May 21, 2004
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – If “closing speed” (or how a team finishes) truly is a factor used in selecting and seeding teams for the NCAA Tournament, then the sixth-ranked Notre Dame baseball team is on the verge of making a pretty strong statement about its postseason qualifications.
Led by another seven innings of shutout ball from junior righthander Grant Johnson, the Irish clinched at least share of the BIG EAST Conference regular-season title (19-5) while pushing their winning streak to 12 games in Friday night’s 9-0 shutout of a Virginia Tech. The Irish also tied two team records set by the top-ranked 2001 team, matching the ’01 team’s marks for games over .500 and regular-season wins. The current Irish squad (45-9) actually has reached 45 wins faster than the ’01 Irish, who were 45-9-1 before suffering their 10th loss of that season on the opening day of the BIG EAST Tournament.
Notre Dame also now has compiled a 189-58-1 record (.764) over the course of the 2001-04 seasons, giving the current senior class the best four-year winning pct. in the program’s history and the second-most wins (trailing only the 190 posted by their predecessors, in 2003).
The Irish have posted opening-game shutouts in four straight series, with blankings at Connecticut (4-0) and versus fellow NCAA hopefuls Rutgers (1-0) and Central Florida (4-0) prior to Friday’s win that came by a more comfortable margin.
The last six games alone – including three vs. RU and two vs. UCF – have seen the Notre Dame pitchers sparkle for a 1.04 staff ERA and .172 opponent batting average, with nine-inning averages of 8.3 strikeouts (48), 2.8 walks (16) and 5.4 hits allowed (31) in that six-game stretch.
The Irish pitchers now have combined to post 48 shutout innings (out of 52) during the past six games, including 26 zeroes on the board in the last 27 innings (UCF’s pair of 9th-inning runs in Wednesday’s 3-2 game are all that stand between the ND staff and three straight shutouts). Notre Dame’s 3.68 staff ERA entering the week was good for 19th in the nation but it now has plunged to 3.39, which would stand 14th in this week’s national rankings.
The Irish defense hasn’t been too shabby either, totaling just three errors over the course of the last six pressure-packed games (including the team’s 23rd error-free effort of the season in Friday’s win over the Hokies).
Notre Dame – which has games remaining versus Virginia Tech (28-26, 10-14) on Saturday and Sunday – is assured of at least sharing the BIG EAST title with a 16-7 Pittsburgh squad that closes its regular season this weekend at home vs. third-place St. John’s. Teams that finish tied atop the standings are declared co-champions, with tiebreakers determining the postseason seeding (Pittsburgh owns the head-to-head edge vs. ND).
The Irish coaching staff, in conjunction with the baseball program’s longtime athletic trainer Mike Bean, entered 2004 by mapping out a strategic timetable for Johnson’s gradual return from his sophomore-year shoulder surgery and the plan seemingly has fallen into place – with the 6-5, 215-pounder hitting his stride as the postseason approaches. The reigning BIG EAST player of the week logged seven shutout innings for the second straight outing (he tossed a 4-hitter last weekend vs. Rutgers in the 7-inning opener while Friday’s game was 9 innings), holding the Hokies to just two hits and four walks while matching his career-high of nine strikeouts.
Johnson – whose impressive numbers include a 3.83 GPA posted in the recently-completed 2004 spring semester (as a marketing major), a current 1.58 season ERA that would rank 8th in the nation (his 45.1 innings leave him shy of the minimum one inning per team game) and a 5-0 season record (15-4 career) – allowed just two balls to leave the infield during his 91-pitch clinic, with 55 of his pitches going for strikes. All but four of his outs came via the strikeout (9) or groundout (8, including 5 to slick-fielding shortstop Greg Lopez), with the other outs including a pair of popups to second baseman Steve Sollmann, a lineout to Lopez and a foul ball that was hauled in by leftfielder Steve Andres.
The Irish remained one of just four teams out of 287 in Division I with single-digit losses while Oral Roberts (44-8) now is the only team with fewer than nine losses (East Carolina fell to 45-9, with Rice moving to 40-9).
The Notre Dame offense had entered the finals break looking to make several key improvements once exam week had ended. One of those areas included a boost in first-inning offensive production, as the Irish had totaled just 35 first-inning runs during the 46 games prior to finals. Since putting the books aside, Notre Dame has registered first-inning runs during seven of the eight post-finals games – a combined outburst of 22 opening runs that was sparked by a 10-run explosion to start the series finale at Connecticut on May 10.
The Irish didn’t push across 10 runs this time around but they were halfway there, batting around in the 1st to claim a 5-0 lead. Two runs in the 5th and two in the 8th padded the lead while freshman lefthander Mike Durycame on to retire all five batters he faced (two via Ks) in completing the shutout.
Four Notre Dame batters – junior third baseman Matt Macri (2 R, BB, 2B), senior catcher Javi Sanchez (2 RBI, 2B), Andres (R) and sophomore rightfielder Craig Cooper (RBI, R, BB, 2B) – each chipped in two hits as the Irish posted their 31st double-digit hit total (12) of the season.
Macri started the big 1st inning with a full-count walk before Sollmann bunted the next pitch to the left side for the 293rd hit of his stellar career with the Irish (leaving him just two shy of 3rd place on the ND career hits list and three hits out of 2nd). The Irish then manufactured a pair of runs after executing the double steal and then bringing the runners home on sacrifice flies to right field by sophomore DH Matt Bransfield and Sanchez.
