May 24, 2006

CLEARWATER, Fla. – A change in venue and new format did little to change the results – as the 18th-ranked Notre Dame baseball team resumed its unbeaten run through the BIG EAST Championship, an eight-game unbeaten stretch in the postseason event that now has spanned parts of the past four seasons. Tuesday’s late-night action saw Wade Korpi and Jeremy Barnes lead the way, as the top-seeded Irish held off the local team and No. 8 seed South Florida, 3-1, completing a busy day of baseball at Bright House Networks Field.

Notre Dame (42-14-1) will return to the site of the Philadelphia Phillies spring training on Wednesday night, as part of another four-game day at the impressive minor-league facility. The Irish will face 5th-seeded West Virginia (36-20, after rallying for a 5-3 win over No. 4 seed St. John’s) in a similar 8:00 p.m. game, with the winner of that game then receiving the luxury of a day off on Thursday (May 25) before playing in the bracket title game on Friday the 26th (1:30 and then 6:00 if necessary). UConn and Louisville won games in the other bracket of the four-team, double-elimination tournament and will follow the same path as ND and WVU – with the winners of each bracket ultimately meeting in the overall championship game on Saturday, May 27 (1:00 p.m., live on ESPN-U). See updated bracket in PDF format, linked above.

Korpi (6-2) matched his career-high of 11 strikeouts, despite logging just six innings, with his 118-pitch outing also including the one run allowed on four hits and three walks. The sophomore lefthander combined with junior LHP Mike Dury and freshman closer Kyle Weiland to strike out 14 USF batters, the most BIG EAST tournament Ks by a Notre Dame staff in the history of the tournament (spanning 37 games in which the Irish have participated.

Notre Dame now has played nearly 50 all-time games at the BIG EAST Tournament (35-14) but only two Irish previous pitchers had notched double-digit Ks in a BET game – the 2001 tandem of Danny Tamayo (10, in game-1 loss to Virginia Tech) and Aaron Heilman (12, in win over Rutgers).

Barnes batted 3-for-4 with a pair of key RBI while making yet another start in the 3-hole. The freshman second baseman pushed his team-best RBI total to 45, tying for the second-most RBI ever by a Notre Dame freshman (Brant Ust had 54, in ’97). It’s been nearly 20 years since a freshman led Notre Dame in RBI, dating back to future All-America centerfielder Dan Peltier’s 39 RBI in 1995.

Junior righthander Jeff Samardzija is Notre Dame’s probable starting pitcher for the day-2 game versus WVU, which is expected to counter with sophomore lefthander Matt Yurish.

All but four of the previous 22 BIG EAST tournament champions – including every champ since 1996 – have won their opening game in the tournament. The last time that a team lost its first game and still won the BIG EAST tournament title was 1995 (Providence), with St. John’s (’88), Villanova (’91) and UConn (’93) also completing that rare feat.

Korpi had been impressive all season as primarily Notre Dame’s midweek (No. 4) starter, compiling the second-best ERA among BIG EAST pitchers (2.20, now 2.14) while ranking 16th nationally with 11.2 strikeouts per 9.0 innings pitched (now 11.61). His current strikeout rate would rank 5th in the Notre Dame record book and 2nd-best by an Irish pitcher in the past 40 years, with Korpi’s 92 total strikeouts standing 10th in Irish history.

The Notre Dame coaching staff showed tremendous confidence in Korpi by handing him the ball for the game-1 start. The 10 previous BIG EAST tournaments had seen the Irish not start one of their usual top-3 starters only once, in 2003 due to Chris Niesel’s finger injury (closer J.P. Gagne rose to the task by beating WVU in that day-1 challenge).

Junior righthander Jeff Manship (102) and Korpi are just the third set of Notre Dame teammates ever to compile 90-plus strikeouts in the same season. Alex Shilliday and Brad Lidge both had 93 Ks in the 1998 season while Heilman (111) and Tamayo (106) each eclipsed 100 strikeouts in 2001.

Korpi’s other season stats now include a .206 opponent batting average, 25 walks, a 3.7 K-to-walk ratio and 20 more innings pitched (71.1) than hits allowed (52).

Notre Dame entered the postseason with the 18th-best ERA among nearly 300 Division I teams and that number dropped to 3.21 after the strong outing by Korpi and the two relievers. The Irish staff now has allowed just 10 runs (9 earned) during the past six games (1-2 vs. Seton Hall, 1-3 vs. Michigan, 3-1, 6-2 and 12-1 vs. Villanova, and 3-1 vs. USF).

Dury – who owns the top career ERA in recorded Notre Dame history (minimum of 60 innings pitched) – lowered that number to 1.85 while making his 25th appearance of the season as a key setup man, working out of a couple jams in his 1.2 innings (3 H, BB, K). Weiland then extended his ND-record save total to 15 (in 16 chances), retiring four of the five batters he faced (H, 2 Ks). Weiland headed into the postseason ranked 5th nationally in saves and already is just five shy of the Irish record for career saves (20), a mark shared by J.P. Gagne and Ryan Doherty.

The Irish played error-free to stay on record pace with a .972 season fielding percentage. Notre Dame now has posted 0-1 errors in 42 games this season and owns a 13-3-1 record when playing errorless ball in 2006.

The Notre Dame pitchers combined to limit USF (23-34) to just two leadoff baserunners and 0-for-8 batting with runners in scoring position. Korpi worked ahead in the count for most of the night while locating nearly 70% of his pitches (78 of 113) for strikes.

USF sent its ace Casey Hudspeth (7-7) to the mound, with the junior righthander allowing two runs on six hits with three strikeouts in a 99-pitch outing. Hudspeth had logged several strong outings near the end of the regular season and was tabbed by Baseball America as the 2006 BIG EAST preseason pitcher of the year.

