March 26, 2006

BETHESDA, Md. – Tom Thornton narrowly missed posting his second straight shutout while his teammates scored in the first inning for the fifth straight game, as the Notre Dame baseball team defeated Georgetown, 6-3, to present Paul Mainieri with his 500th win as the Irish head coach.

Notre Dame (12-8, 2-1 BIG EAST) totaled just nine hits but had 23 total baserunners, with 12 reaching on walks and two others via hit-by-pitch. The Irish were on their way to completing the shutout at Shirley Povich Field when a misplayed double-play ball opened the door for Georgetown (11-13, 1-2) in the bottom of the ninth. Freshman closer Kyle Weiland then entered the game and the Irish mishandled another potential double-play ball, with the Hoyas ultimately scoring three unearned runs before the final out.

The bottom of the Notre Dame batting order has supplied steady RBI production all season and that continued on Sunday, as senior shortstop Greg Lopez drove in half of the Irish runs while batting in the 8-hole.

Thornton (4-1) posted the second-highest strikeout total (8) of his career while avoiding the big inning by limiting the Hoyas to five hits and a pair of walks. He ran his shutout streak to 17 innings (and 24 of the past 25) before the bad breaks in the ninth yielded two unearned runs that were charged to the senior lefthander.

Lopez batted 3-for-5 while coming through with a two-out, two-run single in the 5th and a run-scoring hit in the 9th. The second-year team captain hit 6-for-12 with six RBI in the three-game series vs. the Hoyas and now ranks fourth on the team with a .324 season batting average.

Nearly one-third of Notre Dame’s RBI this season (35 of 113; 31%) has come from the #8 and #9 hitters in the batting order, with senior rightfielder Cody Rizzo (19) and Lopez (18) currently sitting atop the team’s RBI charts. Lopez has collected 14 of his RBI from the 8-hole while all but one of Rizzo’s RBI have come from the #9 spot (Mike Dury’s 3-run home run vs. Oklahoma also came from the 8th spot in the order).

Craig Cooper had experienced great success this season as the Notre Dame leadoff batter and that continued to be the case in the opening minutes of Sunday’s game, as the senior first baseman pulled his first home run of the season (and 18th of his career) over the leftfield fence for the quick 1-0 lead on righthander Stephen Burns (3-2). Cooper now has reached base as the 1st-inning leadoff batter 11 of 12 times when drawing the start at the top of the order, including four walks, three singles, two singles and a hit-by-pitch (plus the home run).

The 24 outs in Thornton’s 24th career win included the eight Ks plus eight groundouts, three flyouts, two foulouts, two pickoffs and an infield lineout. He located 77% of his pitches for strikes (89 of 116) and now has thrown only 47 balls out of the strike zone in his past two starts, spanning 17 innings (an average of just 2.8 balls out of the zone per inning).

Sunday’s strong outing lowered Thornton’s season ERA to 2.38, with a .240 opponent batting average, an 8-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (24/3) and four more innings pitched (34) than innings pitched (30). Thornton’s nine-inning season walk average (0.79) remains on pace to rank second in Notre Dame history, as does his K-to-walk ratio (another top LHP, Tom Price, holds both of those ND records after averaging 0.49 BB/9 IP with an 8.0 K-to-walk ratio in 1994).

Thornton allowed just two leadoff batters to reach while holding the Hoyas to no hits with runners on base (0-for-9) and 1-for-9 with 2-outs. He did not allow a ball out of the infield from the 2nd-7th innings and now has held the opposition scoreless in the 1st inning and from the 4th-7th innings during all five of his starts.

Georgetown’s late runs prevented Thornton from becoming just the second Notre Dame pitcher in the 12-year Mainieri era to post nine-inning solo shutouts in consecutive weeks – a feat turned in by RHP Dan Stavisky during the 1996 season (vs. Pittsburgh and then vs. St. John’s in the BIG EAST Tournament). Thornton’s previous outing saw him toss a three-hit shutout versus Southern Illinois during the Spring Break trip in San Antonio -with his past two outings including 13 strikeouts, just eight hits allowed and two walks in 17 innings.

A solo shutout on Sunday would have placed Thornton alongside Danny Tamayo as the only Mainieri era pitchers with three nine-inning solo shutouts during their careers (Thornton’s first came at West Virginia, in 2004). Tamayo shut out Mississippi State in the 2000 NCAAs and then added two more nine-inning solo shutouts in the ’01 season.

Notre Dame opened the game with a 2-0 lead, the second run coming after walks by Brett Lilley, Jeremy Barnes and Matt Bransfield and Sean Gaston’s sacrifice fly to right field.

The Irish stretched to a 5-0 cushion with three runs in the 5th versus lefthander Andy Ferich. Lilley hit a leadoff single to center and advanced on Danny Dressman’s sacrifice bunt before Barnes sent a scorcher off the third baseman that was scored as an error. The Irish then pulled off the two-out double steal and Ferich lost both Gaston and Ross Brezovsky to walks (forcing home a run) before Lopez drilled the next pitch up the middle for a two-run single.

Gaston drew a leadoff walk vs. righthander Mike Hoy to start the 9th and came around to score after Brezovsky’s infield single and Lopez’s opposite-field linedrive over the second baseman’s head.

Notes – Cooper owns a team-best .600 on-base pct. when leading off any inning (15-of-25) … Cooper’s blast gave ND three home runs in a span of 33 ABs (also Rizzo and Barnes in the game-2 win over GU), after the Irish had totaled just five HRs in their first 596 ABs this season (one HR every 119 ABs) … Lilley was hit-by-pitch for the 8th time this season and 38th in his career, tying him with Craig DeSensi (’95) for 2nd in ND history … Rizzo added to his ND career HBP record with his 74th in Sunday’s game, tying him with former Texas player Jeff Ontiveros for 3rd in Division I history … the Irish improved to 6-4 when scoring in the 1st inning, 9-4 when scoring the game’s first run, 6-1 when hitting a home run and 10-1 when leading at the end of the 7th inning … Steve Andres drew a pinch-hit walk and now has 91 bases-on-balls in his ND career …

Notre Dame (12-8, 2-1) 2-0-0 0-3-0 0-0-1 – 6 9 2
Georgetown (11-13, 1-2) 0-0-0 0-0-0 0-0-3 – 3 6 1

Tom Thornton (W, 4-1), Kyle Weiland (9) and Sean Gaston.
Stephen Burns (L, 3-2), Andy Ferich (3), Mike Hoy (6) and Brandon Davis.

Home Run: Craig Cooper, ND (leadoff in 1st; 1st of season, 18th of career).
Triple: Timmy Jones (GU).
Double: Ross Brezovsky (ND), Greg Lopez (ND), Kelly Muir (GU).