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Irish beat Wildcats, lose Sollmann

Chris Federico | Monday, April 5, 2004

It was a bittersweet weekend for the Irish against Villanova.

No. 5 Notre Dame improved to 22-3 and 6-0 in the Big East with a three-game sweep of the Wildcats (17-8-1, 3-3), but the Irish lost second baseman and team leader Steve Sollmann with a fractured jaw.

“I just thought that the kids showed unbelievable composure and strength to be able to go out there and play under those conditions,” Irish coach Paul Mainieri said.

The senior and team tri-captain Sollmann was injured during the fifth inning of Notre Dame’s 15-7 victory over the Wildcats Saturday when he collided with right fielder Cody Rizzo chasing down a fly ball.

The Irish went on to defeat Villanova 6-5 Saturday in the nightcap of the doubleheader and then knocked off the Wildcats 13-1 Sunday.

Despite the possible season-ending injury to Sollmann, Mainieri is pleased about his team’s position in the early standings of the Big East.

“I’m really happy obviously to be 6-0 in the league and to have the record that we have overall,” he said. “I feel like we’ve kind of made a statement in this early part of the season that we’re the team that people have to chase.”

The Irish got off to a good start in the opener Saturday, staking Irish pitcher Chris Niesel to a 10-0 lead after three innings.

In the second inning, Notre Dame sent 13 batters to the plate, as left fielder Steve Andres led off with a solo home run and designated hitter Matt Bransfield had a three-run homer. Catcher Javi Sanchez also had a pair of singles in the frame, as the Irish plated eight runs to post their highest-scoring inning of the year.

After Sollmann’s injury, however, things started to turn towards the Wildcats’ favor. In the top of the sixth, Villanova narrowed the Irish lead to 11-6 and had bases loaded with only one out when Mainieri decided to go to closer Ryan Doherty an inning early.

The move paid off as the 7-foot-1 sophomore struck out the next two batters to end the inning.

“Ryan Doherty has done a great job or us all year,” Mainieri said. “[Saturday] in that first game, when I felt it all kind of slipping away from us, I went ahead and used Ryan Doherty right there, and he came in and got those two big strikeouts for us.”

The Irish put the game out of reach in the bottom of the inning with four runs on the strength of a two-run triple from third baseman Matt Macri and RBI doubles from centerfielder Danny Dressman and first baseman Matt Edwards.

Niesel got the win for the Irish to improve to 4-1 on the season but was hit hard for six runs (five earned) in five innings pitched. Sanchez finished a perfect 4-for-4 in the game. Macri was 2-for-3 with three runs scored and 2 RBIs, while Bransfield was 2-for-4 with three RBIs and two runs scored.

The nightcap of the doubleheader Saturday proved to be the real nail-biter, as the Irish and Wildcats played neck-and-neck all game and required 10 innings to decide a winner.

Down 5-3 in the eighth inning, the Wildcats got a leadoff walk from first baseman Adrian Schau followed by a home run from shortstop Brian Trotta off Irish reliever Joe Thaman to tie the game. Thaman then buckled down and induced a pair of groundouts and a popup to prevent any further damage.

In the bottom of the 10th, with one out and runners on first and second, Macri fouled off pitch after pitch from Schau – now in the game at pitcher – before sending a two-two pitch to left field for a game-winning single.

“I thought Matt Macri’s at bat [Saturday] to win the game – not just the fact that he got the hit – but just the whole at bat – the way he was in there fighting off pitches from a really good pitcher in those tough conditions and in that tough situation … was very inspirational to everybody,” Mainieri said.

Lefty Tom Thornton started for the Irish and allowed two runs in five innings, but Doherty got the win in the 10th to improve to 3-0 on the year.

Sunday, Notre Dame had little trouble in completing the sweep of Villanova – its second Big East sweep in as many weekends. Right-hander Grant Johnson got the start for the Irish and was superb, logging four innings and holding the Wildcats both hitless and scoreless. The junior, who missed all of 2003 following shoulder surgery, is still working on a pitch count in games as part of his rehab, as Sunday was the first time all season that he mixed a breaking pitch into his repertoire.

“I feel good. Everything felt right back in sync,” Johnson said. “I lost my control out there a little bit, but for the most part everything felt in rhythm and pretty good.

“[Having a breaking ball] really boosts your confidence, and you trust your stuff a little bit more, because there’s another pitch the batters have to worry about.”

Johnson also got some help from a six-run first inning that put the Irish out to a 6-0 lead. Notre Dame got RBI singles from Bransfield, Sanchez and shortstop Greg Lopez as the Irish posted their biggest first inning of the season.

In the fifth inning, the Wildcats posed their only true threat in the game as they loaded the bases with two outs against Irish reliever Jess Stewart. Mainieri then brought in freshman Jeff Samardzija, who allowed a one-run single that made the game 6-1, but then struck out right fielder Alan Day to stop the bleeding. Samardzija worked three more scoreless innings for Notre Dame as the Irish cruised to an eventual 13-1 win.

Notre Dame next plays at Frank Eck Stadium Tuesday at 5 p.m. against Chicago State.