May 17, 2002
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The Notre Dame baseball team – playing what head coach Paul Mainieri called his team’s “best all-around game of the season” – picked a perfect time for that level of play as the Irish became the first team to qualify for the four-team BIG EAST Tournament, riding the strong pitching of Grant Johnson and J.P. Gagne and punctuating an 8-2 win over Boston College with Joe Thaman’s eighth-inning grand slam, in an emotion-filled Friday night atmosphere at Eck Stadium.
Notre Dame (39-14, 16-8 BIG EAST) – which edged ahead of BC (15-9) and idle Virginia Tech (16-8) atop the conference standings – now has reached its first goal of qualifying for the BIG EAST Tournament, after recovering from a 9-10 start that included an 0-4 mark in BIG EAST play.
That 0-4 start nearly was 0-5, as the Irish fell into an early five-run hole in the second game of the March 28th doubleheader at West Virginia – but five strong innings from senior Drew Duff kept the game within reach before a two-run single by Steve Stanley and fellow senior Paul O’Toole’s three-run blast tied the game in the 7th (Javier Sanchez’s two-run single keyed ND’s four-run 10th in that 10-6 win). Duff’s outing and ND’s two big innings in that game seemingly launched the Irish onto the current 30-4 run, leaving the squad one win shy of posting the program’s 14th consecutive 40-win season (the fourth-longest active streak in all of Division I baseball).
Boston College (30-21, 15-9) – which had won four of the previous six matchups vs. the Irish – still needs one win in tomorrow’s doubleheader vs. the Irish to clinch a spot in the BIG EAST Tournament, although the Eagles also could get some help from the weekend series that begin tomorrow (including 9-13 West Virginia at Virginia Tech, 14-9 Rutgers at 12-11 St. John’s, and a matchup of 12-10 teams with Connecticut at Pittsburgh).
The Irish would clinch the regular-season by sweeping Saturday’s doubleheader, thanks to owning the head-to-head tiebreaker (2-0) vs. Virginia Tech (ND also could earn the No. 1 seed via a number of other scenarios).
Johnson (6-4) turned in another quality start to pick up the clutch win, as the freshman righthander allowed just one run on four hits and two walks in his six-inning, 88-pitch outing – with all six of his strikeouts coming in the first time through the BC lineup.
Gagne continued to excel in the closer role, picking up his fourth save of the season. The junior righthander bounced back from a leadoff home run in the seventh by Brian Durkin, en route to scattering five hits and no walks over the final three innings (with one K).
Friday’s action extended another impressive streak by junior leftfielder Brian Stavisky, who singled, walked and doubled in his first three plate appearances – good for 11 consecutive times on base (besting his streak of 10 straight times on base to open the 2001 season, which earned the 6-3, 220-pound lefthander national player-of-the-week honors). Stavisky’s streak included eight hits, two walks and one time reached on error (on the second plate appearance of the streak).
Notre Dame’s regular checklist of goals includes the expectation for at least one great defensive play – but the Irish came up with at least six “web gems” in Friday’s high-intensity game. Thaman and fellow rightside infielder Steve Sollmann both turned in a pair of key defensive plays, as did corner outfielders Stavisky and Kris Billmaier.
BC senior righthander Mark Sullivan (10-3) was touched for eight runs (six earned) on seven hits, four walks and four hit batters, with just two strikeouts (he entered the night with a BIG EAST-best 92 Ks).
Sullivan appeared to lose his control near the end of his 133-pitch outing, as senior DH Matt Bok drew a full-count walk with two outs in the eighth before Sullivan hit Billmaier with the next pitch and plunked Sanchez on a 2-2 offering. Thaman – who homered in both games of Sunday’s sweep of Villanova – then delivered his fifth home run of the season, launching a 1-0 pitch that sailed some 25 feet over the rightfield fence to provide the final margin. Sullivan then left the game following his next pitch, when he threw a scare into the Irish faithful – and drew both teams out of their dugouts – after hitting Stanley in the wrist.
One of the game’s key stretches came in the bottom of the fourth and top of the fifth, as the Irish claimed a 2-1 lead before maintaining that margin when Stavisky made a clutch throw to home plate for a rally-killing double play.
