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Hoyas bite, Irish bite back

Matt Lozar | Monday, April 19, 2004

The three-game sweep may have come by a combined score of 38-17, but Irish coach Paul Mainieri knows it wasn’t as easy as the scores indicate.

No. 5 Notre Dame improved to 30-5 overall and more importantly 11-2 in the Big East by winning 18-7, 11-4 and 9-6 at Georgetown over the weekend.

The three conference road wins allowed the Irish to keep pace with Rutgers, who is also 11-2 after sweeping Connecticut in Piscataway, N.J.

“We needed these three. These were must-wins for us,” Mainieri said. “Georgetown is the most improved team in the conference. They were as scrappy as they could be. Don’t be misled by Saturday’s scores – we had to play hard. They wouldn’t go away, [it was] a battle.

“To get three wins was a real accomplishment.”

Mainieri switched his starting rotation and threw lefty Tom Thornton in Saturday’s opener and Chris Niesel in the nightcap. To his surprise, Niesel pitched better than Thornton, who was roughed up for seven runs, four earned, in his 4 1/3 innings of work.

But Thornton (5-1) kept his team in it until the offense could just explode to earn the win.

In the fifth, the Irish scored seven and tacked on six more in the sixth inning. All nine Irish starters collected at least one hit and scored at least one run while eight of the starters drove in at least one run.

Niesel battled throughout his eight innings of work allowing 11 hits but yielding no walks to improve to 5-0.

“I thought Chris [Niesel] pitched better than Tom [Thornton],” Mainieri said. “Tom had a tough time, leaving pitches up in the strike zone. That was a tough game, we won big, but we were down 7-4.

“Chris pitched courageously, and he gave up 11 hits. He really competed hard, and it wasn’t exactly the way we would map it out since it didn’t work out for Tom Thornton going six or seven.”

The Irish fell behind early again, down 2-0 heading into the third. Then, designated hitter Matt Bransfield hit his first of two two-run home runs in the game.

Notre Dame’s offense woke up in the fourth, scoring five runs and breaking the game open for Niesel. The Irish tacked on two more in the fifth behind Bransfield’s other home run.

Bransfield finished Saturday with seven RBIs, and the Irish batted around four times on the day.

On Sunday, Mainieri sent right-hander Grant Johnson to the hill, but the junior could only go three innings – not because of shoulder problems, which Johnson has been recovering from, but because of Johnson battling a stomach virus.

Mainieri then inserted freshman Jeff Samardzija, who joined the team late Saturday night after practicing with the football team Saturday afternoon.

Samardzija did what he’s been doing all year – shut down the opposition. The freshman went 4 2/3 innings in relief and kept the Irish in the game long enough for the offense to wake up.

“Jeff was tremendous today. It was so badly needed,” Mainieri said. “Grant wasn’t feeling well, but he battled through three innings. Jeff pitched into the eighth and that was a big thing for us.”

The Hoyas were ahead 5-4 going into the seventh, but the Irish offense scored five in the bottom of the inning – on only one hit – to build a 9-5 lead. That one hit came from Zach Sisko – a grand slam with two outs. Sisko was in the game at second base in place of senior Steve Sollmann, who broke his jaw against Villanova April 3.

Samardzija improved to 2-1 with the victory and closer Ryan Doherty recorded four outs to pick up his sixth save.

All three days the Irish had to battle a scrappy home Georgetown team, but the Irish did enough each time to pick up the win and stay tied for the Big East lead.

“It was a great total team effort,” Mainieri said. “When one guy didn’t do well, one guy would pick up the slack.

“That’s what great teams do.”