March 31, 2006
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Notre Dame’s season-long trend of strong outings from starting pitchers continued on Friday night with junior righthander Jeff Samardzija striking out eight Pittsburgh batters in eight innings while his teammates quickly erased a midgame deficit by scoring in each of their final four innings at the plate, as one of the largest crowds in Eck Stadium history watched the Irish defeat the Panthers, 6-1, in the opening game of the weekend baseball series between the BIG EAST favorites.
Notre Dame (15-8, 3-1 BIG EAST) – now 13-3 in its past 16 games – squandered five baserunners in the first four innings, including a pair of costly double plays, before scoring single runs in the 5th-7th innings and then extending its 8th-inning dominance with three more runs for the final margin. Five Irish batters each rapped out two hits in the game while eight of the nine starters had an RBI and/or run scored.
An Eck Stadium record-setting total of more than 3,000 tickets (3,028) were sold for the game, with the combination of the rare Friday-night action and the attraction of the two-sport star Samardzija helping to generate tremendous interest in the series opener. With the grandstands overflowing and several more hundred fans occupying the bleachers down the lines, Samardzija (3-1) worked out of some early jams before allowing Pittsburgh (11-13, 2-5) its only run in the 5th.
Samardzija lowered his season ERA to 3.16 after allowing the single run on eight hits and just one walk, with the eight strikeouts matching his career high set in 2005 versus both Seton Hall and Cleveland State. He located two-thirds of his pitches for strikes (75 of 113) in an eight-inning outing that included 11 groundball outs, two popups/lineouts to the infield, a runner caught stealing and just two flyouts. Pittsburgh put just two leadoff batters on base, with Samardzija holding the visitors to 2-for-11 batting with runners on base and 1-for-8 with 2-outs (opponents now are batting just .220 versus him with 2-outs this season).
Sophomore righthander Joey Williamson set down the side to close out the game, striking out two of the batters he faced to give the staff 10 Ks for the night. Williamson has held opposing hitters to just a .208 batting average this season, with nine strikeouts and five hits allowed in his 7.0 innings or relief work.
Eck Stadium’s previous record for tickets sold came in 2002, when 2,900 saw the Irish defeat Arizona State during that College World Series season.
Notre Dame’s shutout streak ended at 22 innings when the Panthers crossed the plate in the 5th, with that score also halting the Irish staff’s streak of 33 innings without allowing an earned run. The past four games have seen the Notre Dame pitchers combine for a 0.25 ERA, a .163 opponent batting average, nearly a 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (38/8) and nearly double the number of innings pitched (36) to hits allowed (20). The Irish pitchers have put a zero on the board in 43 of the past 46 innings, including 13 shutout innings by Samardzija in his past two starts (15.0 IP).
Sophomore lefthander Rob Brant (2-4) was charged with all six of the Irish runs, after allowing 11 hits and two walks to go along with a pair of strikeouts. Brant was able to keep the Irish off the scoreboard in the opening frame, ending the team’s streak of scoring 1st-inning runs at seven games (longest since the 2001 team scored 1st-inning runs in eight straight).
Senior first baseman Craig Cooper (2-for-4, 2 RBI, R) improved on his .407 career batting average versus the Panthers while four others – Brett Lilley (RBI), Jeremy Barnes (RBI), Danny Dressman (R), and Greg Lopez (RBI, R) – each had two of the team’s 12 hits.
Samardzija kept the staff’s shutout streak going in the 2nd inning (when he struck out David Cline with a runner on third) and again in the 3rd, wriggling out of a bases-loaded jam with a 5-4-3 double play that featured a strong throw from freshman second baseman Barnes. The Irish also had a strong chance after singles from Lilley and Barnes opened the bottom of the 4th, with the runners moving up on a bunt – but Brant induced a foulout and groundout to maintain the scoreless game.
Notre Dame’s only deficit in the past five games was shortlived, as the Panthers manufactured a run in the 5th. Kline reached on a bunt single, stole second and took third on a sacrifice bunt before scoring on a bloop single to center by Jimmy Mayer (whose 4-for-4 night accounted for half of his team’s hits).
The Irish answered moments later, as Sean Gaston reached on a single deep in the hole to the left side, Lopez sliced a full-count pitch into left and a double-steal preceded Cooper’s one-out intentional walk. Lilley then delivered the sacrifice fly to left field for a 1-1 game.
The hosts came right back to take the lead one inning later, sparked by senior leftfielder Matt Bransfield’s double that skipped past the first-base bag. Dressman’s bunt moved the runner to third and senior centerfielder Alex Nettey then executed the squeeze play to perfection, dropping down a 1-0 pitch as Bransfield scampered home for the 2-1 lead.
Another single run followed in the 7th, as Cooper, Lilley and Barnes all stroked clutch 2-out hits. Barnes worked ahead in the count before dropping a 2-0 pitch into right field for the opposite-field RBI and his sixth double of the season (second-most on the team, behind Bransfield’s 10).
Samardzija allowed Mayer to send a leadoff single through the right side in the 8th, bringing the dangerous Jim Negrych to the plate. With the wind blowing fiercely out to right and the lefthanded Negrych digging in at the plate, Samardzija delivered a huge strikeout – as the preseason BIG EAST player of the year went down swinging at a full-count pitch.
Dressman hit a leadoff double in the bottom of the inning, Brant hit Nettey with the next pitch and Gaston bunted the runners over before Lopez jumped all over a 3-0 pitch for an RBI single to center field. Righthanded sidearmer Justin Cicatello then entered the game and registered the second out, but Lopez stole second and Cooper drove an 0-1 pitch up the middle for a two-run single and the final 6-1 margin.
Notre Dame’s 8th-inning dominance now includes a 27-6 scoring edge in the inning this season and the Irish are batting .404 as a team in the inning (40-for-99), led by each of the players who had 8th-inning hits on Friday: Lopez (5-for-7), Dressman (7-for-13) and Cooper (5-for-9).
The top-four starters – senior LHP Tom Thornton, Samardzija and fellow junior LHP Jeff Manship, and sophomore LHP Wade Korpi – now have combined for a 2.48 ERA in their 20 starts, with a .231 opponent batting average, a 3.7 K-to-walk ratio (117/32) and 19 more innings pitched (127) than hits allowed (108).
Lopez (2-for-3) raised his season batting average to .333, now third-best on the team. The senior shortstop also now leads the team in RBI (20) after batting most of the season in the 8-hole, with his impressive .969 season fielding percentage including just three errors and 19 error-free games in 22 played.
Samardzija’s other season stats now included a .252 opponent batting average, 18 Ks, 15 walks and 34 hits allowed in 37 innings. The staff ERA dropped to 3.12 while the team batting average pushed over .300 to .302.
Pittsburgh 0-0-0 0-1-0 0-0-0 – 1 7 0
Notre Dame 0-0-0 0-1-1 1-0-0 – 3 10 1