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Baseball: Flameout

Matt Gamber | Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Steady rains tried to help the Irish put out the Flames, but the Illinois-Chicago offense ignited for five seventh-inning runs to beat Notre Dame, 10-5, at Frank Eck Stadium Tuesday.

The Notre Dame (25-17, 10-8 Big East) pitching staff was rocked for the straight game, allowing 13 hits after giving up 15 in Sunday’s 13-12 win over Louisville.

“We hit the ball fine, but you can’t win many games when you give up 10 runs,” Irish coach Dave Schrage said. “We didn’t get very good middle relief.”

Senior left-hander Sam Elam lasted just 3 2/3 innings, giving up two runs and throwing 104 pitches with several Major League scouts on hand. Control issues have plagued Elam throughout his Irish career, but scouts loved his low-90s fastball and sharp breaking ball enough to draft him in the 23rd round of last year’s draft.

“The first three innings, I thought he looked really good,” Schrage said. “Whether he tired or lost his focus, he couldn’t locate after that and got himself in trouble.”

The Horizon League-leading Flames (18-19, 11-4) capitalized on what Schrage calls “freebies,” or the number of free bases his team allows each game. Notre Dame allowed at least 16 Tuesday: six walks, four hit batters, four wild pitches, a balk and an error.

“We play these midweek games and people take it for granted. These teams can play,” said sophomore third baseman Mick Doyle, who led the Irish with three hits. “I don’t know if we don’t understand it, but it’s an effort thing.”

The Flames struck first, as catcher Nathan Orf’s two-out double in the third plated first baseman Brandon Harwell for the game’s first run.

Notre Dame scored three times to grab the lead in its half of the third. Sophomore second baseman Greg Sherry was hit by a pitch to start the inning, and he advanced to second on a balk. Sophomore left fielder Golden Tate’s line-drive single up the middle scored Sherry to tie the game, and he moved into scoring position on another balk.

After senior shortstop Jeremy Barnes singled and sophomore designated hitter David Casey reached on a fielder’s choice to load the bases, Doyle hit a routine fly ball that should have been an easy out. But right fielder Chris Rutta lost his footing on the slick outfield grass, allowing Tate to score and each runner to move up a base. Junior right fielder David Mills would add a single to right to give the Irish a 3-1 edge.

“He was probably one of our hottest hitters over the weekend and he kept it up today,” Schrage said of Doyle, who is 15-for-29 in eight games since moving back to third base.

Doyle added: “I’m just trying to be aggressive early in the count and hit as many fastballs as I can.”

Elam’s control began to elude him in the fourth, when Illinois-Chicago managed to tie the game with just one hit. After a lead-off walk and a balk, third baseman Jason Ganek singled to cut the lead to 3-2.

Elam then walked and hit the next two batters, respectively, but got a bases-load strikeout for the second out. He hit Harwell with a 3-1 delivery, however, forcing in the tying run and causing Schrage to bring in sophomore right-hander Evan Danieli. Danieli, who hadn’t pitched since his Feb. 22 start against Purdue with tendinitis, fell behind 3-0 but battled back to strike out Orf with three straight-looking strikes.

Danieli struggled in the fifth, walking the first hitter on four pitches before allowed a two-run, opposite-field home run to left fielder Jake Carr. Danieli, who took the loss, was chased after giving up a walk and a hit, but junior right-hander Steven Mazur got out of the jam with help from junior A.J. Pollock’s perfect throw from center field that kept a run from scoring and completed a double play.

Notre Dame cut the lead in half in the bottom of the fifth, as Casey and Doyle lined one-out singles to center in front of junior first baseman Casey Martin’s RBI single.

After Mazur’s scoreless sixth, the Irish wasted a golden opportunity to take the lead. Pollock and Tate both reached to start the inning but were stranded on first and second, respectively.

From there, Illinois-Chicago exploded. Mazur allowed five runs in the inning, which began with Andy Leonard’s double. After a one-out single put runners at the corner, Ganek’s third opposite-field knock of the day plated the sixth Flames run. Rutta then blasted a mammoth three-run homer that cleared the left-field fence with ease.

Another single chased Mazur, and junior righty Andrew Scheid finished the game for the Irish, throwing three innings of scoreless relief.

The loss was Notre Dame’s third in its last four non-conference games, which are typically scheduled in the middle of the week as tune-ups for weekend Big East series.

“We’ve done this a lot this season and it’s getting a little bit old,” Doyle said of the team’s non-conference struggles. “Coaches are harping on it all the time and it’s just an effort thing. We’ve got to bring our ‘A’ game every day.”

With three three-game Big East series still to play, the Irish – who currently sit fifth in the 12-team conference’s standings – believe there is still ground to be made up, beginning with this weekend’s home series against Connecticut.

“We were really encouraged coming off two conference wins off two really good teams,” Schrage said. “We’ve got a lot of big baseball ahead of us.”