Jan. 31, 2004
Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that Notre Dame baseball news and events no longer are confined to the four months of the spring season. More attention is paid to the recruiting process. There’s a greater sense of preseason anticipation. And ceremonies celebrating various accomplishments are starting to become second nature.
Such was the backdrop that framed the start of Notre Dame’s 2003 baseball season, one in which the Irish would be hard-pressed just to repeat as BIG EAST Tournament champions (they did, becoming the first to do so since 1986) – much less make a return to the promised land of Omaha for the College World Series (they came up short versus a stellar Cal State Fullerton squad in the NCAA Regional round).
The 2002-03 academic year included a fall ceremony at Eck Stadium, to honor the ’02 CWS team, held during the ND-Michigan footballweekend with plenty of dignitaries on hand. Five months later, nearly 1,000 supporters of the program braved a snowstorm to attend the second annual Notre Dame Baseball Opening Night Dinner, with Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry serving as keynote speaker.
It all added up to plenty of pomp and circumstance – albeit of the casual form – before even a single game had been played. Of course, that’s what schools with an established tradition have come to take for granted.
Notre Dame’s 2003 squad certainly did its part to add more bricks to the program’s foundation. The 45-18 final record included several noteworthy wins while the postseason award winners featured an unprecedented three All-Americans (junior second baseman Steve Sollmann, sophomore righthander Chris Niesel and senior closer J.P.Gagne). Sollmann and Gagne added the rare additional honor of Academic All-American, joining only 40 other student-athletes in ND history who have coupled All-America and Academic All-America honors in the same year).
Graduation and the Major League draft took their toll on the 2002 starting lineup, with just four of the nine returning for 2003. But the Irish pitchers took up the slack, finishing among the nation’s top-20 leaders in team ERA for the fourth straight season (18th, at 3.53) while the defense finished 24th nationally with a team-record .970 season fielding percentage. Five major preseason questions were answered at some point during the ’03 season:
* Sollmann emerged as the leadoff batter, moving up from his No. 2 spot on the spring beak trip while looking to fill the metaphorically big shoes of departed All-American Steve Stanley.
* Stanley’s replacement in center field truly was a “multiple-choice answer,” as four freshmen patrolled center before the Irish finally settled on shifting senior Kris Billmaier over from right field.
Matt Edwards returned from a broken leg to play a leading role on the 2003 squad.
* Sophomores Matt Edwards (corner infielder) and Matt Macri (shortstop) returned from injuries to play key roles in 2003, with Edwards earning first team all-BIG EAST honors en route to leading the conference with 69 RBI.
* Senior righthander Ryan Kalita stepped into the rotation in place of injured sophomore Grant Johnson, with Kalita’s stellar season including second team all-BIG EAST honors, postseason wins over Rutgers and Arizona and a 17th-round selection by the Chicago Cubs in the MLB draft.
* And junior Javi Sanchez proved up to the task – and then some – in making the move to a new positron of catcher. Just months removed from an impressive performance as the everyday shortstop for the 2002 CWS team (following the injuries to Macri and Edwards), Sanchez tackled an even bigger challenge and went on to postseason glory as a key leader for the ’03 squad.
The Irish opened with a pair of neutral-site games at Arizona State, as Billmaier hit a solo shot to beat Dayton (10-9) before adding a pair of home runs in the 15-5 win over Newman (the only time all season that an ND player would hit multiple home runs). The Irish then suffered a pair of losses to a potent ASU squad that already had 20-some games under its belt.
Freshman Steve Andres – a fourth-generation ND student whose great-grandfather played for the Irish – made a last-minute decision to attend walk-on tryouts and ended up earning a roster spot as a lefthanded DH. He then stunningly sparked the offense at ASU, collecting three hits (RBI, 3 R, 3B) vs. Dayton before lifting a solo home run in the first ASU game.
