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Baseball: Team tied for nation’s best streak

Chris Khorey | Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Notre Dame center fielder Alex Nettey rounded third base with his arms in the air and was surrounded by a mob of green jerseys as he stepped on home plate Saturday in a series-ending victory over St. John’s.

The Irish senior had just pulled a first pitch, split-finger fastball from Red Storm pitcher Rich Armento over the left field fence for a walk-off, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning. The 7-5 win capped off a three-game sweep of St. John’s – including 9-2 and 13-7 wins during a Thursday doubleheader at Frank Eck Stadium.

An 8-2 win Tuesday over Toledo stretched Notre Dame’s win streak to 18 games – tied for both the longest in Notre Dame history and college baseball this season with Mississippi State and Old Dominion.

First baseman Craig Cooper also extended his hit streak to 17 games after belting a home run against Toledo.

Notre Dame (27-8, 11-1 Big East) and St. John’s (22-11, 8-4) entered the series deadlocked for first place in the Big East and the Irish left in sole possession of the league – one full game ahead of now-second place Connecticut.

“He just works harder than anybody – and now he gets up there and has a chance to have a moment that he’ll never forget in his life,” Irish head coach Paul Mainieri said of Nettey. “It makes it all worthwhile – it’s what college athletics is all about.”

The Red Storm erased a 4-0 Irish lead in the eighth inning with a five-run rally off Notre Dame starter Jeff Manship and relievers Mike Dury and Kyle Weiland prior to Nettey’s ninth-inning heroics.

Irish catcher Sean Gaston opened the Irish half of the ninth with a walk off Armento.

Second baseman Ross Brezovsky then stepped to the plate and belted a game-tying triple to the gap in left centerfield over the outstretched glove of Red Storm center fielder Will Vogl.

“Coach had come up to me right before my at-bat and said ‘I want you to fake bunt until you get a strike on you’,” Brezovsky said. “Then he actually said, ‘When you get a strike on you I want you to hit one out of here.’ I got to third base and he looked up at me after going nuts and goes ‘I told you to hit it out of here’.”

Nettey’s walk-off blast was the first Irish game-ending home run at Frank Eck Stadium in five years – the last one a grand slam from Ken Meyer to beat Central Michigan on April 19, 2001. In the three-game series, Nettey was 1-for-10 at the plate with three runs and five RBIs.

“I know I haven’t been swinging very well at all this series,” Nettey said. “So I just told myself to relax, calm down and just be there in the moment and put a good swing on.”

Manship threw seven innings of work before being chased from the mound by back-to-back Red Storm singles in the eighth. Manship allowed two earned runs on six hits and four walks, fanning seven St. John’s batters.

A two-run double by shortstop Greg Lopez and RBI singles by third baseman Brett Lilley and right fielder Danny Dressman in the second inning gave the Irish the initial 4-0 lead off Red Storm starter Scott Barnes.

“You never know when these kind of wins are going to come about, but when they do you see how it just builds your team,” Mainieri said. “It builds your team to start believing they can do anything and you start to get feelings that you have something special on your hands.”

Notre Dame 9, St. John’s 2 Game 1

Notre Dame starter Jeff Samardzija surrendered only two earned runs on 11 Red Storm hits with a little help from his defense in the first game of a doubleheader Thursday.

A bases-loaded infield double play in the top of the second erased the Red Storm threat with the Irish already trailing 2-0, and an inning later another runner in scoring position was thwarted by a double play ball.

“It was a matter of cutting down the walks and then just figuring out the strike zone,” Samardzija said of his early inning troubles. “They swung the bat well today. Our defense did so well it overcame a couple of those jams.”

From there Samardzija settled down and the Irish bats came alive.

The Irish crawled back into the game with a run in the second and fifth innings. Nettey scored Gaston on a sacrifice bunt to the right side and Dressman poked a chopper single up the middle to tie the game at 2-2.

Gaston, Nettey, Cooper and Dressman each drove in a run during a five-run sixth inning to open the game up 7-2. Lopez added the final two runs on a hard-hit groundball to Red Storm shortstop Jeff Grantham that bounced off the fielder’s glove and into the outfield. St. John’s committed eight errors in the game.

“They obviously helped us a little bit with some plays on defense,” Mainieri said. “A wise man once told me, ‘luck is the residue of design’. If your hitters are hitting hard groundballs and you’re forcing them to make tough plays, then occasionally the other team will help you.”

Notre Dame 13, St. John’s 7 Game 2

Notre Dame left fielder Matt Bransfield went 4-for-4 with two RBIs and the Irish used an eight-run fourth inning to overcome an early 6-3 deficit in the second game.

The eight-run inning included RBI singles by Lilley, Bransfield and Lopez and a two-run double by Gaston to take the 11-6 lead.

Irish starter Tom Thornton was shelled early by Red Storm batters, lasting only two and a third innings and surrendering six earned runs on nine hits. Junior righthander Jess Stewart came on in relief and pitched six and two-thirds while scattering three win.

“Tommy’s pitches were a little flat. I think the effect of coming in off four days rest you could see it a little bit,” Mainieri said. “He just didn’t have it, but Jess Stewart came in and threw great and we swung the bats well behind him.”

St. John’s center fielder Will Vogl drove in a run in the sixth inning before Cooper and Lilley secured an RBI apiece in the same inning to cement the 13-7 final.

The Red Storm took the early 2-0 lead in the first off RBI singles by Sam DeLuca and Gil Zayas. A four-run third inning gave St. John’s the 6-3 advantage and forced Mainieri to pull Thornton from the mound in favor of Stewart.

Notre Dame 8, Toledo 2

Sophomore left-hander Wade Korpi earned his fourth win of the year as Notre Dame overcame a slow start to beat Toledo 8-2 Tuesday at Frank Eck Stadium.

After being held without a hit for the first four innings, the Irish scored three runs in the fifth on a two-run home run by first baseman Craig Cooper and an RBI single by catcher Sean Gaston.

“I was really confident even though we were no hit early,” Mainieri said. “We hit some balls hard.”

Notre Dame added to its lead in the sixth on a two-run home run by right fielder Cody Rizzo and then sent nine batters to the plate en route to scoring three runs in the eighth.

Korpi pitched eight innings, allowing one run on four hits with six strikeouts and three walks.

Toledo scored first as third baseman Scott Boley took home after a Korpi pitch got by Gaston in the top of the fourth. The Rockets got another run in the top of the ninth on a home run by designated hitter Ryan Laude.

Toledo starter Mike Ellis lasted five full innings, allowing four runs on three hits and taking his first loss of the year.

Toledo head coach Cory Mee is a 1992 graduate of Notre Dame and played on the 1991 team, which was the last Irish squad to win 18 straight games.

Notre Dame will look for its 19th straight win tonight against IPFW at 5 p.m. at Frank Eck Stadium.