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Baseball: Streak hits 22 with Rutgers sweep

Ken Fowler, Kyle Cassily, and Chris Khorey | Monday, April 24, 2006

There was no catch-22 for Notre Dame this weekend. The Irish (31-8, 14-1 Big East) beat Rutgers 14-12 in a wild game Sunday to sweep the Scarlet Knights and extend their winning streak to a program-record 22 games.

But it wasn’t easy.

Ahead of Rutgers 14-6 with a 21-game winning streak on the line, Notre Dame’s pitching faltered in the seventh.

“I’ve coached too many games against Rutgers to know they were not going to quit on us,” Irish coach Paul Mainieri said.

Southpaw reliever Mike Dury surrendered two runs on three straight singles and a hit batsman before Mainieri brought in right-hander Joey Williamson. With two on and two in, Williamson walked the first batter he faced, allowed an RBI single and delivered a wild pitch that allowed Rutgers center fielder Jeff Grose to score.

Notre Dame freshman left-hander Kyle Weiland finished the inning – and the game – allowing just two inherited runners to score unearned following a fielding error by third baseman Brett Lilley.

Weiland (2 2-3 innings, two hits, no runs) and right-handed reliever Jess Stewart (4 1-3, two hits, two runs) were the bright spots for Notre Dame in an otherwise difficult day on the mound.

“It’s unimaginable, but true, that we could give up 20 hits in a game, and I could sit here and tell you that the key to the victory was our pitching,” Mainieri said. “I thought Kyle Weiland was phenomenal at the end of the game.”

Stewart relieved Irish starter Tom Thornton, who allowed three runs and was hit in the left knee with a hot-shot up the middle in the first inning. Mainieri allowed Thornton to finish the first, but took out the lefty after he surrendered a double to Grose in the second.

In the first, Scarlet Knights catcher Frank Meade delivered a two-run double off the lefty, and first baseman Steve Hook hit an RBI double off Thornton after the senior was hit to give Rutgers a 3-0 lead in the first.

But Rutgers’ lead was short-lived.

Notre Dame first baseman Craig Cooper blasted his fourth leadoff homer of the year on an 0-2 fastball, and Irish designated hitter Matt Bransfield delivered a two-out, two-strike dinger with two on to give Notre Dame a 4-3 lead.

Cooper’s homer extended his program-record hit streak to 21 straight. Mainieri said he hasn’t approached the subject with the senior.

“All I’m doing is staying away from Cooper and letting him play,” he said. “I just tell him what time to be at the ballpark, and hopefully that’s enough.”

Cooper was 4-for-5 with two doubles, a homer and five RBI in the game. He finished the series 8-for-11 with nine RBI, eight runs, three homers, two doubles and a 1.727 slugging percentage. The performance boosted his season batting average to .441 and his career Big East batting average to .445 – now first-place all-time in the conference.

In the fourth inning, Notre Dame right fielder Cody Rizzo hit a two-run single, and Cooper followed with a two-run double to give the Irish a 13-6 lead. Lilley knocked in Irish shortstop Greg Lopez with a ground ball single in the sixth to extend the lead to 14-6.

The win was the eighth straight comeback victory for Notre Dame and 13th such win in the team’s streak.

Notre Dame 15, Rutgers 3

The Irish used a nine-run sixth inning Saturday to blow open a close game and tie the longest winning streak in school history with a 15-3 victory over Rutgers at Frank Eck Stadium.

Notre Dame sent 14 batters to the plate in the sixth frame, garnering seven hits and scoring all nine runs with two outs.

“We got clutch hit after clutch hit,” Maineri said of the offensive outburst. “That’s what our guys have been doing, getting the clutch hits when we need them.”

With the Irish up 4-3 in the sixth, Notre Dame right fielder Danny Dressman got the rally started with a base hit with two outs and a runner on first. Designated hitter Jeremy Barnes knocked in two runs with the single, then, after the next two batters reached base, scored from third on a two-RBI single by centerfielder Alex Nettey. Lopez was hit by a pitch, and catcher Cody Rizzo emptied the bases with a three-RBI double.

After a walk and a hit batter loaded the bases again, Dressman knocked in two more runs with his second single of the inning.

Right hander Jeff Manship earned the win for the Irish, throwing seven innings and allowing three runs – all in the first inning – on six hits with eight strikeouts and two walks.

Mainieri said Manship’s performance Saturday was reminiscent of starts by Notre right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who has given up early runs several times this year only to shut down opponents for the rest of the game.

“I thought what Manship did was Samardzija-like,” Maineri said. “He struggled early, but was able to battle back and dominate the game.”

Notre Dame 11, Rutgers 5

The fan and media that descended upon Frank Eck Stadium to see Jeff Samardzija pitch in Friday’s series opener served as an electric backdrop for an electric day at the plate for Notre Dame.

A crowd of 3,507 fans – part of a record-setting weekend attendance of 10,003 – saw the Irish top Rutgers in the first of three weekend games.

Cooper extended his hit streak to 19 games with two two-run home runs over the right field fence, and Samardzija (6-1) picked up the win after working seven and one-third innings and allowing three earned runs on six hits and three walks. He struck out six Rutgers batters.

“It was a monumental night for Notre Dame baseball,” Mainieri said. “We had a packed house, beautiful weather, a 19-game win streak on the line. And we’ve got a guy like Jeff Samardzija, who’s practically a rock star celebrity in this town now.”

The Irish rode a three-run rally in the fifth inning to break open a 2-2 deadlock. Cooper belted his first long ball off Scarlet Knights starter Steve Holt to spark the offensive outburst, scoring center fielder Nettey. Designated hitter Brezovsky gave the Irish the 5-2 advantage several batters later on an RBI groundout.

“[Cooper] has been phenomenal. If he’s not the player of the year in the conference, I don’t know who is,” Mainieri said. “He’s just been fantastic – great defense at first base, hitting in the clutch, getting us going, hitting home runs, doing all the things that he needs to do.”

The Irish added two more runs in the sixth inning off a bases loaded chop RBI single over the pitcher’s head by third baseman Brett Lilley and a bases loaded walk by Dressman.

A four-run seventh inning completed the damage inflicted by the Notre Dame bats on the day. Lopez belted an RBI sacrifice fly to center field, and Nettey knocked home another run on an error by Rutgers’ first baseman Steve Hook.

Cooper later hit his second two-run dinger over the right field fence to extend the Irish lead to 11-2.

But Rutgers cut the score to 11-5 with a three-run eighth inning. Stewart entered in relief and stopped the Scarlet Knights attack, striking out four of six batters faced in his inning and two-thirds of work.

“He’s been so reliable for us coming in, throwing strikes, changing speeds,” Mainieri said. “And he’s been like that all year for us.”