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Baseball: Cooper, Lilley spark a series sweep of Bulls

Chris Khorey | Monday, April 10, 2006

Notre Dame first baseman Craig Cooper and third baseman Brett Lilley keyed an offensive explosion as the Irish swept South Florida 9-6, 10-4 and 10-1 in a three-game series this weekend in Tampa, Florida.

Cooper and Lilley were a combined 9-for-13 at the plate, scoring 11 runs and striking out only once in 31 combined plate appearances.

Notre Dame coach Paul Mainieri also praised Lilley’s strong play in the field.

“Lilley was unbelievable,” Mainieri said. “Obviously he hit well, but he also made three diving catches. I think they would have been on ESPN’s Web Gems.”

Cooper, who has batted at the top of the order most of the year, raised his batting average to a team-leading .429 for the season.

“He’s been a great lead-off hitter for us, just like I envisioned he would be,” Mainieri said.

As a team, Notre Dame batted .409 and got 49 hits in the series. The Bulls, who dropped to 14-19 overall at 5-7 in the Big East, hit only .231.

The Irish, who started the season 2-5, are now 22-8 overall (8-1 in the Big East). Their league record sits them at the top of the Big East standings in a first-place tie with St. John’s.

Notre Dame is also in the midst of a 12-game winning streak dating back to March 25 against Georgetown.

“I kept telling people not to panic early in the season, because the more we play, the better we play,” Mainieri said. “We always play our best baseball in April and May.”

Cooper credited the improvement partially to better weather in South Bend.

“Early on we spent a lot of time indoors,” the senior said. “Now we get to play outside every day, and we’re hitting our stride.”

Notre Dame 9, South Florida 6

Notre Dame right-hander Jeff Samardzija struggled early Friday, allowing three runs in the bottom of the first, but recovered to pitch 5 and 2/3 innings, allowing six runs on six hits and picking up the win.

“I have to go back to fundamentals during the week,” Samardzija said of his performance. “There are some things I need to correct, but it shouldn’t be too hard to fix them.”

Mainieri said he had confidence in Samardzija, who also struggled early in his last start on March 29 against Pittsburgh.

“By some people’s standards, they might see that as struggling, but I see it as just him settling down,” Mainieri said. “A lesser person might give up after struggling early, but that’s not Jeff. He just keeps battling.”

Offensively, the Irish banged out 12 hits, including three by Cooper, four by Lilley and three by leftfielder Matt Bransfield.

Notre Dame freshman reliever Kyle Weiland earned his ninth save of the year, tying the school record for first-year pitchers set by Aaron Heilman in 1998.

Notre Dame 10, South Florida 4

The Irish pounded out a season-high 17 hits, including six combined from Cooper and Lilley to put the Bulls away early Saturday.

Notre Dame scored seven runs in the fifth to take a 9-1 lead and put the game out of reach. The Bulls scored three in the eighth, but a run in the top of the ninth pushed the Irish lead back to six.

Senior left-hander Tom Thornton started the game for Notre Dame, allowing just one run in six innings and earning the win.

Mainieri started freshman Jeremy Barnes at second base, inserting regular second baseman Ross Brezovsky into the lineup at designated hitter. Barnes went 1-for-4 at the plate with a run scored and two RBIs.

“Jeremy Barnes is one of our best infielders, but Brezovsky, Lilley, and [senior shortstop Greg] Lopez are all returning players and good infielders,” Mainieri said of his decision. “I’m just trying to keep everyone fresh and healthy and give them experience so if we do have an injury, it won’t hurt us as much.”

Notre Dame 10, South Florida 1

Notre Dame right-hander Jeff Manship and South Florida left-hander Davis Bilardello were locked in a pitchers dual through five innings Sunday when the Irish exploded to take a commanding lead.

Already leading 2-1, the Irish scored five runs in the sixth and three more in the seventh to provide the final margin. Barnes, starting at shortstop with Lopez moved to designated hitter, led the Irish offensively. He went 4-for-5 with two RBIs and two runs scored.

Manship pitched eight complete innings, allowing one run on four hits for his fourth win of the season.

Notre Dame will play Oakland and Manchester Tuesday and Wednesday at home before three games with St. John’s at Frank Eck Stadium over Easter break. The Irish and Red Storm will play a doubleheader Thursday and a game Saturday.

“Obviously, we can’t overlook our midweek opponents, because they could jump up and bite us in the butt, but St. John’s will be a big series,” Cooper said. “They’re one of the top teams in the Big East.”

The Oakland and Manchester games will be at 5:05 p.m. The Thursday doubleheader at St. Johns will be at 12:05 p.m., and the Saturday game against the Red Storm will begin at 12:05 p.m.