik Dial with an RBI single into the left-center gap, helping spark the six-run 6th (ND’s 20th “big inning” of 5-plus runs this season) … Andres then walked and scored the tying run in the 7th (9-9) before one of the most compelling moments with two outs and runners on 2nd and 3rd in the 8th … RU opted for its third reliever, LHP ace Sean Atchison, who had struck out Andres three times in the May 11, 19-inning game won by the Knights … Andres fell behind 0-2, fouled off a pitch, took a ball, fouled off another and then pulled a 2-run double down the RF line that would have been the winning hit if not for RU’s final rally.
* Laird combined with classmates J.P. Gagne (Thursday vs. WVU, 7 IP, 6 H, R, BB, 9 Ks, 6 GOs, LO) and Ryan Kalita (Friday vs. RU, 7 IP, 7 H, UER, BB, 6 Ks, 12 GOs) for the following impressive numbers at the BET: a 1.17 combined ERA, 3-0 record, 23.0 IP, 22 H, 5 R/3 ER, 3 BB, 21 Ks, 36 GOs, 2 lineouts … 59 of their 69 outs came via Ks, GOs or lineouts.
* ND hit .361 in the tournament, with 40 runs, a .457 on-base pct. and .456 slugging pct. (2 HR, 8 2B), 20 walks, 19 Ks, 5-6 SB and 7 sac. bunts … the ND staff posted a 4.00 tournament ERA and .287 opp. batting avg. (36 IP, 41 H, 17 BB, 34 Ks).
* Other top ND hitters in the tournament (in addition to Sanchez) included freshman RF Cody Rizzo (.462, 6-for-13, 6 R, 4 RBI, 2B, 3 BB, K), Edwards (.444, 8-for-18, 4 R, 2B, 5 RBI, BB, 3 Ks) and Sollmann (.364 , 8-for-22, 4 R, RBI, BB, 2 K, 2-2 SB) … Rizzo made two more stellar defensive plays, including a leaping grab over the fence that robbed Johnny DeFendis of a home run early in the first game.
(The Irish were set to return to South Bend early Sunday morning … check back to und.com on Sunday and Monday for more BET and NCAA notes.)
Rutgers 2-1-0 4-0-2 0-0-6 – 15 17 1
Notre Dame 0-0-1 0-0-6 2-2-0 – 11 11 2
Matt Putsay, Erik Dial (6), Chris Lillis (6), O.J. DeChristofano (7), Sean Atchison (8; W, 6-1) and Alberto Vasquez.
Peter Ogilvie, John Axford (4), Tyler Jones (7), Brandon Viloria (8), J.P. Gagne (9; L, 4-5), Martin Vergara (9) and Javi Sanchez.
Triple: Johnny DeFendis (RU).
Double: Kris Billmaier 2 (ND), Steve Andres (ND), Javi Sanchez (ND), Graig Badger 2 (RU), Jeff Frazier (RU), Alberto Vasquez (RU), Jeff Cerulo (RU).
Notre Dame 3-0-2 0-1-0 3-0-2 – 11 12 1
Rutgers 0-1-1 0-0-1 0-0-0 – 3 9 1
Matt Laird (W, 2-1) and Javi Sanchez.
Jim Jansen (L, 3-4), Erik Dial (3), Shaun Parker (5), O.J. DeChristofano (7) and Alberto Vasquez.
Home Runs: Kris Billmaier, ND (1 on in 3rd; 5th of season); Jeff Frazier, RU (solo in 6th; 8th of season); Joe Thaman, ND (1 on in 9th; 1st of season).
Doubles: Matt Edwards (ND), Vinny Esposito (RU).