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Baseball: Extra special

Kyle Cassily | Thursday, April 20, 2006

It isn’t mentioned in the dugout or on the diamond, but Sean Gaston’s RBI sacrifice fly to shallow left field in the bottom of the tenth inning gave Notre Dame more than a 4-3 extra-innings victory Wednesday over Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne at Frank Eck Stadium – at 19 straight wins, it gave the current squad the Notre Dame single season record for consecutive wins.

Irish head coach Paul Mainieri said that the win streak has been mentioned only once since it began – in a team meeting on Monday following a three-game sweep of St. John’s.

“The kids aren’t going to talk about the winning streak anymore,” Mainieri said. “We’ve got a big game against Rutgers on Friday, and that’s all we’re thinking about. We didn’t talk about it at all – nobody mentioned it at all until Monday.”

The No. 16 Irish (29-8, 11-1 Big East) weren’t the only ones to extend a streak Wednesday – first baseman Craig Cooper’s RBI single into left field in the third inning lengthened the Irish senior’s hit streak to 18 games.

Right-handed reliever Cole Uebelhor (3-4) took the loss for IPFW (14-17) while Irish freshman Kyle Weiland (2-3) picked up the win for his inning and two-thirds of work.

Sophomore southpaw David Gruener got the start for the Irish and pitched six innings of one-hit baseball – the lone hit a three-run bomb over the left field fence. Gruener fanned three Mastodon batters, walked one, but allowed only one earned run – the two Mastodon runners scoring on the home run reached base on consecutive errors.

“Our pitching was outstanding,” Mainieri said. “I thought that Gruener was phenomenal.”

The Irish led off the home half of the tenth inning with a first-pitch single to left by freshman Jeremy Barnes. Left fielder Matt Bransfield stepped to the plate and hit a deep ball to right field, but Mastodon right fielder Zach Walton got under it for the put-out.

With Barnes still on first, shortstop Greg Lopez pushed a hard line drive towards first base. IPFW first baseman Caleb Smith got leather on the ball, but it shot out of the webbing and bounded into the outfield grass, allowing Lopez to reach first safely and Barnes to advance to third base.

With one out Gaston worked the count full on Mastodon reliever Adam Gibson before pushing the game-winning RBI sacrifice fly to left field, scoring Barnes.

“When I think back to the 2002 team that went to the College World Series, we won an awful lot of games in our last at-bat that year,” Mainieri said. “And all of a sudden this team is starting to win some games in their last at-bat. The more you do that, the more your confidence as a team grows – you know you’re not out of the game.”

The Mastodons and Irish exchanged blows in the sixth inning and left the frame with a 3-3 tie. The game would remain deadlocked until the tenth-inning Notre Dame heroics.

Brent Alwine and Walton -the bottom of the Mastodon order – reached base on back-to-back errors while Gruener still held a no-hit bid aloft. Alwine ripped a hard grounder to third baseman Eddie Mendiola that rebounded off his mitt to the back of the bag. Walton then reached on a dropped catch at first base by Cooper on a Gruener put-out throw.

IPFW leadoff hitter Ryan Keena – the holder of both the Mastodons’ hits – took advantage of the Irish mistakes and pulled a three-run long ball out of the park in left field to take the 3-2 lead.

The equalizer for the Irish came soon after with Bransfield’s RBI double to the fence in left centerfield, scoring right fielder Danny Dressman from third. Dressman reached base on a deep double just into fair territory along the left field line. Barnes advanced Dressman to third base with a sacrifice bunt. Barnes was 0-for-7 prior to his tenth-inning leadoff hit.

“I think we were fortunate but I think that we made a lot of our breaks too,” Mainieri said. “Barnes had a great at-bat to lead off the tenth. He was having a couple of tough days so it was great to see him get up there and lead off with a big hit.”

Notre Dame got to an early 2-0 lead in the third inning with a four-hit explosion. Center fielder Alex Nettey led off with a chop single up the middle and advanced to second on a balk by Mastodon starter Eric Lambert (three earned runs, seven hits, no walks).

Catcher Cody Rizzo plated Nettey with a line drive double off shortstop Chris Venvertloh’s glove that escaped into the outfield – Rizzo then stole third base.

Cooper then ripped his hit-streak extending RBI single through the left side of the infield to score Rizzo and take the 2-0 advantage.

Junior right hander Jess Stewart and southpaw Mike Dury hurled an inning and two-thirds and two-thirds of an inning, respectively, in relief of Gruener. Neither allowed a run, and Stewart allowed the second and last Mastodon hit.

Nettey had a productive day at the plate going 2-for-4, but stranded four Irish runners. Dressman went 2-for-5 and had seven put-outs in right field.

“We played great yesterday, but today for some reason I thought we just played a little bit tight,” Mainieri said. “But hey, we’ve got the win and that’s all that matters.”