Feb. 20, 2004
Junior righthander Chris Niesel (Plantation, Fla.) posted his 10th straight winning decision with the Notre Dame baseball team and his classmate Matt Edwards (Mechanicsville, Va.) homered in his first at-bat of the season en route to one of the top opening-day performances by an Irish hitter in the last 10 years, as 10th-ranked Notre Dame posted another season-opening victory in Friday’s 7-1 win over San Diego State at the rain-soaked USC Public Storage Classic.
(Fans are reminded that Saturday’s Notre Dame-USC game has been moved up to a 3:00 p.m. PST start, that’s 6:00 in South Bend, due to rain in the forecast for Saturday night.)
Notre Dame – which improved to 6-1 in its last seven season openers – turned in an impressive all-around game while battling a San Diego State squad that already had 14 games under its belt. Eight Irish batters combined on the 11-hit attack while Niesel and three relievers limited the Aztecs to five hits. Notre Dame – coming off a record-setting .970 season fielding percentage in 2003 – also played error-free in the field, despite just one day of outdoor practice prior to the opener (the teams did not get to take the customary infield practice on Friday, due to a pregame rainstorm).
San Diego State (6-9) pushed across its only run in the top of the second, cashing in a rare loss of control from Niesel that included hitting the leadoff batter with a pitch and an ensuing wild pitch (the only hit of the inning plated the runner).
Niesel extended his record with the Irish to 14-1 while lowering his career ERA to 2.91. The staff ace posted nine strikeouts for the sixth time in his Irish career (to go along with two double-digit K games) while scattering three hits and one walk over five and two-thirds innings.
Since suffering the only loss of his Notre Dame career (7-1 vs. Nebraska, on Feb. 28, 2003, at the Minnesota Metrodome), Niesel has dominated to the tune of a 1.92 ERA and 10-0 record in his last 14 starts with the Irish. He owns a 5.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio during that span (93 Ks/18 BB, in 94.0 innings), allowing just 74 his and a .215 opponent batting average in those 14 games (with 9-inning averages of 8.9 Ks, 1.7 BB and 7.1 H in that 94-inning stretch).
The win was the 400th for the Irish during 10 seasons under head coach Paul Mainieri, who now owns a 400-160-1 record at Notre Dame (.714). The 400th win came just 140 games after the 300th win of the Mainieri era.
Edwards became the sixth player in the 10-year Mainieri era to hit a home run in the season opener, two batters after senior second baseman Steve Sollmann had reached on an infield single (he moved up on a groundout and a swipe of third). The junior first baseman worked ahead in the count versus senior righthander Scott Shoemaker (1-3) before driving a 3-0 pitch over the fence in left-center field for an impressive linedrive home run (his ninth HR in 72 career games with the Irish).
No previous Mainieri-era player had homered in his first at-bat of a season opener – and Edwards was far from done, adding a two-run single in the fifth before scorching a double in the seventh. His four RBI are most in an opener during Mainieri’s tenure while Edwards’ 3-for-5 day left him one shy of tying Sollmann’s 2001 effort vs. New Orleans (4-for-5,at Mississippi State) as the top opening-day hit total in the Mainieri era.
Just three Notre Dame teams in the previous 30 seasons had registered a more comfortable margin in a season opener: the 1989 team at Trinity (12-2), the ’93 squad at Arizona State (11-4) and the ’98 team vs. Florida State (10-1, in Orlando).
The game featured two noteworthy relief appearances for the Irish. Senior lefthander Joe Thaman – who served as the team’s starting first baseman in the 2001-03 seasons – came on to get the final out in the sixth, with the St. Louis native serving up a soft grounder to strand two runners on base.
Junior righthander Grant Johnson (Burr Ridge, Ill.) – who missed all of the 2003 season while recovering from shoulder surgery, after a Freshman All-America season in ’02 – then added two shutout innings in the seventh and eighth, allowing two hits and one walk with a pair of strikeouts.
Sollmann had a strong debut from his customary leadoff spot, batting 2-for-3 with a pair of walks and two runs scored. The Cincinnati native – who now has hit a combined 9-for-16 (.563) in four season openers with the Irish – pushed his career hit total to 257, tying fellow All-American Dan Peltier (’87-’89) for seventh in the Notre Dame record book.
The opening-day lineup went as expected, with freshman centerfielder Danny Dressman batting in the 2-hole while senior catcher Javi Sanchez was the cleanup hitter. Sophomore rightfielder Cody Rizzo, sophomore DH Steve Andres and junior third baseman Matt Macri filled the respective 5-7 spots in the order, followed two more sophomores in shortstop Greg Lopez and leftfielder Brennan Grogan.