That’s where that game stood, heading into the bottom of the fifth, before the Sun Devils cashed in some errors and erupted for the 16-3 win. The second game also featured a rare sight, as home runs from Macri and Cody Rizzo fueled a seven-run sixth by the Irish (8-4 lead) before the hosts answered with a nine-run, two-out rally (en route to a 14-8 win). The 16-run sixth inning lasted nearly an hour (0:53) while Irish miscues led to six more unearned runs.
A challenging five-game stretch continued at Minnesota’s Metrodome Classic, with 16th-ranked Nebraska posting a 7-1 win to end Niesel’s personal streak at 22-1 (he went on to win his final nine decisions). The host Gophers then handed Notre Dame a rare 0-2 tournament start (8-2) before the Irish engaged in an extra-inning battle with No. 7 Wake Forest. Sophomore righthander John Axford logged seven strong innings (4 H, R, 2 BB, 4 Ks) and Gagne followed with six shutout frames (4 H, 2 BB, 2 Ks, 12 groundouts) for the 2-1 win in 13 innings. Freshmen Alex Nettey and Craig Cooper singled to spark the winning sequence
Junior first baseman Joe Thaman then delivered the decisive hit, driving an 0-2 pitch up the middle to end the third-longest game of the Mainieri era and longest since ’98. Niesel bounced back in a showdown with Vanderbilt ace Jeremy Sowers, during spring break in Jacksonville. An unearned run and a lack of run support left Niesel (9 Ks, 10 GOs, 0 BB) with no-decision but Gagne retired all six he faced in the 10-inning win (3-1). Sollmann singled and scored the go-ahead run on a triple off the bat of freshman Brennan Grogan.
It marked the 11th time over the course of the 2002 and ’03 seasons that the Irish had won in extra innings (16-2-1 in previous 19). Axford then held the fort vs. Navy (7-3) before solid pitching from Kalita and Edwards’ two-run shot helped beat host North Florida (6-1). Notre Dame’s extra-inning success came to an end at the University of Jacksonville, losing on a 10th-inning home run (9-6). The Irish faced an early 5-0 deficit before tying the game in the ninth on a two-run shot from Sanchez. Niesel (8 IP, 2 H, 2 UER, 2 BB, 9 Ks) continued to pitch without run support in a 3-2 win over Eastern Illinois, with the ND runs coming on Sollmann’s drive that bounced away from the lunging centerfielder for an inside-the-park home run (first by an Irish player since Alec Porzel’s six-hit game vs. Pittsburgh in 2000).
Freshman lefty Tom Thornton logged four shutout innings in a second game vs. Navy (11-2) and Axford closed the 6-1 spring trip with a 10-3 win over Creighton (at JU), backed by three-hit games from Edwards (3 RBI) and Sollmann. Sollmann picked up his second ’03 BIG EAST player-of-the-week honor, after batting 13-for-27 (.481) during the break (Edwards and Billmaier each went 11-for-28). The Irish pitchers combined for a 2.37 staff ERA while ND improved to 19-5 in Florida spanning the ’00-’03 seasons.
One of the best outings of Niesel’s career (11 Ks, 0 BB) again failed to produce a win, as the Irish found themselves on the wrong end of the 3-2 opener at Villanova. The seven-inning game nearly doubled in length before VU scored in the 13th, with Notre Dame stranding 15. The teams returned less than 24 hours later to play a rare Monday doubleheader, with wins from Axford and Kalita (3-2, 5-1) giving the Irish the series.
Freshman Ryan Doherty bounced back from a rocky debut for an impressive season that included 23 straight innings without allowing an earned run.
A festive crowd of 1,500 greeted the Irish at Eck Stadium, with the 8-3 win over Toledo giving ND its eighth straight win in a home opener. Freshman Ryan Doherty had a solid outing in what would be his only start of 2003 (4 IP, 2 H, 2 UER, Bb, 7 Ks).
