June 5, 2004
After Kent State got a superb pitching performance to upset the Irish on Friday, sophomore lefthander Tom Thornton returned the favor Saturday evening, striking out a career-high 12 and giving up only three hits and one run in 8.1 innings to lead top-seeded Notre Dame (51-11) to a 7-1 victory over the Golden Flashes (36-27) at Frank Eck Stadium in the second elimination game of the South Bend Regional of the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship. Thornton’s performance sent the Irish, ranked as high as fifth in the national polls, into the regional championship for the fifth consecutive season, with the task of beating Arizona twice on Sunday.
Thornton (9-2) didn’t give up a hit until the fifth and only let six balls out of the infield in pitching eight or more innings for the fourth time this season. In one stretch over the sixth through eighth innings, he struck out seven consecutive batters en route to setting a modern-day (post-1970) Irish record for strikeouts in an NCAA tournament game. Thornton ended up throwing 118 pitches, 81 of them for strikes.
“We went with Tom tonight because we felt so strongly that he could pitch us deep into the game,” said Irish head coach Paul Mainieri. “He’s done it almost every time he’s pitched this year; he’s given us a lot of innings. Tom was doing exactly what we were hoping he would do. He threw a lot of strikes; he was in total command out there.”
The Irish, who have won 18 of their last 20, moved into the regional championship for the eighth time since 1992 and will face third-seeded Arizona on Sunday at 1:05 p.m. (EST). A Notre Dame win would elicit a second game between the teams 45 minutes following the end of the first one. The winner of the South Bend Regional will then face the winner of the Palo Alto Regional in super-regional action next weekend. Long Beach State will face either host Stanford or St. John’s in the Palo Alto Regional final on Sunday.
Thornton was unblemished early, retiring the first eight batters he faced until he was struck by a comebacker off the bat of Adam Crowder. After his body knocked the ball down, Thornton gathered it and, stumbling, made the play. After a brief delay for the trainer to examine him, the Irish sophomore walked the next batter, Erick Holick, before resuming his dominance with a strikeout of Joe Tucker to retire the side.
For the second game in a row, Notre Dame could not put together a big inning against the Flashes. But the Irish hit a number of balls hard and plated two runs in the first to take an immediate lead as the visiting team and then added single tallies in the third, fifth, and sixth innings before scoring twice in the seventh for the final margin.
Sophomore left fielder Steve Andres was Notre Dame’s main offensive standout, going 3-for-3 with a pair of RBI and three runs scored, while senior catcher Javi Sanchez drove in three runs.
Will Vazquez lined a ball through the left side to lead off the fifth inning for Kent State’s first hit of the contest. It extended his hitting streak to seven games. He then scored the lone Golden Flash run when Chuck Moore doubled into the left field corner two batters later.
Freshman Evan Smith (3-4) started for KSU and went six innings, giving up five runs on eight hits. He matched a season high with six strikeouts.
After managing just one unearned run against the Golden Flashes on Friday, the Irish struck for a pair in the first in Saturday’s contest. Matt Macri lined a single to right to lead off the game, then moved to second on a balk by Smith, reached third on a sacrifice fly by Steve Sollmann and scored on a deep single to right by Andres, who was pulled from the starting lineup in Notre Dame’s morning win against UC Irvine. After another Irish single, Andres scored on a sacrifice fly by Sanchez to put Notre Dame up 2-0 before the Golden Flashes had gotten to bat.
“We ended up with a freshman pitcher on the mound today in a hostile environment with elimination status on the line,” said Kent State head coach Rick Rembielak. “We did not get off on the right foot, and we just could not get anything on track.”
The Irish added another run in the third on an RBI single from Sanchez that scored Andres.
In the fifth, Macri walked to lead off the inning, moved to second on a wild pitch and third on a sacrifice bunt by Sollmann before walking home on a double by Andres.
Craig Cooper led off the Irish sixth with a two-base hit, then reached third on a sac bunt from Matt Edwards and scored on a fly to right by Cody Rizzo.
The seventh produced a pair of unearned insurance runs for the Irish. Sollmann singled up the middle, then stole second and advanced to third on an error by the KSU catcher. After an Andres walk, Matt Bransfield then drove Sollmann in on what looked to be a Kent State double play. But another KSU error allowed Andres to advance all the way to third and Bransfield to be safe at first. Sanchez then grounded out to first to score Andres.