Stavisky drew a leadoff walk in the fourth and slid around the tag for a stolen base before senior third baseman Andrew Bushey reached when his counterpart Jason Delaney misplayed a slow grounder to the left side. O’Toole then failed on two tries at a sacrifice bunt (with an 0-1 count) but battled back to 3-2 before flaring an RBI single past the glove of diving first baseman Vinny Scavone. Bok followed with a groundball to the right side, pushing home Bushey for the go-ahead unearned run.
Moments later, Scavone stood at third base as the potential tying run, with two outs in the top of the fifth. Freshman shortstop Ryan Morgan had a chance to knot the score with his fly ball to left field – but Stavisky settled under the ball and sent a strike to the catcher O’Toole, who was waiting for Scavone to preserve the 2-1 lead.
The Irish tacked on a run in the sixth, thanks to Stavisky’s opposite-field double, Bushey’s sacrifice bunt and O’Toole’s deep sacrifice fly to center field – with Drew Locke’s over-the-shoulder catch preventing a big inning from the Irish.
The hosts then answered Durkin’s home run with another run in the seventh, aided by a fielding error from the shortstop Morgan. With a runner on third, Sullivan elected to issue an intentional walk to the national player-of-the-year candidate Stanley but Sollmann made him pay by driving a first-pitch single into left-center for another unearned run.
NOTES: Notre Dame now will have the chance to win its eighth BIG EAST postseason championship of the 2001-02 academic year, with the current total of seven already ranking as a BIG EAST record (besting ND’s previous six titles) … other ND sports to win BIG EAST titles in ’01-’02 have included women’s soccer, volleyball, men’s cross country, women’s swimming, women’s indoor track, women’s tennis and softball … ND has qualified for every BIG EAST baseball tournament since joining the conference prior to the 1995-96 academic year … Thaman joined Bushey (vs. Ball State) and O’Toole (vs. Toledo and Seton Hall) as the third ND player to his a grand slam in 2002 … Stavisky reached on a single and E-4 in his final two trips to the plate in Wednesday’s win over Rochester College, before batting 5-for-5 with a walk later that night vs. Detroit (followed by the single, walk and double on Friday) … ND’s 16-4 run in its last 20 BIG EAST games is similar to the 1997 season, when the Irish opened with three losses at Seton Hall before winning 15 of the remaining 18 games (several were rained out) to post the league’s top winning pct. … Bushey recorded his team-leading 10th sacrifice bunt of the season, to go along with five home runs and 16 doubles (he had totaled just four sac. bunts in his first three seasons combined) … Stanley went 0-for-2 and saw his batting avg. drop from .461 to .457 (10 points ahead of Edwin Hartwell’s 1993 ND record) – but his pair of walks and the hit-by-pitch raised Stanley’s on-base pct. to .529 (two points shy of the ND record of .531, set by Eric Danapilis in 1991) … Stavisky’s batting avg. continues to climb (.434), with his current six-game hitting streak including a .577 average (15-for-26) … ND is 20-3 since Stavisky returned from a nine-game layoff (after being hit in the face with a pitch) … Stanley and Stavisky are closing in on becoming the third set of ND teammates ever to hit above .400 in the same season … Johnson has won his last four decisions while dropping his ERA from 4.11 to 3.54 in that six-game span … ND sliced its team ERA to 3.42 while the Irish offense once again totaled more runs (8) than runners left on base (6).
BOSTON COLLEGE (30-21, 15-9 BIG EAST) 0-0-1 0-0-0 1-0-0 - 2 9 2NOTRE DAME (39-14, 16-8 BIG EAST) 0-0-0 2-0-1 1-4-X - 8 7 0
Mark Sullivan (L, 10-3), Matt Elfeldt (8) and Jeff Mackor. Grant Johnson (W, 6-4), J.P. Gagne (7; SV, 4) and Paul O’Toole.
Home Run: Brian Durkin, BC (solo shot in 8th; 12th of season); Joe Thaman, ND (grand slam in 8th; 5th of season).
Doubles: Brian Stavisky (ND; 45th of career), Neal McCarthy (BC), Brian Macchi (ND).