May 15, 2004
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – A bevy of professional baseball scouts and crosscheckers descended on Eck Stadium for Saturday’s BIG EAST showdown between Notre Dame and Rutgers, with a prime chance to evaluate the conference’s top junior-class prospects. Three of those elite juniors – Notre Dame righthanders Grant Johnson and Chris Niesel and third baseman Matt Macri – headlined the nation’s top-ranked freshman class back in 2002 and they lived up to their hype while the radar guns were buzzing on Saturday, as the Irish registered a key sweep (1-0, 7-1) over the visiting Scarlet Knights at Eck Stadium.
Notre Dame (41-19, 17-5 BIG EAST) – victorious in eight straight for its second-longest winning streak of the season – retook sole possession of first place in the BIG EAST standings while reaching 40 wins for the 16th straight season. The impressive streak – which began two weeks before Johnson’s fifth birthday – currently ranks as the longest active run of 40-win seasons in Division I baseball, as only Florida State and Wichita State entered ’04 with longer 40-win streaks (both at 26 seasons). FSU is nearing the end of its regular-season slate at 33-19 while WSU is 36-13 (several of the Shockers’ previous 40-win seasons had the benefit of extra games, due to schedule exemptions for games played in Hawaii).
The Irish also remain part of a dwindling list of teams with single-digit losses, a group which now includes just four others: East Carolina (45-7), Stanford (39-8), Oral Roberts (40-8) and Rice (37-9). Notre Dame joins ECU and ORU as the nation’s only teams with 40-plus wins and fewer than 10 losses, out of 287 Division I teams. Only one previous Notre Dame – the top-ranked 2001 squad – has reached 40 wins in fewer games (40-6-1, with the 1990 ND team going 40-10).
Johnson (4-0; 13-5 career) continued the gradual return to his 2002 Freshman All-America form (he missed ’03 due to shoulder surgery) while tossing a complete game in the seven-inning opener. It marked just the sixth 1-0 game in the 10-year Paul Mainieri era (ND has won all six), with Niesel logging the previous 1-0 game in a near-no-hitter vs. West Virginia during the ’03 season.
Niesel (7-2; 20-3 career) then followed Johnson’s lead with a similar strong outing by throwing seven of the nine innings in Saturday’s nightcap. The 2003 All-American and BIG EAST pitcher of the year now has totaled 27 strikeouts and just two walks in his last three outings, with one run allowed in 22.1 innings during that span (slicing his season ERA from 4.95 to 3.72 in the process).
Niesel saw his shutout streak end at 17.1 innings while his career winning pct. (.869, 20-3) now ranks 2nd in the ND record book (min. 16 decisions) behind Herb Kelly’s 22-2 (.917) way back in 1912-14. Niesel also raised his career K-to-walk ratio to 4.25 (225/53), now well ahead of Alan Walania’s standing record (4.00, ’90-’93), while his low walk avg. (1.89 BB/9 IP) would rank 5th in the Irish record book.
Johnson and Niesel – the young pitching stars of ND’s 2002 College World Series team – now have combined for a 33-8 career record with the Irish. The pair allowed just one run between them in 14 innings vs. RU, plus 12 hits, just 2 walks, 12 Ks and 17 groundball outs.
Macri hit 5-for-6 with a walk in the pair of wins, including the only RBI in the opener before adding a run scored and sacrifice fly in the nightcap. The big day pushed the 6-2, 190-pound righthander’s season batting avg. to .363 (second only to Craig Cooper’s .370) while his 48 RBI now are tied with Matt Bransfield for the team lead.
Sophomore leftfielder Steve Andres plated three runs in the nightcap, with an RBI double and a 2-run shot for his seventh home runs of the season.
Johnson logged his first complete game in nearly two years, dating back to his 1-hit masterpiece vs. South Alabama in the 2002 NCAAs. His efficient 85-pitch outing (12.1 pitches per innings) included four hits and one walk while facing just four batters over the minimum (25). All three of his Ks came on called third strikes, with 71% of his pitches (60) finding the strike zone to help produce 11 groundouts. Johnson has won all three of his starts vs. RU, with a 0.45 ERA in those games (18 H, 7 BB, 15 Ks in 20 IP).
Niesel – who had faced RU just once previously (a 2-0 win in ’03), due to mononucleosis in 2002 and a finger injury in ’03 – logged a higher pitch count (107) put had the same percentage of strikes (76), scattering eight hits and the single walk to go along with nine strikeouts (he faced 29 batters). It was the seventh 9-K game of his Irish career, to go along with three double-digit strikeout games.
Rutgers (29-19, 13-7) saw its BIG EAST regular-season title chances take a hit and still has some work left to do in order to secure a spot in the four-team BIG EAST Tournament. Pittsburgh (15-6) currently is second in the BIG EAST standings after a 3-1 loss at UConn (the second game was rained out, with two games set for tomorrow) while St. John’s (15-7) used a pair of wins over Seton Hall to climb into third. Hard-charging Boston College (12-7) sits just pct. points behind Rutgers, after posting a 3-2 win over Virginia Tech (BC and VT are slated to place twice on Sunday).
Four of the BIG EAST’s top five draft-eligible prospects were in action on Saturday (all except BC righthander Chris Lambert), with RU junior rightfielder Jeff Frazier entering the weekend as the BIG EAST leader in batting avg., RBI and slugging pct. Johnson and Niesel both held Frazier without a hit in three at-bats vs. each (they both posted one K vs. RU’s top hitter), with Frazier’s only hit coming vs. freshman RHP Dan Kapala in the 8th inning of the nightcap.
