May 18, 2004
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – A strong three-man rotation is virtually a necessity to make a deep run in the college baseball season. The addition of a quality fourth starter is a downright luxury. If Notre Dame’s last four games – versus fellow NCAA Tournament hopefuls Rutgers and 20th-ranked Central Florida – are any indication, the 2004 Irish baseball team could be positioning itself for a strong run at postseason success.
Tuesday night saw freshman righthander Jeff Samardzija take his turn by delivering the Notre Dame staff’s fourth straight dominant start, facing just 25 batters in 7.0 innings as the 6th-ranked Irish shut out the Golden Knights, 4-0, at Eck Stadium.
Notre Dame (43-9) is 34 games over .500 for the fourth season in the program’s history, trailing only the 2001 (reached 36 games over .500) and 1990 (+35) teams while matching the ’92 squad that reached +34 at 48-14.
The Irish now are 6-0 this season when facing a team ranked in the top 25 of the national polls, with early-season wins over USC, Winthrop, Florida Atlantic, Minnesota and an Arizona team that just took 2-of-3 from top-ranked Stanford.
Notre Dame also remained one of four teams (out of 287 in Division I) with single-digit losses, joining East Carolina (45-8), Oral Roberts (42-8) and defending NCAA champion Rice (39-9) in that distinction.
A soggy night could not dampen the spirits of the 1,726 fans in attendance for the annual Turn-Back-The-Clock Night, as the Irish pitchers continued to perform like the untouchable staffs of the wood-bat eras. Samardzija (5-2) took a perfect game into the 4th and ultimately allowed just five baserunners, on a pair of hits, two walks and a hit batter (one of the runners was erased on a double-play ball).
UCF (39-13) managed to move just three runners into scoring position all night, with one reaching third base. Senior lefthander Joe Thaman (BB, 2 Ks) and sophomore closer Ryan Doherty (2 KS) closed out the shutout by combining to face just seven batters over the final two innings.
Notre Dame’s last four games include a 1.06 staff ERA and .181 opponent batting average, with the four starters (Grant Johnson, Chris Niesel, Tom Thornton and Samardzija) combining with relievers Dan Kapala, Doherty and Thaman to total 28 strikeouts, 8 walks and just 21 hits allowed in 34 innings during the last four games.
The combined stats for the last four Irish starters are even more impressive, with those pitchers compiling a 0.93 ERA, .190 opponent batting, nearly a 5-to-1 K-to-walk ratio (24/5) and 19 hits allowed in 29 IP over the four-game stretch.
The success of the Irish pitching staff – and the 2004 team as a whole – is all the more noteworthy when considering the potentially devastating impact that injuries could have played on the season. Three of the teams’ top pitchers in the 2003 fall depth charts – junior John Axford (who started 9-0 in 2003 and is a top-rated pro prospect) and 2003 high school All-Americans Jeff Manship and Derik Olvey – have missed most or all of the 2004 season (Axford and Manship had preseason surgery while Olvey has missed the last 36 games due to a sore forearm and is not slated to return to action this season).
All told, seven top Irish players have combined to miss 185 games this season due to injuries and that does not include the limited first-half contributions of righthanded pitcher Grant Johnson as he was making his return from 2003 shoulder surgery. In addition to 21 games missed by senior All-America second baseman Steve Sollmann in April (fractured jaw), two other top position players – freshman catcher Sean Gaston (16 games, mononucleosis) and sophomore shortstop Greg Lopez (3 games, sore back) – have been out of the lineup in recent weeks (Gaston could return this weekend). Lopez’s all-around play had been hampered even prior to sitting out the three games leading into the finals break while sophomore outfielder Cody Rizzo has been affected nearly all season by a wrist injury suffered in the third week of action (he officially missed five games before returning to the lineup).
The No. 1-4 hitters in the UCF lineup combined to bat just 1-for-15 (with no walks and one hit batter) while the entire Golden Knights lineup went 0-for-6 with runners on base and 1-for-10 with 2 outs. Only 1-of-9 leadoff batters reached all night versus Samardzija and the Irish relievers.
The top of the Notre Dame lineup enjoyed a much more productive night, combing to bat 6-for-14 with all four runs scored, a pair of RBI and a pair of walks. Each of the No. 2-4 batters – senior second baseman Steve Sollmann (RBI, 2 R, BB, 2B), sophomore DH Matt Bransfield (R) and senior catcher Javi Sanchez (RBI) – collected two hits for an Irish squad that scratched out just seven total hits in the showdown of nationally-ranked teams.
UCF sent its No. 3 starter to the mound and freshman righthander Taylor Meier (5-3) pitched well enough to win on most nights, allowing just two earned runs (plus two unearned) on seven hits and four walks in 7.1 innings (with 4 Ks). Meier was done in by another clutch-hitting display from the Irish offense, as the hosts hit 5-for-12 with runners on base to help bring in three of the four runs (the fourth scored on a passed ball).
Samardzija – whose resulting 1.88 ERA would rank among the top 20 in the NCAA statistical rankings – struck out four UCF batters while locating 65 of his 106 pitches for strikes. The UCF lefthanded hitters combined to hit just 1-for-14 vs. the two-sport star, who also rolled up 10 groundball outs and induced a pair of popups in his 21 outs. The Knights hit 0-for-4 with runners on base and were just 1-for-9 with 2 outs vs. Samardzija.
