March 8, 2004
SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Senior lefthanded pitcher Joe Thaman (St. Louis, Mo.) – the starting first baseman for Notre Dame during the past three seasons – logged seven strong innings for an impressive first win of his young college pitching career as 8th-ranked Notre Dame moved into the championship game of the Alamo City Irish Baseball Classic, with an 8-2 win over Penn State in Monday-afternoon action at Wolff Stadium.
Notre Dame (8-1) bounced back from its first loss of the season by registering its best early-game offensive production of the season. The Irish – who entered the game with just a .214 team batting average and 12 runs scored during the 1st-3rd innings – ended that trend by jumping out to a 7-1 lead after three innings versus Penn State (5-2).
Tuesday’s championship game (4:00 CST, 5:00 in South Bend) will feature Notre Dame vs. Texas-San Antonio. Notre Dame actually was assured a spot in the title game regardless of its victory margin versus Penn State. Three teams – ND, PSU and UTSA – each finished the round-robin at 2-1 but UTSA (a 5-0 winner Monday over Southern Illinois) claimed the top spot for the final day based on its +12 combined victory margin (the three-way tie was unable to be broken based on head-to-head results).
Once the three-way tie was broken, the tiebreaking procedure reverted back to head-to-head – thus assuring ND a spot in the title game even if Monday’s game had been a one-run victory (for good measure, the Irish went on to finish with a better run differential than PSU, -1 to -4).
Freshman righthander Derik Olvey was scratched from his scheduled start due to illness while junior righthander Grant Johnson threw the first inning as part of a planned rotation. Johnson – whose previous start came in the 2002 College World Series – is being eased back into action after returning from 2003 shoulder surgery and a recent bout of tonsillitis.
Thaman inherited a 1-0 lead and went on to strike out seven batters while limiting Penn State to a pair of runs on five hits and one walk in the 102-pitch stint.
Junior third baseman Matt Macri also was held out of the game due to back spasms but senior catcher Javi Sanchez – who doubles as the team’s top utility infielder – did an impressive job while filling in at the hot corner, with several high-end defensive plays to go along with his third double of the tournament. The last time Sanchez started at third for the Irish came on March 3, 2002 (vs. Sacred Heart, in Homestead, Fla.), although the veteran leader has played and practiced at the position many times over the course of summer and fall ball.
Senior second baseman Steve Sollmann snapped out of his hitting slump with a 2-for-5 day, adding two RBI and a run scored. The Irish find themselves 8-1 despite the fact that their returning All-American Sollmann is batting just .226 for the season (plus six walks and four times hit-by-pitch).
By winning Tuesday’s game, Notre Dame would complete one of the best 10-game starts in the program’s 112-year history. Just 10 previous ND teams have opened either 10-0 (1907 and ’08) or 9-1, with the ’04 team having the chance to join the 1960 unit (9-1) as the only Notre Dame teams to start 9-1 or better in the last 68 seasons (since the 1936 team opened 9-1).
Notre Dame’s 7-for-16 batting in Monday’s first three innings included four runs in the four-hit bottom of the second. Freshman catcher Sean Gaston, sophomore shortstop Greg Lopez and Sollmann each collected hits early in the inning – ending the day for senior righthander Jared Hopewell. Junior first baseman Matt Edwards capped the big inning with a two-run single to right-center.
Penn State (5-2) 0-0-1 0-1-0 0-0-0 – 2 7 4
#8 Notre Dame (8-1) 1-4-2 0-0-0 0-1-X – 8 9 0
Jared Hopewell (L, 0-1), Arin Gelletly (2), Alan Stidfole (3) and Aaron Greenfield.
Grant Johnson, Joe Thaman (2; W, 1-0), Jeff Samardzija (9) and Sean Gaston.
Home Run; Mike Milliron (PSU; solo in 3rd).
Doubles: Javi Sanchez (ND), Milliron (PSU).