Sanchez scored four times in midweek vs. Purdue (8-5) while Gagne closed the game, becoming the third Irish pitcher ever to total 20-plus wins and 10-plus saves. The ensuing sweep of Georgetown (6-2, 13-3, 12-5) included Paul Mainieri’s 700th career coaching win in the opener (135 games removed from his 600th).
Notre Dame’s season-long dominance in the second inning was front and center vs. Detroit (15-5), with the Irish pushing across nine runners in the second frame. The seven-game homestand ended in a 13-4 win over Valparaiso, capping a .371 team batting average and 1.42 staff ERA during the stretch at Eck Stadium.
A highly-anticipated series at Boston College was washed out but Notre Dame was primed for action two days later at St. John’s, posting a decisive seep (11-3, 18-3) that represents Notre Dame’s most dominant doubleheader ever in BIG EAST play. The efficient Irish chased home 18 of 27 baserunners in the nightcap, highlighted by nine straight two-out hits in the nine-run top of the fifth.
Niesel and Kalita led the way for a staff that allowed just three earned runs at SJU while five of the team’s 27 hits left the park. Edwards capped his BIG EAST player-of-the-week performance (9-for-14, 21 total bases) with a pair of home runs, including just the fourth hit to dead-center in the history of The Ballpark at St. John’s (which also has been used for minor-league games). Sollmann added a pair of opposite-field home runs, the first clearing the exterior bullpen while the second clanged loudly off the scoreboard.
The cancellation at BC afforded Axford a midweek start and he responded by tying the Eck Stadium record for strikeouts by an ND pitcher, with 12 Ks (0 BB, 4 H in 7 IP) vs. Western Michigan (7-1). Gagne’s save included four Ks of his own, tying the Irish team record for strikeouts at The Eck.
The midweek wins continued vs. Chicago State (9-3) and Bowling Green (7-2) before a BIG EAST bye week allowed for a return to Omaha, home of the College World Series, for a pair of games vs. Creighton. The first game, played at the CWS site Rosenblatt Stadium, saw Niesel (6 IP, 4 H, R, 3 BB, 6 Ks) locked in a pitcher’s duel with wily lefty Tom Oldham. The teams combined to leave 20 runners on base but the Irish played the tighter game, cashing in a pair of unearned runs for the 2-1 win.
The teams headed off the next day to the Creighton Sports Complex, where the combination of the artificial turf field and windy conditions yielded a wild 13-12 win for the Irish. Edwards (2-run HR, 5 RBI) and Grogan (3 RBI, 2 R) both had four hits to fuel an 18-hit attack, as the Irish pushed their winning streak to 16 games for the third straight season.
Sophomore John Axford posted a 1.80 ERA and 4-0 record during Notre Dame’s 17-gme winning streak.
Axford then added another midweek win (8-3, vs. Central Michigan) while Edwards and the surging Macri launched booming home runs. Eastern Michigan stunningly halted the 17-game winning streak (5-3), with the Irish failing to capitalize on a 1-out, bases-loaded situation in the ninth.
The 17-game win streak (one shy of matching the team record) featured a .337 team batting average, a 2.58 staff ERA, a .968 team fielding pct. and a 5.9 average margin of victory (11 wins by five-plus runs, three by 10-plus). Edwards (.413, 28 RBI, 5 HR) paced the hitters during the streak while Axford was 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA (31 Ks, 14 BB, .182 opp. hitting in 25 IP).
Niesel kept his own winning steak alive during a split with Pittsburgh (5-2, 3-5), followed by the team’s 4-3, 9-3 sweep of Seton Hall. Billmaier (3-for-3, 2B, 2-run HR) played a big part in the opening win, including a game-saving catch in left-center, while Kalita locked down the SHU offense. The Irish then beat the Pirates for the 11th straight time, as Axford picked up his 12th straight winning decision and Macri delivered several big hits (3-for-4, 3B, 2 2B) on his way to BIG EAST player of the week (10-for-19, 21 total bases)
Ball State – which entered the week ranked sixth in the nation with a .337 team batting average – then posted its third narrow win over the Irish spanning the last six meetings, winning 3-1 after an ND player had dropped the third out in the ninth (1-1).
