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Not so friendly confines

Chris Federico | Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Notre Dame coach Paul Mainieri said before last Friday’s games with Seton Hall that the upcoming Big East weekend would be an important one, as the top five teams in the conference standings were scheduled to play each other.Unfortunately for Mainieri, it was his Irish that suffered the most in their biggest conference weekend to date. No. 8 Notre Dame (32-8, 12-5 in the Big East) lost three of four over the weekend with a split in a Friday doubleheader at Seton Hall (12-26, 6-11) 2-4 and 4-3, followed by a two-game sweep at the hands of Pittsburgh (26-10, 10-4), 6-8 and 6-7. “I’ve said often that this conference is a very tough conference, and I think people sometimes snicker at me when I say that,” Mainieri said. “But I’ll tell you that the 25 guys on our team will say how difficult it is to win games in our conference, particularly on the road.”Notre Dame’s two losses to the Panthers marked only the fifth time in its eight-plus years in the league that the Irish have been swept in a Big East doubleheader.”I know Seton Hall played with an awful lot of pep and vigor, and so did Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh has an excellent team,” Mainieri said. “They were all very tough games, and unfortunately we came up on the short end in three of the four.”In the opener with the Pirates Friday, Notre Dame got out to an early 2-0 lead in the top of the first on a two-run double by designated hitter Matt Bransfield. But then the Irish hitters ran into a brick wall in the form of Pirate pitcher Jake Haggerty. After allowing the two Irish runs, the Seton Hall hurler buckled down and retired the next 19 Irish batters en route to his third victory on the season as the Pirates won 4-2.”You tip your hat to their pitcher,” Mainieri said. “He pitched a tremendous ball game. We got to him in the first inning there, and then we just couldn’t do anything with him after that. “He was hitting his spots well, and the ump was giving him a pretty wide strike zone. It seemed like every one of our hitters was behind in the count, and we just couldn’t get anything going.”Lefty Tom Thornton took the loss to fall to 5-2 on the season, allowing four earned runs in 4 2/3 innings pitched.In the nightcap, the Irish needed some late inning heroics from left fielder Cody Rizzo. After striking out Notre Dame’s first two batters in the inning, Pirate right-hander Tim Sabo fell behind 2-0 to Rizzo, and the Irish sophomore made him pay with a solo home run down the left field line. Irish closer Ryan Doherty came on in the bottom of the inning and shut down the Pirates three-up, three-down to preserve the 4-3 Irish win for his seventh save of the season. Senior Joe Thaman got the win in relief for the Irish, and Chris Niesel got a no decision in the start for Notre Dame, allowing two earned runs over six innings.”The second game was a great win for us, because it was really a tough environment,” Mainieri said. “I thought Niesel pitched well, and we scratched together a few runs. We got the big home run by Rizzo in the ninth inning, and Ryan Doherty came in and did a tremendous job in the bottom of the ninth.”In the first game against Pittsburgh Sunday, the Irish fell into an early 5-0 hole after three innings due to some shaky defense and timely Panther hitting.”We had one bad inning defensively early in the game, and we didn’t get [starting pitcher] Jeff Samardzija much defensive support,” Mainieri said.But the Irish bats would come alive as Notre Dame mounted a comeback with a pair of runs in the fourth on a Bransfield home run and a sacrifice fly from catcher Javi Sanchez.In the next inning, the Irish tied it up at five on consecutive RBI doubles from first baseman Matt Edwards and Bransfield and an RBI single from Sanchez.But that would be as close as Notre Dame would get, as Seton Hall put three runs on the board in the bottom half of the inning to go up 8-5. The Irish narrowed the lead to two runs on an RBI triple from third baseman Matt Macri in the next inning, but the Irish offense couldn’t manage another comeback, falling 8-6.Samardzija was touched for eight runs over four innings in the loss to fall to 2-2 on the season.Things only got worse for the Irish in the nightcap Sunday. Notre Dame carried a 6-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning on the strength of three home runs from Macri, Bransfield and left fielder Craig Cooper.But the 7-foot-1 Doherty was unable to keep the Panthers at bay in their last at bat, allowing four earned runs in 1/3 of an inning on three hits, two walks and one hit batter, as the Panthers won 7-6. Freshman Dan Kapala actually came into the game after Doherty’s troubles with the bases loaded, just one out and the game tied 6-6.Kapala struck out P.J. Hiser for the second out and went ahead 1-2 on first baseman Tom Cashman before missing on a pitch low-and-inside that got by Sanchez, allowing the winning run to score. “In the bottom of the ninth, Ryan Doherty just had one bad game,” Mainieri said. “It’s the first bad game he’s had all season. It’s unfortunate that it came at that time, but that’s the life of a closer. When they have a bad game, it generally costs you a ballgame.”The Irish will look to bounce back today with a 6 p.m. game against Ball State (20-16) at Frank Eck Stadium.

Notes:u After losing three out of four games over the weekend, the Irish have dropped in all four baseball polls. They now rank eighth in the Collegiate Baseball Magazine poll, ninth in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll and 11th in both the Baseball America and SportsWeekly/ESPN Coaches polls.u The Irish have added a game with Manchester College Thursday to their schedule in order to make up for their cancelled game with Purdue that was rained out April 20. The NCAA allows baseball teams to play a maximum 56-game schedule in the regular season.u Backup catcher Sean Gaston did not make the trip to Seton Hall and Pittsburgh over the weekend, as the freshman has been sidelined with mononucleosis.