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BASEBALL: Team takes road trip to Rutgers

Joe Meixell | Friday, April 1, 2005

If the Irish baseball team seems bitter this week, it’s because they’re focused. If they seem a bit jumpy in classes, it’s because they’ve got something else on their minds.

Notre Dame (13-10) – winner of four straight – takes on longtime Big East rival Rutgers (13-9) in a noon doubleheader Saturday and a single game at noon Sunday in conference action at Rutgers’ Class of ’53 Baseball Complex.

“It’s hard for me to even say the name Rutgers,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “When it’s the week that you play Rutgers, there’s a little extra bounce in the step, a little extra fire in the heart to go play,”

The last time Notre Dame traveled to Piscataway, N.J. to face the Scarlet Knights – during the 2003 season – the Irish dropped the final two games of the three-game series, dropping behind the Knights for first place in the Big East and ending any hope of contending for the top seed in the Big East tournament.

In the final game, the Irish appeared to have sealed the victory, but a controversial call on a play at first base kept the game going. The Irish lost in an epic 19-inning battle.

“We’ve got a little bit of a sour taste in our mouths from that game because we thought we won the game,” Mainieri said. “The game should have been over. We were running off the field to celebrate, and the umpire made a call that we thought was wrong.

“When our first baseman went back to argue the call, the runner ran home from third to tie the game. It cost us the regular season championship.”

Junior Cody Rizzo is one of six players on the current Irish roster who was involved in the 5-3 loss two seasons ago that lasted almost five hours. Rizzo remembers it well and is excited to face such a quality opponent this weekend.

“It’s going to be a test,” Rizzo said. “We’ve sort of started to turn the season around a little bit, and this is going to show us how we’re doing.

“It’s a rivalry every year. To go out there and have their fans cheering against us gets you going every game.”

Rutgers is coming off an 11-2 home-opener victory over Rider. First baseman/outfielder Ryan Hill leads the Scarlet Knights with a .393 batting average in only 28 at-bats. The top every-day hitters for the Knights are infielder Cory Rodriguez (.369, 84 at-bats), outfielder Johnny Defendis (.351, 97 at-bats) and first baseman Rich Canuso (.323, 65 at-bats). Infielder Todd Frazier has six home runs.

The Knights have already knocked off No. 3 Georgia Tech and swept Big Ten power Minnesota this season.

Irish freshman second baseman Brett Lilley continues to pace the Notre Dame offense with a .384 batting average. Senior first/third baseman Matt Edwards has blasted his way to a .382 average after a solid midweek game against Western Michigan in which he homered three times over the left field fence. His home run total is nine through 23 games.

Though this weekend’s series takes place early in the conference schedule, the two perennial conference title contenders are tied atop the Big East standings at 3-1. Mainieri recognizes the importance of the series.

“I think they’re very important games, very critical games because if you want to beat teams out for the championship, you better beat them head to head,” he said. “They’re critical because you know that they’re [Rutgers] going to be a main contender for the [Big East] championship.”

Junior lefty Tom Thornton will try to earn his third win of the season in Saturday’s seven-inning game one. With a 2-3 record, Thornton leads the team with 33.2 innings pitched and is second on the team with 17 strikeouts.

The game two starting pitcher for the Irish will be either sophomore Jeff Manship or sophomore Derik Olvey, depending on the weather. Manship, still easing his way into the rotation after elbow surgery, will throw two innings unless the weather is cold. Otherwise, Olvey will get the nod.

Two-sport standout Jeff Samardzija will pitch game three of the series. With a 3-0 record, Samardzija should be an imposing third game pitcher. He will fly to Newark Airport on Saturday night after an afternoon football practice.

Since 1998, the Irish and the Knights have dominated the Big East, appearing in 12 NCAA tournaments, winning 5 Big East tournament championships and seven Big East regular season championships combined. Four of those seasons – when one of the two teams won the Big East regular season title – the other came in a close second.

“It just seems like it always comes down to Rutgers and Notre Dame, so there’s a natural rivalry there,” Mainieri said. “Every time Notre Dame and Rutgers get on the field to play each other in baseball, it’s a great ballgame.”

In a normal Big East three-game series, the teams usually duke it out for 25 innings, but with Notre Dame and Rutgers, anything can happen.