Notre Dame quickly got back on the winning track with wins over Cleveland State (13-1) and IPFW (13-3), reaching 30 wins (30-9) faster than all but two previous ND squads.
The Irish then erased the bad memory of going 0-3 vs. UConn in 2002, returning the favor by sweeping the ’03 games (3-2, 11-4, 6-3). Nearly 3,000 Eck Stadium fans were on hand to see the home team rally in the opener, with Edwards and Sanchez supplying the tying and go-ahead hits in the sixth inning of the seven-inning game.
Niesel’s midweek start moved Kalita into the No. 1 spot and he responded with yet another win. Axford and Niesel followed suit with strong outings vs. the Huskies, yielding a 20-1 record for the three weekend starters (plus a 36-3 combined career record). The second game of the series yielded Axford’s 13 straight winning decision. The Irish played error-free in the doubleheader while Sollmann hit 4-for-7, adding a double in the finale that extended his hitting streak to 14 games. Michigan claimed the annual game versus Notre Dame in the Grand Rapids area (8-4), jumping out to a 7-0 lead before keeping the Irish away from a big inning.
The annual “Turn Back the Clock Night” at Eck Stadium saw the Irish score all their runs in the first, en route to a 4-1 win over Oakland. All attention then turned to the showdown with West Virginia, the nation’s No. 6-ranked offense with a .360 team batting average.
Chris Niesel was two outs shy of a no-hitter vs. the potent West Virginia squad before yielding a bunt single in that 1-0 win.
Niesel proved up the challenge once again, outdueling Shawn Miller in the seven-inning opener but still clinging to a 1-0 lead, just two outs shy of a no-hitter. Despe rate to start a rally, WVU 3-hole hitter Lee Fritz reached on a bunt single – but Niesel induced a Tim McCabe flyout and caught Jake Serfass looking at strike three, completing the impressive one-hitter (1 BB, 9 Ks, 101 pitches). The Irish defense again did its part, picking a perfect time for its 18th error-free game of the season while ND improved to 6-1 in 2003 one-run games.
The Irish pitchers ultimately held WVU to a .215 team batting average in the series (145 points below its average) but the Mountaineers still managed to take the series (7-5, 5-1), thanks in large part to an even lower team batting from the Irish (.200). Axford suffered his first loss with the Irish in nearly 14 months while Kalita tasted defeat for the first time in an Irish uniform (as a pitcher of record), with three unearned runs playing a key role in the decisive third game.
Niesel was not as sharp as usual, coming out of the break for finals, but he still managed to record a 2-0 win at Rutgers (6 IP, 6 H, BB, 2 Ks). Andres was the offensive hero, smacking a 1-2 pitch from Jack Egbert for a 1-0 lead in the fourth before adding an RBI single through the right side in the sixth. Gagne came on his 12th save of the season, besting the record set by his former teammate John Corbin.
Rutgers earned a split of the doubleheader (10-2), marking the seventh time that an ND-RU game has been decided by eight or more runs. The teams then returned the next day and waged an epic battle, with the hosts winning 5-3 on Steve Normane’s home run in the 19th (RU earlier had to tie the score in the 9th and 15th). The loss spoiled gutsy outings from Kalita, Gagne and Laird – with the teams combining to produce 511 pitches, 44 baserunners and nearly five hours of game time (4:42).
Notre Dame completed its 23-5 record at Eck Stadium with wins over Cincinnati (9-6) and Butler (4-1) – before closing the regular season with a spit at Virginia Tech (12-4, 5-11). The win secured Notre Dame’s 15th consecutive season with 40-plus wins, the nation’s third-longest active streak.