Notre Dame was poised for a big inning in the fifth, sparked by Lopez’s sharp single to center field. Grogan followed with a sacrifice bunt and Sollmann legged out an infield single up the middle, with Lopez holding at second. Dressman then poked a single into right field but the Irish were caught in their only mental gaffe of the day, with Sollmann’s good read on the ball and aggressive baserunning causing Lopez to be caught in a rundown after rounding third (Dressman still took second on the play and Edwards followed with his two-run single).
GAME NOTES – Dressman’s 1-for-3 day included several well-executed situational plate appearances (a 1st-inning hit-and-run groundout to the right side that advanced Sollmann, a sacrifice fly that plated the fifth run in the 7th and a bases-loaded walk in the 8th) … Dressman’s walk was preceded by a leadoff walk from Andres (vs. RHP Bruce Billings), pinch-runner Craig Cooper’s stolen base, Lopez reaching when he was hit by a one-out pitch and Sollmann’s two-out walk (SDSU coach Tony Gwynn then opted for LHP Dan Bruckart to face the lefthanded-hitting Dressman) … SDSU freshman DH Brock Ungricht entered the day with a .415 season batting avg. and proved to be a tough out (if there was an NCAA record for pitches fouled off in a game, he may have set it), batting 0-for-2 with a pair of walks … San Diego State became the 280th all-time opponent in 112 seasons of Notre Dame baseball (the Irish are 14-2 in their last 16 games when facing a first-time opponent, dating back to 2000) … Rizzo and Macri each joined Sollmann and Cooper with stolen bases in the opener … Sollmann’s 68 career SBs tie Dan Bautch (’90-’92) for 5th in the ND record book … next up for Sollmann’s climb up the ND career hits chart (257) is his brother Scott’s former classmate Mike Amrhein (269, ’94-’97) … Sollmann now is batting 17-for-36 (.472) in opening-week games during his ND career (9 R, 4 BB, 4 SB) … Sollmann picked up where he left off in 2003, when he closed his junior season with a 13-game hitting streak (capped by a 10-for-17 effort in the NCAAs) … all three California natives on the ’04 roster were in the opening-day lineup: Southern California native Rizzo (Temecula) and northerners Andres (Napa) and Dressman (San Jose) … the Irish nearly have reached +100 over the past four seasons (145-49-1 record in that span) … ND is 11-7-1 in California during the Mainieri era and 51-14-1 in the last 18 regular-season tournaments … the Irish are assured of avoiding an 0-and-2 start for the 19th time in the last 20 regular-season tournaments (ND has gone 0-and-2 at a regular-season tournament just three times under Mainieri and the Irish have not gone 0-and-2 at a postseason tournament since 1960) … ND’s previous three openers all had been one-run games … Edwards is batting 11-for-27 (.407) in opening-week games with the Irish (8 RBI) … Niesel’s 28 career starts with the Irish include allowing just two earned runs (the equivalent of a 0.64 ERA, with both runs by CS Fullerton in the ’03 NCAAs), plus 32 Ks, 5 BB (for a 6.4 K/BB ratio), 21 hits allowed and a .208 opp. batting avg. in the first inning of his ND career … Edwards became the 18th Mainieri-era player at ND to homer on the opening weekend (including three by Kris Billmaier in ’03) … Mainieri’s five previous Irish players who homered in an opener (none did it in his first AB, most did so late in the game): senior C Bob Lisanti (’96 vs. Georgia Tech), junior 1B Dan Leatherman (’98 vs. FSU), junior SS Brant Ust (’99 vs. JMU), senior DH Matt Bok (’02 vs. Missouri) and senior RF Billmaier (’03 vs. Dayton) … recent ND players Matt Strickroth, Drew Duff and Mike Knecht were in attendance – as was Jim Gillis, a former USC and ND baseball player who has been actively involved in the L.A. area alumni club (Gillis sat in on the radio broadcast in the eighth inning).
SAN DIEGO STATE 0-1-0 0-0-0 0-0-0 – 1 5 0
NOTRE DAME 2-0-0 0-2-0 1-2-X – 7 11 0
Scott Shoemaker (L, 1-3), Bruce Billings (7), Dan Bruckhart (8), J.T. Zink (8) and Jordan Swayden, Clay Coulter (7).
Chris Niesel (W, 1-0), Joe Thaman (6), Grant Johnson (7), Tyler Jones (9) and Javi Sanchez.
Home Run: Matt Edwards (ND, one on in 1st).
Doubles: Reilly Embrey (SDSU), Edwards (ND).