RU ace Jack Egbert (7-4) took the hard-luck loss in the opener, after allowing the single run, six hits and one walk with a pair of Ks in six innings. His fellow junior righthander Aaron Kalb (5-3) then last just 4.0 innings in game-2 (4 R, 6 H, 2 BB, 2 Ks).
The opener featured just one hit between the teams until the bottom of the 3rd, when Macri pulled a 1-0 pitch down the leftfield line to score sophomore centerfielder Cody Rizzo. Rizzo had been hit by the first pitch of the inning (his 19th HBP of the season and 47th of his career, extending his ND record) before moving up on Greg Lopez’s sac. bunt.
Johnson has been impressive all season at not allowing hits with runners on base and that continued vs. the Knights, who hit just 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position (0-for-6 with RBI chances) and 0-for-7 with 2 outs. Johnson now is allowing just a .171 opponent batting avg. with runners in scoring position, good for second behind closer Ryan Doherty (.108) among 2004 Irish regulars.
Senior second baseman Graig Badger (who had five of RU’s 13 hits in the doubleheader) hit a leadoff single in the 4th and was bunted to second but Johnson struck out Johnny DeFendis on a 1-2 pitch and induced Rich Canuso’s tapper back to the box that ended the threat.
Johnson then snared Colin Gaynor’s linedrive to open the 5th and bounced back from a DeFendis’ infield single with a strikeout of Nick Cerulo and a groundout from Tim Querns. The Knights had another chance in the 6th – after Barger singled and took second on a muffed pickoff throw – but Grose and Frazier both flew out to strand the runner. RU’s final chance included runners on first and second in the 7th, with Querns hitting into a 1-3 game-ending groundout.
Two-out batting played a key role in the second game, as RU hit just 2-for-9 with 2 outs while the Irish were 6-for-14.
The Irish plated single runs in each of the first four innings of the nightcap before adding two more runs in the 5th. The early run-scoring sequences included singles from Macri and sophomore DH Matt Bransfield in the 1st and Cooper’s double down the leftfield line in the 2nd (he scored on Lopez’s clutch 2-out single to center field). Bransfield then walked in the 3rd and scored when Andres pulled his 2-out triple down the leftfield line before a manufactured run in the 4th that included Rizzo’s leadoff double down the leftfield line, Lopez’s sac. bunt and Macri’s sac. fly.
Senior catcher Javi Sanchez singled off reliever Erik Dial in the 5th and Andres delivered again, driving a 2-1 pitch over the fence in right-center field. Andres later worked a full count for his 37th walk of the season, with pinch-runner Alex Nettey then stealing second and scoring on another Cooper double.
Niesel registered 16 of his 21 outs via strikeouts, groundball outs (6) or infield popups (1), with four of his Ks on called third strikes. He struck out four straight batters spanning the 3rd and 4th innings, followed by a lineout and three more Ks for six strikeouts in a span of seven batters.
UPDATED TEAM NOTES – ND now leads the RU series 19-12 (7-4 at Eck Stadium) and has won 15 of the last 20 … the series includes two shutouts for both teams … the series now includes 15 one-run games (ND has won 9) … the Irish are 6-2 in one-run games this season … ND’s 51 home runs are 20 more than its ’03 total … the only other 1-0 games in the Mainieri era: vs. Navy in ’96 (in Millington, Tenn.), vs. Valparaiso in ’98, vs. the Miami Hurricanes in ’99 and vs. WVU in ’03 (all at The Eck, except for the Navy game) … ND is 31 games over .500 for the fifth season in the program’s history (the ’01 team was +36, plus +35 in ’90, +34 in ’92, +33 in ’02) … ND’s season HBP total grew to 91 (still 11th in the NCAA record book) … the Irish have totaled 30 double-digit hit games, including 9 of the last 11 … Cooper’s pair of 2-for-3 games kept him atop the team batting charts (.370) … the Irish turned three more double plays in the nightcap as part of their 20th error-free game of the season … leftside infielders Macri (43) and Lopez (33) have combined for 76 error-free games while Sollmann has yet to make an error this season in 140 fielding chances (junior 1B Matt Edwards has 4 Es and 44 error-free games) … ND extended the program’s 2nd-longest scoring streak to 137 games (also 367 of last 368, 604 of 610 in Mainieri era) … ND’s ’01-’04 teams have combined for a 179-63-1 (.739) record … ND’s 82 all-time BIG EAST series now include 60 series wins, 12 even series and just 10 series wins by the opponent … the Irish have lost just 3 of 42 all-time BIG EAST home series (33 series wins, 5 even) … the Irish have won 23 times in ’04 by 5-plus runs … Cooper has hits in 15 of his last 16 games while Edwards saw an end to his career-best, 10-game hitting streak.
RUTGERS 0-0-0 0-0-0 0 – 0 4 0
#8 NOTRE DAME 0-0-1 0-0-0 X – 1 6 1
Jack Egbert (L, 7-4) and Colin Gaynor
Grant Johnson (W, 4-0) and Javi Sanchez.
Double: Matt Macri (ND).
RUTGERS 0-0-0 0-0-0 0-0-0 – 1 9 0
#8 NOTRE DAME 1-1-1 1-2-0 1-0-X – 7 12 0
Aaron Kalb (L, 5-3), Erik Dial (5) and, Matt Putsay (9) Colin Gaynor.
Chris Niesel (W, 7-2), Dan Kapala (8) and Javi Sanchez.
Home Run: Steve Andres, ND (1 on in 5th; 7th of season).
Triple: Steve Andres (ND).
Doubles: Craig Cooper 2 (N D), Cody Rizzo (ND), Rich Canuso (RU).