May 16, 2003
BLACKSBURG, Va. – Chris Niesel (Plantation, Fla.) made his final statement for BIG EAST pitcher-of-the-year honors in the 12-4 opener but Virginia Tech earned the split in an 11-5 nightcap that featured a lengthy rain delay, as the 23rd-ranked Irish secured the program’s 15th consecutive season with 40-plus wins in Friday-afternoon action at English Field.
The second game was halted in the top of the second, with Virginia Tech holding a 5-1 lead, and play did not resume for two hours and 29 minutes. The Hokies then fought off several rally attempts by the Irish and added six runs during the resumed portion (three of them coming unearned) to pick up a key win in the BIG EAST race.
Notre Dame’s string of 15 seasons with 40-plus wins is the nation’s third-longest active streak, behind Florida State (26, including 46-8-1 in 2003) and Wichita State (26, with the Shockers’ current 41-23 mark including a 10-game boost in the games-played maximum for a trip to Hawaii). Clemson owns a 17-year streak of 40-plus wins and is 37-18 heading into its regular-season finale.
Friday’s other games – including a Rutgers sweep at Villanova and homestanding Boston College taking two from West Virginia – lock Notre Dame (40-15, 16-7 BIG EAST) into a third-place BIG EAST finish. The Irish will open BIG EAST Tournament play next Thursday vs. WVU (17-6) while Rutgers (19-5) has clinched the regular-season title and will face the yet-to-be-determined fourth seed.
Virginia Tech (34-21, 16-7) is one of three teams still in the running for the final BIG EAST Tournament spot, needing either a win over the Irish on Saturday or a loss by BC vs. WVU (coupled with Pittsburgh losing a game vs. UConn). BC (13-10) can claim that fourth spot by completing the sweep of WVU and then counting on an ND win over the Hokies on Sunday. Pittsburgh (12-11) also still retains a slim chance, needing to sweep its Sat.-Sun. series at UConn in addition to losses by VT and BC (the Panthers own the head-to-head tiebreaker vs. the Hokies).
Niesel (9-1, including 7-0 in eight BIG EAST starts) gave up eight hits – one of them a three-run blast by shortstop Spencer Harris – but he avoided any other trouble while totaling three strikeouts and not walking any batters in five innings of work. Now 13-2 in his Notre Dame career and victorious in each of his last nine decisions, Niesel also is 31-2 in his last 33 overall decisions (dating back to his senior season at Aquinas High School) while his last six outings have included 31 strikeouts and just four walks in 38 innings.
Fellow sophomore righthander John Axford (9-3) had his third straight rocky outing in the nightcap, working just one batter into the second inning while being responsible for six runs on four hits, three walks and five wild pitches (all in the five-run bottom of the first).
By winning his next decision, Niesel could become just the third Notre Dame pitcher – and second in 95 years – to post a single-season winning streak of 10-plus decisions. Frank “Dreams” Scanlan won 10 straight in 1908 while Aaron Heilman posted 10 straight Ws in 2000 before going 15-0 in 2001.
Senior J.P. Gagne and sophomore Ryan Doherty logged scoreless innings to close out the win, with both of the righthanded relievers extending their streaks with no earned runs allowed. Gagne has now allowed an earned run in his last nine appearances and 18.2 innings while Doherty carries a streak over 20.2 innings/11 outings without an earned run allowed – with both pitchers now owning nearly-identical season ERAs (Gagne 2.10 and Doherty 2.11).
Notre Dame’s 1-4 hitters – Steve Sollmann (3-for-5), Brennan Grogan (2-for-3), Steve Andres (3-for-4) and Matt Edwards (3-for-5) – combined to hit 11-for-17 in the opener, with three walks, seven RBI and nine runs scored. The efficient Irish offense cashed in 15 hits for 12 runs, with just seven runners left on base.
Andres and fellow freshman Cody Rizzo both hit key home runs, with a two-run blast from Andres capping a four-run second while Rizzo’s three-run shot ended a six-run top of the sixth.
Notre Dame’s four-run second included Rizzo’s leadoff walk (on a full count) and a Javi Sanchez sacrifice bunt, followed two batters later by Sollmann’s two-out double into the right-center gap. Grogan traded places with Sollmann on a double to the same spot and Andres completed the big inning by driving a 2-0 pitch over the fence in right-center for his fourth home run of the season and second in as many weeks.
The Irish then stretched to the final margin with a six-run sixth. The flurry started with Sollmann’s one-out double, ending the day for freshman righthander Nicky Bowers (4-1), with the Irish tacking on four more runs versus righthander Scott Stoher. Singles from Grogan, Edwards and Andres preceded the big hit, as Rizzo pulled a first-pitch linedrive down the leftfield line to plate three runs on his own fourth home run of the season.
The Hokies elected to bring back freshman lefthander Andy Wells after the long rain delay but the Irish touched Wells for one run in the third and three more in the fourth. Senior closer Matt Dalton (3-1) – who entered the day with an 0.32 ERA and nation-leading 14 saves – then was called into the game and the senior righthander ended up tossing 5.1 shutout innings while logging 82 pitches from his submarine-style delivery.
NOTES – Gagne made his 90th career appearance, just two shy of the ND record held by 1993 grad. Chris Michalak … ND totaled 24 hits in the doubleheader, more than the Irish totaled in last week’s entire three-game series at Rutgers (23) …Sollmann collected his 27th and 28th multi-hit games of the season (2-for-5 in nightcap) … ND posted its 20th error-free game of the season in the opener and now has 0-1 errors in 38 games … the Irish made three errors in the nightcap, just the eight time this season ND has totaled three-plus Es … ND’s record-pace .971 team fielding pct. includes just 61 errors in 55 games … Niesel still has allowed just one 1st-inning run with no walks, nine hits allowed, 19 Ks and a .188 opp. batting avg. in 14 IP during the 1st … ND increased its 2nd-inning scoring dominance to 63-11 (5-1 in DH) … Sollmann swiped his 31st stolen base of the season, good for 5th in ND history behind his brother Scott (42 in 1996), Pat Pesavento (38 in ’88 and again in ’89) and former teammate Steve Stanley (32 in ’02) … Sollmann’s career hit total (236) ranks among the best ever by an ND player in his junior season, with others of note including his brother Scott (239), Stanley (266), former teammate Brian Stavisky (231), Brant Ust (243, ’97-’99; 10th on ND career hit list) and Dan Peltier (257, ’87-’79).
Notre Dame 1-4-0 0-1-6 0 – 12 15 0
Virginia Tech 0-0-1 0-3-0 0 – 4 10 1
Chris Niesel (W, 9-1), J.P. Gagne (6), Ryan Doherty (7) and Javi Sanchez.
Nicky Bowers (L, 4-1), Scott Stoher (6), David Londrey (7) and Wyatt Toregas.
Home Run: Steve Andres, ND (1 on in 2nd; 4th of season); Spencer Harris, VT (2 on in 1st; 1st of season); Cody Rizzo, ND (2 on in 6th; 4th of season).
Doubles: Steve Sollmann 2 (ND), Brennan Grogan.
Notre Dame 0-1-1 3-0-0 0-0-0 – 5 9 3
Virginia Tech 5-1-3 0-1-0 0-1-X – 11 10 1
John Axford (L, 9-3), Matt Laird (2), Martin Vergara (6) and Javi Sanchez.
Andrew Wells, Matt Dalton (4; W, 3-1) and Wyatt Toregas.
Doubles: Kris Billmaier (ND), Matt Edwards (ND), Chris Stanton 2 (VT), Wyatt Toregas (VT), Brad Bauder (VT).