Notre Dame had struggled with producing consistent 1st-inning offense for much of the 2004 season but the post-finals schedule now has seen the Irish score in the 1st inning of five of the last six games (with 18 total 1st-inning runs in those games).
Junior shortstop Matt Macri – fresh off receiving his third career BIG EAST player-of-the-week honor – started things off with a leadoff walk and motored all the way around when Sollmann delivered in the hit-and-run, driving the next pitch into the right-center gap for his fourth double of the season.
Sollmann’s multiple ways of impacting a game have been on display since his return last week from a fractured jaw that sidelined him for most of April. His baserunning ability helped bring home the second run of the 1st inning, with a one-out swipe of third base (for his 12th stolen base of the season and 79th of his career) before scoring when senior catcher Javi Sanchez sent a full-count offering up the middle.
UCF broke up the perfect game with one out in the 4th, when Matt Ray dropped a 1-1 pitch into center field. Samardzija then hit 3-hole hitter Dee Brown with a 1-2 pitch, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate in the form of cleanup hitter Ryan Bono. A 6-3 groundout moved the runners to second and third but Drake Wade’s flyball to the right-center gap was hauled in by rightfielder Craig Cooper to end the threat.
Samardzija later lost Chandler Rose to a leadoff, full-count walk in the 5th before rolling up the 6-4-3 double play to quickly erase the runner. His fourth 1-2-3 inning of the night followed in the 6th and the Irish then added an insurance run in bottom of the inning. Sollmann led off with a single through the left side and Bransfield drilled the next pitch down the leftfield line for a double, with Sollmann scoring on a passed ball for the 3-0 lead.
UCF collected its second hit with two outs in the 7th, sparked by Drake Wade slapping a 1-2 single through the right side of the infield. A wild pitch and walk by Rose suddenly put the tying run at the plate but David Mann went down looking at a full-count pitch on the outside corner.
Thaman issued a one-out walk to Jon Cooper in the 8th to give UCF one final shot for the top of its lineup – but Clay Timpner went down swinging at a 1-2 pitch and Matt Ray was caught looking at a full-count pitch for the third out.
The Irish capped the scoring moments later. Bransfield sent a first-pitch single through the left side and Sanchez then drove an 0-2 pitch into the left-center gap, with Bransfield alertly taking third when the leftfielder Brown bobbled the ball. Pinch-hitter Alex Nettey made that error hurt versus lefthanded reliever Mike Mercadante, on a 5-3 groundout that brought home the runner for a 4-0 lead.
Notes: the game was the first between ND and UCF since 1993 NCAA regional action at Florida State (when the Irish won a 12-3 elimination game) … ND has won its last three marquee non-conference games at Eck Stadium (also 1-0 vs. the Miami Hurricanes in 1999 and 9-4 vs. Arizona State in ’02) … the Irish have defeated three teams this season – Minnesota (Joel Maturi), Ball State (Bubba Cunningham) and UCF (Steve Orsinsi) – that have athletic directors who are ND graduates … Orsini, like ASU’s AD Gene Smith, is a former Irish football player and ND alum … ND entered the game with the nation’s 19th-best staff ERA (3.59, now 3.49) … Sollmann is batting .444 (16-for-27) since returning from injury (2-for-3 vs. UCF) … the Irish now are 26-3 this season when Sollmann is in the lineup (15-6 when he was out with the injury, plus two early-season wins in which he did not play) … Sollmann’s career hit total grew to 292, just three behind Eric Danapilis (’93) for 3rd on the ND all-time hits list (Pat Pesavento’s 296 hits are 2nd) … his 79 stolen bass are one behind ’94 grad Greg Layson for 4th on that ND list … Sollmann also scored twice for 203 career runs (’92 grad and current Major Leaguer Craig Counsell is 5th in ND history with 204 runs while Danapilis is 4th with 205) … Sollmann’s double was the 37th of his career while he also drew his 96th career walk … he suddenly has shot to 4th on the team batting charts, at .330 … the Irish posted their 22nd error-free game of the season (including 6 of the 8 games since Sollmann’s return) … Sollmann still has yet to make an error in 151 fielding chances while the leftside infielders – junior 3B Matt Macri (45) and sophomore SS Greg Lopez (35, 11 straight) now have combined for 80 error-free games (junior 1B Matt Edwards has 46) … only two previous ND teams – the 2001 (45) and 1990 (44) squads – have posted more regular-season wins than the ’04 team (43) … ND has scored in 138 straight games and 369 of the last 370 … the ’01-’04 ND teams have combined for a 181-63-1 record … ND is 62-10 in its last 72 at Eck Stadium … Doherty dropped his season ERA to 2.17.
#20 Central Florida (39-13) 0-0-0 0-0-0 0-0-0 – 0 2 1
#8 Notre Dame (43-9) 2-0-0 0-0-1 0-1-X – 4 7 0
Taylor Meier (L, 5-3), Mike Mercadante (8), Tim Bascom (8) and Drew Butera.
Jeff Samardzija (W, 5-2), Joe Thaman (8), Ryan Doherty (9) and Javi Sanchez.
Doubles: Steve Sollmann (ND), Matt Bransfield (ND).