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BASEBALL: Hitting the cut-off

Tom Dorwart | Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Despite clinching their series against the Villanova Wildcats Monday morning, the Irish have a sour taste in their mouths.

Notre Dame won the opening game of the make-up doubleheader 9-4 – which started at 9:30 in the morning.

But, after an electric comeback, the second game ended in a 7-7, 10-inning tie because of the Big East’s travel rule – which states that no teams can play an inning after 4:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

In the first game, sophomore right-hander Dan Kapala pitched his second complete-game in a row. Kapala (3-1) earned his third win of the season after allowing four runs on eight hits and four walks. Catcher Sean Gaston – batting in the nine spot – blasted a three-run home run in the third-inning to give the Irish an early 8-3 lead. The round-tripper was Gaston’s first of the season.

The Irish were lucky to get the stalemate in the second game. Trailing 7-4 with no outs in the bottom of the ninth, the green-clad ballplayers threatened with two runners on base.

That’s when junior shortstop Greg Lopez used a little help from Mother Nature. Lopez – batting .350 and fielding nearly perfectly throughout the last 12 games for the Irish – kept his head down, shifted his weight and nailed the ball high into the air.

Easy out.

Sacrifice fly – so it seemed.

But the ball kept going.

What looked like a routine fly-out turned into a wind-aided, game-tying home run. Lopez poked the three-run dinger over the right field fence, and all the Villanova right-fielder could do was turn and watch as the ball sailed over the 331-foot fence.

The homer was Lopez’s second of the season.

Revved up and primed for a series sweep, the Irish failed to get the next two batters on base. Junior centerfielder Alex Nettey then smashed a solid grounder to short, beat out the throw to first and advanced to second on an error.

With the winning run 180 feet away, freshman third baseman Brett Lilley stepped to the plate. Lilley belted the first-pitch right to the rightfielder for the final out of the inning.

Neither team scored in the 10th. Ace closer Ryan Doherty shut down the Wildcats in the top of the inning. The Wildcats had a runner on second base after a sacrifice bunt, but Doherty fanned outfielder James Dolbier with hard fastball and got a fly-out from infielder Mark Cardillo to get out of the jam.

The Irish threatened again in the bottom half of the inning with the bases loaded and two outs, but junior pinch-hitter Matt Bransfield popped out to end the game.

The Irish just couldn’t get the key hits when they needed them.

“Other than Gaston’s and Lopez’s hits, we really didn’t get the big hits,” coach Paul Mainieri said.

On the day, Gaston and Lopez batted 4-8 and 4-7, respectively, in leading the Irish offense to a team series batting average of .343 against a Wildcat staff that ranked third in the Big East with a 3.53 ERA and a .241 opponent batting average. Gaston improved his batting average to .305, while Lopez upped his to .292.

The Irish head into finals week with a 24-15-1 record, having won 10 out of their last 12 games. They are on an eight-game unbeaten streak.

After taking the series opener 5-2, Friday, winning the early-bird contest, Monday morning, and staging a valiant comeback effort to forge a tie in the final game, Monday afternoon, the Irish (24-15-1, 10-4-1 Big East) moved into sole possession of second place in the Big East standings – behind only St. John’s (26-12, 11-3). Boston College (26-14, 11-5) sits .012 percentage points behind Notre Dame.

The Irish own the head-to-head advantage over BC because of a 2-1 series win at BC. And, just one game behind St. John’s, the Irish still face the Red Storm in a pivotal three-game set beginning May 7. Each game of the weekend series will be televised by ESPNU, ESPN 2 and CSTV respectively.