May 9, 2004
STORRS, Conn. – Steve Sollmann was noticeably eager to return to action in the moments leading up to Notre Dame baseball’s Sunday doubleheader at Connecticut. The veteran second baseman was in high spirits and jumping around like a little leaguer, anticipating Sunday’s games as the chance to rejoin the program he had visualized playing for during his brother Scott’s career with the Irish in the mid-1990s.
Mother nature almost put Sollmann’s return on hold, with a rain relay postponing the start of the doubleheader at Christian Field for nearly two hours. But the veteran leader was more than ready once the first pitch was thrown and he played a leading role in a 4-0, 11-4 sweep for the 8th-ranked Irish over the homestanding Huskies.
Notre Dame (37-9, 14-5 BIG EAST) now can use a win in Monday’s series finale to move into a tie atop the BIG EAST standings with a Pittsburgh team that swept Seton Hall in the weekend action. Sophomore lefthander Tom Thornton is slated to get the start for the Irish while sophomore lefthander Brendan McGinn is the probable UConn starter.
Connecticut (22-23, 6-13 BIG EAST) saw its slim chances at qualifying for the four-tear BIG EAST Tournament fade while Boston College (11-7) completed a three-game sweep at West Virginia to creep closer to fourth-place St. John’s (13-7).
Members of Notre Dame’s junior class – which was rated by Baseball America as the nation’s top-ranked freshman class in 2002 – played leading roles in the pair of victories. Chris Niesel and fellow righthander Grant Johnson combined to allow just one earned run in 12 innings of work while their classmate Matt Macri nearly hit for the cycle in the nightcap after the junior third baseman hit 4-for-5 with a home run and a pair of doubles (the last was a ground-rule bouncer that could have become Macri’s seventh triple of the season).
Another member of the junior class, first baseman Matt Edwards, also homered in the nightcap as part of his 3-for-7 day that included a pair of RBI and three runs scored.
Sollmann had been sidelined since an in-game collision on April 3, with the Irish managing just a 15-6 record in his absence. The 2003 All-American and Academic All-America double honoree was outfitted in a special batting helmet with a football-style facemask but the new headgear appeared to be of minimal distraction, as Sollmann hit 2-for-5 in the two games (as the 2-hole hitter, with Macri at leadoff) while seeing his first action in five weeks. He reached base three other times, on a walk and two hit-by-pitch, and supplied a key early RBI and run scored in the nightcap, plus 3-of-4 stolen bases, a sacrifice bunt and two more error-free games in his busy day (he has yet to make an error in 117 fielding chances this season).
Just four teams – East Carolina (41-7), Texas (46-8), Stanford (37-8) and Oral Roberts (37-8) – have fewer losses than Notre Dame, which joins those four teams and four other nine-loss teams as the nation’s nine remaining teams with single-digit losses (out of 287). The nine-loss teams include Rice (35-9), Miami (36-9), the College of Charleston (37-9) and Albany (32-9).
Niesel’s solid outing provided little comfort for the reigning BIG EAST pitcher of the year, as the Irish clung to just a 2-0 lead heading into the 6th inning of the 7-inning opener. The six-foot righthander scattered six hits and one walk en route to the fourth complete game of his ND career but the first since his other shutout in an Irish uniform, the 1-hitter vs., West Virginia on May 3, 2003. Niesel improved to 6-2 for the season while bumping his career record to 19-3 (.864), matching 1907-09 star pitcher Frank “Dreams” Scanlan for the second-best career win pct. in the program’s history (behind Herb Kelly’s .917/22-2 from 1912-14).
Niesel has totaled 33 Ks and just three walks in his last six outings (18 Ks, 1 BB in last two) while lowering his season ERA from 5.40 to 3.94 during that six-appearance span.
All four of Notre Dame’s RBI in the opener came with two outs and each of the No. 6-9 hitters delivered on of those clutch hits.
The Irish posted their 17th error-free game of the 2004 season but the visitors then were guilty of some sloppy defense in game-2, making three errors. One of those errors resulted in a pair of unearned runs being credited to Johnson (3-0), who matched Niesel’s six Ks while allowing just one earned run on four hits and three walks over the first five innings.
Matt Bransfield and Javi Sanchez opened the 2nd inning of game-1 with hard-hit balls but their teammates stretched the final out to push across the game’s first two runs. Sophomore rightfielder Craig Cooper took an 0-1 pitch from junior righthander Jeff Hourigan (4-5) and went the other way with a double to the right-center gap. Edwards then coaxed a full-count walk before sophomore centerfielder Cody Rizzo reached for a high offering and drove an RBI single into center field.