The teams played to a scoreless game until the end of the 3rd. Hudspeth plunked Craig Cooper with a 1-1 pitch and Barnes delivered two batters later on the hit-and-run, drilling a line drive that sailed to the right of the second-base bag for the clutch 2-out RBI.

The Bulls came right back to tie the game thanks to a similar play in which a runner scored from first base. Korpi issued the dreaded leadoff walk, losing Kris Howell on five pitches, and the next two batters were retired on a flyout and strikeout before Josh Leroy sent a dipping double to left-center. Senior centerfielder Alex Nettey made a diving attempt on the ball but was unable to come up with the third out (the runner likely would have scored even if Nettey had avoided the dive and chased the ball back to the fence).

Notre Dame answered in the 5th, sparked by Sean Gaston’s leadoff double to left-center, with the junior catcher going opposite-field on a 1-0 pitch from Hudspeth. Greg Lopez’s groundout advanced the runner and Nettey then brought Gaston home two pitches later, drilling an 0-1 pitch into left field for the 2-1 lead.

The Irish squandered a leadoff triple from Barnes in the 7th but an insurance run came home in the 8th, versus the USF bullpen. Lefthander Nick Manganaro plunked Cooper with a 2-2 pitch for a costly 1-out HBP and Brett Lilley then reached on a planned sacrifice bunt to the right side. Barnes jumped all over the next pitch, sending an RBI single into the left-center gap for the 3-1 lead.

Cooper entered the postseason as the nation’s leading runscorer (1.44 per game) and now has crossed home plate 74 times this season, moving past Scott Sollmann into 8th place on the ND list for runs in a season. Cooper’s 186 career runs remain 9th in the Irish record book, one behind Scott Sollmann.

NOTES – The senior class owns a 19-4 record for games played in Florida during their four-year ND careers (six straight wins) … Korpi follows Gregg Henebry (’96), Tim Kalita (’99) and current senior Tom Thornton (’05) as the fourth Notre Dame LHP to start game-1 at the BET … the Irish now are 7-4 in game-1 at the BET … eight of the program’s previous 10 starters in game-1 were juniors or seniors (Gagne started game-1 as a freshman in 2000, as did Grant Johnson in ’02) … Korpi’s outing ranks among the top game-1 starter in ND’s game-1 history at the BET, along with Kalita in ’99 (7-2 win over WVU, 6 IP, 2 H, BB, 5 Ks) and Gagne’s pair of starts in 2000 (no-decision in 4-3 loss to BC, 6 IP, R, 7 H, 2 BB, 5 Ks) and 2003 (9-1 win over WVU, 7 IP, R, 6 H, BB, 9 Ks) … Johnson allowed one earned run and one unearned run in both of his BET game-1 starts: in ’02 vs. Rutgers (8-3 win, 7 IP, 9 H, 2 BB, 7 Ks) and in his 2004 win over BC (3-2, 7 IP, 5 H, BB, 6 Ks) … Korpi also had 11 Ks earlier this season vs. Western Michigan (3-0 solo shutout) and Purdue (7 IP, 2-1) … he becomes just the fourth ND pitcher with three double-digit K games in the same season, joining Tamayo (5, in ’01), Kalita (9, in ’99) and Heilman (3, in ’00) in that distinction … those three pitchers are the only ones in ND history with more than three career double-digit K games (7 for Heilman, 5 for Tamayo, 4 for Kalita) … Cooper entered the postseason ranked 6th in the nation with a .432 batting avg. (no other player from a top-25 team is batting higher than .405) … other ND players in the updated NCAA stats include: Korpi (40th in ERA; 2.21, now 2.14), Manship (39th in wins, 9-1; 25th with 10.4 Ks per 9 IP), Weiland (5th in saves; 14, now 15), Lilley (25th with 13 sac. bunts; 16th with 19 HBPs, now 20) and Nettey (5th with 21 HBPs) … ND entered the postseason ranked 18th nationally in ERA (3.46), 25th in fielding pct. (.972) and 27th in batting avg. (.318), plus 31st in Ks per 9 IP (7.9) and 14th in win pct. (.741) … Lopez (224) passed Andrew Bushey into 9th place on the ND list for career games played while Cody Rizzo (227) remains 8th, one behind Jeff Felker … Cooper logged his 215th career game with the Irish and now has 10 HBPs this season and 30 in his career (10th in ND history, with four current teammates ranked ahead of him) … Lopez needs two more starts to tie Mike Amrhein for 10th place on that ND career top-10 list (213) … Lilley’s HBP was the 50th of his career (in 114 GP) … this marks the 14th season that the Irish have reached at least 42 wins … ND has won 11 of its past 12 games at the BET … quotes from the USF game will be included with the recap for the WVU game … ND and WVU did not meet this season but the Irish swept the Mountaineers in the final series of 2005 (at Eck Stadium) … ND and WVU have plenty of history in the BET, with ND going 6-2 in those games … the Irish and Mountaineers met in game-1 of the 1996, ’98, ’99 and ’03 BETs (they played three times at the ’96 event, with WVU winning the final title game, 6-4)

South Florida (23-34) 0-0-0 1-0-0 0-0-0 – 1 8 0 ?
#18 Notre Dame (42-14-1) 0-0-1 0-1-0 0-0-X – 3 8 0

Casey Hudspeth (L, 7-7), Nick Manganaro (8), Chase Lirette (8) and Brian Baisley. ?
Wade Korpi (W, 6-2), Mike Dury (7), Kyle Weiland (8; SV, 15) and Sean Gaston.

Triple: Jeremy Barnes (ND). ?
Doubles: Sean Gaston (ND), Josh LeRoy (USF).