Niesel was named BIG EAST pitcher of the year at the tournament banquet but that would be his only public appearance of the weekend, as he did not pitch due to a finger injury. irish coach Paul Mainieri then made a gutsy call by bringing Gagne out of the bullpen for his first start since mid-2002. Gagne did not let his team down, retiring the first nine he faced in the potent WVU lineup en route to eight strong innings and a 9-1 win (6 H, R, BB, 9 Ks). The run was the first of the earned variety allowed by Gagne in his last 10 appearances, spanning 25 innings.
The Notre Dame offense rose above the program’s dismal .230 combined batting average at previous BIG EAST Tournaments, rapping out 17 hits (most ever by the Irish in the tournament). Grogan (2 R) and Sanchez (RBI, 3 R) led the balanced assault.
Javi Sanchez’s impressive 2003 postseason included MVP honors at the BIG EAST Tournament.
Kalita – who won the 2002 BIG EAST title game – fittingly took the mound vs. Rutgers in the key winners-bracket game. His seven strong innings (7 H, B, 6 Ks, 12 GO) and 13 hits from the Irish led to the 9-3 win, with Rizzo’s impressive 3-for-3 day including a pair of stellar defensive plays (2-run 2B, 2 R). Sanchez added a rare 0-for-0 game (BB, 3 SAC) while Edwards (R) and Bransfield both hit 2-for-4.
The Irish and Knights would meet twice more, with ND rallying from a 9-1 deficit to lead 11-9 before the Knights retook the lead (15-11) to force a final game. Matt Laird followed in the footsteps of his classmate Gagne by making a rare start (his first since ’00), going the distance to deliver ND’s second BIG EAST title (2 ER, 9 H, BB, 6 Ks, 18 GOs). The Irish pounded out 52 hits in the four-game tournament, with Andres (2-for-2, 3 RBI, R, BB) the potential hero in the first title game before Edwards (3-for-4, bases-clearing 2B, R, BB) and Thaman (3-for-4, 3 RBI, HR) led the way in the final game.
Sanchez was named MVP after a tournament-record .727 batting avg. (8-for-11, 4 BB, 4 SAC, 6 RBI, 5 R).
The Irish also opened the NCAA’s with a 17-hit attack, blitzing Arizona for a 13-5 win at the NCAA Fullerton Regional. Kalita capped his 14-1 career with eight strong innings (9 H, 2 R, 8 Ks, 10 GO) while the ’03 seniors became the winningest class in the program’s history (189-65-1, finishing 190-67-1).
Kalita was touched for two runs in the top of the second but his teammates responded by sending seven runners home in the bottom of the inning (sparked by Cody Rizzo’s leadoff double off the leftfield wall). The Irish defense posted its 22nd error-free game while turning four double plays, with the many offensive heroes including Sollmann (3-for5, 2 RBI, R, BB, 2 SB), Sanchez (3-for-4, RBI, 2 R), Edwards (bases-loaded triple), Macri (3-run shot off the scoreboard) and Thaman, who drilled a pair of opposite-field doubles to negate a blatant shift in the Arizona alignment.
Niesel logged his typical strong game (8 IP, 6 H, 3 R/2 ER, 4 BB, 5 Ks) and the Irish staged an eight-inning rally to tie Fullerton inthe winners-bracket game (3-3), but the hosts pushed across a run in the ninth for the pivotal win.
The Irish then survived a late scare vs. San Diego in the elimination game (6-3), with Laird adding another strong start (7 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 7 Ks, 8.2 IP) while the 15-hit attack included three hits from Macri (2 RBI), Sollmann and Billmaier.
Fullerton’s talented staff then closed things out on the final day (8-1). Doherty – whose streak of not allowing an earned run endedvs. Arizona (spanning 23 innings and 14 appearances) – closed the season for the Irish with an impressive relief outing (4.1 IP, R, H, 3 BB, 3 Ks).
Irish players named to the all-regional squad included Sanchez (6-for-15, 2 RBI, 4 R), Sollmann (10-for-17, 3 RBI, 3 R), Thaman (5-for-13, 2 RBi, 3 R) and Billmaier (6-for-17, 3 RBI).