A misplay by the centerfielder allowed Edwards to take third on Rizzo’s single and sophomore shortstop Greg Lopez jumped all over the next pitch, sending an RBI single into left field for the 2-0 lead.
The only other runs in the opener came in the 6th, sparked by Bransfield’s first-pitch double down the leftfield line. A flyout moved the runner to third and Cooper delivered a run-scoring single to right, before stealing second and scoring on an Edwards single to left-center.
Notre Dame entered the day with a 40-7 scoring edge in the 2nd inning and the Irish pushed that margin to 45-7 on Sun day, after the pair of 2nd-inning runs in the opener and three more in game-2.
The Irish scored a rare 1st-inning run to open the nightcap, thanks to Macri’s leadoff double down the leftfield line, Sollmann’s sac. bunt and Bransfield’s RBI single through the left side.
The three-run top of the 2nd included Cooper’s leadoff walk, an Edwards single to left and RBI groundouts off the bats of Rizzo and Lopez (who hit 2-for-3 in both games while batting from the 9-hole).
The Huskies plated a pair of runs in the bottom of the 3rd but the Irish answered right back in the 4th. Lopez led off with a windblown double down the rightfield line and Macri worked ahead in the count vs. senior righthander Mike James (5-4) before driving a 3-1 pitch over the rightfield fence for an opposite-field shot and his eighth home run of the season.
Notre Dame used four runs in the 6th to claim a 10-3 lead. Rizzo was hit by a 2-2 pitch (his team-leading 17th HBP of the season) and moved up on Lopez’s bunt before James ended his stint with an intentional walk issued to Macri. A pair of errors then helped ND produce the big inning, with Sollmann adding a stolen base and Bransfield a sacrifice fly.
Edwards added his seventh home run of the season in the 7th, a solo shot that carried well over the leftfield wall.
NOTES – the ND infield (with Sollmann and Lopez back in place) flashed its brilliance on several plays, including four double plays (Lopez sat out the previous three games while resting his sore back) … Macri posted his 37th error-free game of the season in the opener but then made a rare error in game-2 (it was just his 7th E of the season and his first at third base in the last 25 games) … Niesel boosted his ND record for career K-to-BB ratio to 4.15 while his 1.90 BB per 9 IP would rank 5th in the ND record book … his season K-to-BB ratio now is 4.47 (67/15), still 8th in ND history … Niesel (216) moved past Tim Kalita (214; ’97-’99) into 7th on the ND career Ks list (next up is Alan Walania’s 236, from ’90-’93) … the Irish have won 78% of the games during the ’01-’04 seasons when Sollmann has been in the starting lineup (156-45-1), compared to ND winning just 66% of the games when Sollmann has not started (25-13) … Sollmann is batting .500 in his last seven games played (12-for-24) … Macri had been batting just .247 out of Eck Stadium this season before batting 4-for-5 in Sunday’s second game … Johnson dropped his season ERA to 2.27 … freshman RHP Jeff Samardzija tossed three scoreless innings (3 H, 4 Ks) and now owns a 2.14 season ERA, a .209 opp. batting avg. (36-for-172) and a 2.55 K-to-walk ratio (28/11) … Lopez now owns 29 error-free games in ’04 … the team home run total (46) inched closer to the 50-HR total … Edwards (46), Macri (42) and Bransfield (42) each had two RBI in the doubleheader and remain bunched atop the team RBI charts … the 11-4 game represented ND’s 21st win in 2004 by a margin of 5-plus runs … it also was ND’s 27th game with double-digit hits and 16th with 10-plus runs.
#8 Notre Dame 0-2-0 0-0-2 0 – 4 7 0
Connecticut 0-0-0 0-0-0 0 – 0 6 1
Chris Niesel (W, 6-2) and Javi Sanchez.
Jeff Hourigan (L, 4-5) and Larry Day.
Doubles: Matt Bransfield (ND), Craig Cooper (ND), Greg Lopez (ND)
#8 Notre Dame 1-3-0 2-0-4 1-0-0 – 11 15 3 (37-9, 14-5 BIG EAST)
Connecticut 0-0-2 0-1-0 0-0-1 – 4 8 3 (22-23, 6-13 BIG EAST)
Grant Johnson (W, 3-0), Jeff Samardzija (6), Tyler Jones (9), Rico Bertucci (9) and Javi Sanchez.
Mike James (L, 5-4), Joe Smeraglino (6) and Larry Day.
Home Runs: Matt Macri, ND (1 on in 4th, 8th of season); Matt Edwards, ND (solo in 7th, 7th of season)
Doubles: Macri 2 (ND), Greg Lopez (ND), Jeff Hourigan (UC)