June 2, 2002
ONE STEP LEFT: Notre Dame (46-15) stands one win shy of advancing in the NCAAs for the second time in the program’s history … the 1957 team beat Northwestern (6-1) to win the District IV Playoff and advance to the College World Series … the 1992 Irish squad also was one win away from Omaha, losing a 5-1 game to Miami (after beating the host Hurricanes 6-3 earlier in the tournament) … ND’s 1993 and ’94 teams needed two wins on the final day (the ’93 team lost to Long Beach State, 13-3 at Florida State, while the ’94 team dropped an 8-0 game vs. Auburn at Clemson), after beating the host teams in both of those Regionals … since the shift in 1999 to four-team Regionals, ND went 1-2 in 1999 but nearly pulled off two wins on the final day in 2000 (7-0 and 9-10 at Mississippi State) and 2001 (5-2 and 4-5 vs. Florida International, at ND) … the Irish are 8-4 in their last 12 NCAA games (three 1-run losses)
BACK IN THE GROOVE: Today’s starter is freshman RHP Chris Niesel, a regular member of the rotation who opened his career by totaling 10 and 9 Ks in his first two starts … Niesel closed the 10-6 win over BC to pick up his second save in as many weeks, facing just seven batters over the final two innings (H, K) … Niesel then had five solid innings as the starter in the BIG EAST Tournament rally vs. Virginia Tech (5 IP, 6 H, R, 5 K) … since returning from a five-week bout with mononucleosis, Niesel has allowed just one run in 9 1/3 innings (dropping his ERA to 3.88), with 10 Ks, one walk and seven hits allowed … Niesel’s season K-to-walk ratio ratio (4.18, 46/11) world rank 8th in the ND record book – with Danny Tamayo’s impressive 6.24 last season (106/17) ranking second, not even close to the 12.14 ratio (85/7) posted by LHP Tom Price in 1994 (in 127.2 IP) … Niesel’s 2-0 season record (in eight starts) could have several more early-season wins, as he left with leads vs. Southern Illinois (2-1, lose 6-2), Arkansas-Little Rock (5-1, with ND scoring twice in 9th to win 7-5), Connecticut (8-3, lose 9-8) and St. John’s (2-1, with ND scoring three in 7th for 5-2 win) … Niesel was one of five pitchers in the nation who were named by Baseball America as a 2001 first team All-American.
RETURN OF THE LION?: Senior catcher Paul O’Toole played his best ball during the month of May in his first three seasons with the Irish, batting .335 (55-for-164) in May during the 1999-2001 seasons (with 38 RBI, 44 runs, 10 home runs, 2 triples, 10 doubles, 18 walks, 19 Ks and 13 stolen bases) … by comparison, O’Toole hit just .306 in pre-May games during his first three seasons … O’Toole’s uncharacteristic slump in May of 2002 (8-for-41/.195 prior to the USA game, with 7 RBI, 1 HR, 10 R, 11 BB, 9 Ks, SB) ended in dramatic fashion as he hit 5-for-5 with a home run and two doubles vs. South Alabama … O’Toole’s career average in May now stands at .324 (68-for-210), including 12 of his 31 home runs and 48 RBI.
OFFENSE FLEXES MUSCLE: The Irish batters rapped out 32 hits in Saturday’s 25-1 win over South Alabama, one shy of tying the NCAA tournament record for hits while blowing away the tournament record for total bases (with 59), including a season-high five home runs, plus three triples and six doubles … ND collected 13 hits in its first 18 at-bats – and nearly had two more hits in that stretch if not for 2B Josh Touchstone’s leaping stab of a scorching linedrive off the bat of Brian Stavisky and close play at first on Steve Stanley’s sacrifice bunt … the Irish had pushed their hit total to 17 by the top of the third inning, before South Alabama even had made one trip through its lineup … ND has posted two of its top-six hit totals of the season in the South Bend Regional (15 vs. OSU) … only one of ND’s 32 runs vs. USA was unearned … all nine starters had multiple hits, including six with three-plus (led by Steve Sollmann’s 6-for-7, Paul O’Toole’s 5-for-5 and Steve Stanley’s 4-for-5).
UNPRECEDENTED DOUBLE DOMINATION: The slew of offensive records made Saturday’s game one of the more unique in Notre Dame and NCAA tournament history – but the game had an added dimension to make it stand alone in the 56-year history of the NCAA Baseball Championship : the pitching performance by Irish freshman RHP Grant Johnson (Burr Ridge, Ill… Johnson faced only 30 batters while allowing one hit and one walk (plus two hit batters), becoming just the 13th pitcher ever to post a no-hitter or one-hitter in the NCAAs, with Johnson recording just the fourth such pitching gem since 198 … Johnson’s one-hitter – coupled with sophomore second baseman Steve Sollmann’s record-setting day (6-for-7, 7 RBI, 6 R) – made the game particularly unique due to the combination of NCAA rarities both on the mound and at the plate … no previous team in NCAA tournament history had produced a no-hitter/one-hitter and a player with six hits (or five-plus runs) during the same game … in fact, Oklahoma is the only school that can lay claim to players who are included – at some point – in both the pitching and offensive categories listed above (with a one-hitter in 1974 and a five-run player in 1986).