The early 2-0 lead would have been a nice start to the evening but the Irish still had a two-out rally in them. Andres kept things going by pulling a 1-0 pitch through the right side before Cooper showed his opposite-field flair by slicing a first-pitch double down the rightfield line.
Junior righthander Jeff Landing (4-5) then lost junior first baseman Matt Edwards on a five-pitch walk, giving sophomore centerfielder Cody Rizzo a perfect chance to snap out of his recent hitting slump. Rizzo – who has been hampered most of the season by a nagging wrist injury – battled Landing to a full count before lining a two-run single into left field for a 4-0 score. Lopez then matched Cooper with his own double down the rightfield line (on a 1-1 pitch), with Edwards scoring to cap the early rally.
Notre Dame’s pair of unearned runs in the 5th included a fielding error on the shortstop Warren Schaeffer, Sanchez’s RBI double deep into the left-center gap and Cooper’s two-out single to left that brought home Sanchez.
The Irish capped the scoring with two more in the 8th. Lopez drew a four-pitch walk versus freshman lefthander Mike Hoffman and Macri followed with a double down the leftfield line. Sollmann’s leftside groundout plated Lopez and Macri then scored on a passed ball (he would have scored anyway, after Hoffman walked Sean Gaston and hit Alex Nettey with a pitch, extending ND’s team record to 93 HBPs this season).
Johnson allowed just one leadoff batter to reach base while proving – as he has all season – to be toughest with runners on base and when looking to close out an inning. The Hokies hit just 1-for-9 vs. Johnson with runners aboard while failing to register a 2-out hit in seven tries. Johnson now leads the Irish staff in lowest leadoff on-base pct. (.213) while ranking third in opponent batting with runners on (.200) and 4th in 2-out batting (.186).
The Notre Dame offense put the leadoff batter on base just three times but again seized the game with clutch offensive production, batting 9-for-17 with runners on base and 6-for-12 with 2 outs.
The first hit allowed by Johnson came with one out in the 2nd, when Sheldon Adams sent a first-pitch offering through the left side. Adams later walked to lead off the 7th and Johnson quickly found himself in a jam when Matt Kalish dropped the next pitch into center field and Jay Musialowski walked to load the bases – but pinch-hitter David Londrey, Schaeffer and leadoff batter Tom Blaszak all went down swinging at 1-2 pitches to stunningly maintain the shutout.
NOTES – Sollmann’s pair of stolen bases pushed his career total to 81, passing Greg Layson (80) into 4th on that ND list … he also scored his 205th career run, tying Eric Danapilis for 5th in ND history … his 293 career hits are now two shy of Danapilis and one behind Pat Pesavento (Steve Stanley, with 385, is the only ND player ever to reach 300 hits) … the current 12-game winning streak is 5th-longest in the Paul Mainieri era, behind one 17-game streak (March 13-April 14, 2003), a pair of 16-game streaks (April 11-May 4, 2002 and April 4-25, 2001) and a 13-game streak from April 8-23, 1998 … Gaston – who returned to action after missing 17 games due to mononucleosis – caught the 8th and 9th, ending Sanchez’s streak at 92 consecutive innings caught (Sanchez also had caught 93% of the innings, or 152 of 163, since Gaston was sidelined) … 10 of the wins in the current 12-game streak correspond to the return of Sollmann from his April 3 fractured jaw injury … the Irish own a 67-21 scoring edge since Sollmann’s return, totaling just six errors in that span (seven error-free games) while posting the four shutouts plus one game with one run allowed, one with two runs allowed and two with three runs allowed (the 16-8 finale at UConn is the only game in the last 10 in which the opponent has scored more than four runs) … VT has flipped its planned rotation and now is slated to start junior LHP Ryan Kennedy on Sat. (ND will counter with junior RHP Chris Niesel) … Sunday’s pitchers then are slated to be VT senior RHP Josh Biber and ND sophomore LHP Tom Thornton … Macri is batting 16-for-32 in the last nine games (hits in all but one) … Cooper has posted two-hit games in six of the last eight … the Irish are 28-3 this season with Sollmann in the lineup (164-45-1 from ’01-’04, with Sollmann starting) … the Irish now have racked up 24 wins by 5-plus runs … ND is 64-10 in its last 74 at Eck Stadium … the program’s 2nd-longest scoring streak now stands at 140 games (also 371 of the last 372 and 608 of 614 in the 10-year Mainieri era) … Macri logged his 46th error-free game of the season and Lopez his 37th while the rightside starters have totaled just five Es all season (four by Edwards, one for Sollmann) … Rutgers (7-8 vs. Villanova) and Boston College (10-13 vs. Seton Hall) both lost on Friday, hurting their respective chances at claiming one of four BIG EAST Tournament spots … Pittsburgh (16-7) faces third-place St. John’s (15-8) this weekend while BC (14-8) and RU (13-9) will be looking to close strong in the final shuffling of the standings.
VIRGINIA TECH 0-0-0 0-0-0 0-0-0 – 0 3 1 (28-26, 10-14 BIG EAST)
#8 NOTRE DAME 5-0-0 0-2-0 0-2-X – 9 12 0 (45-9, 19-5 BIG EAST)
Jeff Landing (L, 4-5), Eddie Ashwell (6), Mike Hoffman (8) and Wyatt Toregas.
Doubles: Craig Cooper (ND), Greg Lopez (ND), Sanchez (ND). Matt Macri (ND), Wyatt Toregas (VT).