WHAT ABOUT ME?: When junior RF Kris Billmaier tripled and doubled in his first two at-bats – good for a 5-for-5 start in the Regional and a 20-for-40 career in the NCAAs – he appeared destined to be the player of the game … but his efforts were among several that were overshadowed by the avalanche of record-setting performances … here’s a rundown of the game’s highlights:
* Sollmann (Cincinnati, Ohio) became the first player ever to score six runs in an NCAA Tournament game while also tying Notre Dame records for hits (6-for-7, also tied NCAA Tournament record), RBI (7) and runs in a game … his 13 total bases included back-to-back RBI triples (tying the record for triples in an NCAA Tournament game) and a three-run home run.
* Senior catcher Paul O’Toole – who collected the only four-hit game of his career earlier this season vs. Pittsburgh – hit 5-for-5 vs. the Jaguars, with two doubles and a home run … it marked just the second time that Notre Dame teammates have posted five-plus hits in the same game – and the first in 99 years, since Ed Ruelbach, Anton Stephan and Roy Gage each had five hits in a 24-0 win over Hillsdale on April 23, 1903.
* The 32 hits are the highest in recorded Notre Dame history and came one shy of the NCAA Tournament record set by Rice in its 1999 win over Wisconsin-Milwaukee (27-1).
* The 25 runs rank sixth in Notre Dame’s 110-year history and are the most since a 28-7 win over Northwestern in 1982 … the ND program’s 3,171 all-time games have seen just one larger margin of victory: a 34-7 win over Indiana in 1900 …he 25 runs are the highest total by the Irish in an NCAA game (ND took a 23-3 decision vs. Colorado State in the 1957 College World Series).
* The 59 total bases broke the NCAA tournament record (51) set by Tulane during a 16-6 win over Eastern Kentucky in 1986.
* Johnson became the first ND pitcher to throw a nine-inning one-hitter since 1993 (ND’s last no-hitter came in ’88 ) while the last 21 years of NCAA Tournament baseball have seen just one no-hitter and two other one-hitters (more below).
… PLUS THESE “SIDENOTES”: And on any other day, these items might have grabbed the headlines:
* Senior centerfielder Steve Stanley (4-for-5, 4 R) moved into a tie for fourth place on the NCAA Division I career hits list (with 373) while claiming yet another ND career record, with 250 runs scored (besting Pat Pesavento’s 246, from 1986-89).
* Junior shortstop Javier Sanchez continued to produce from the 8th spot in the lineup, batting 2-for-6 while extending his hitting streak to 12 games (one shy of matching Stanley’s earlier 13-game streak for the longest by an ND player in 2002) … Sanchez is batting 18-for-42 (.427) in his current streak.
* Billmaier improved his career batting average in the NCAAs to .476 (20-for-42, in 12 games), more than 200 points higher than his career average (.275) in his 135 other games with the Irish.
* Sophomore 1B Joe Thaman continued his lateseason surge from the No. 9 spot, batting 3-for-5 with an RBI and three runs scored … Thaman is batting .414 in his last 10 games at Eck Stadium (12-for-29) and has elevated his season batting average to .299 (it was .270 entering May), despite an 0-for-8 effort at the BIG EAST Tournament.
* The Irish combined to hit .522 in Friday’s game versus Ohio State (15-for-34) and Saturday vs. USA (32-for-56) – just one week removed from a dismal .208 team batting average at the BIG EAST Tournament … Sollmann is batting 9-for-11 n the Regional, with 16 total bases (a 1.455 slugging pct.)
* Johnson’s eight strikeouts give him 82 for the season, besting the ND freshman record (78, in 1998) set by eventual four-year All-American Aaron Heilman … Johnson’s sixth straight winning decision pushed his record to 8-4, just one shy of the ND mark for wins by a freshman.
* The team’s three most veteran players – Stanley, O’Toole and senior third baseman Andrew Bushey – bounced back from a 1-for-12 combined showing vs. OSU to hit 12-for-15 vs. USA (8 RBI, 7 extra-base hits).
* Bushey (3-for-5, 3 RBI) halted his 0-for-15 postseason by stroking a three-run homer in the first inning while O’Toole’s five-hit day nearly matched his total from 16 previous games in the month of May (8-for-41, .195).
* Freshman reserve player Brent Weiss smacked a double and his second grand-slam home run of the season, giving him four extra-base hits (also a triple) and just two singles after starting the season 0-for-21 in spot at-bats.