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Baseball: Recent losses threaten team’s strong season

Kyle Cassily | Friday, May 19, 2006

The 2006 campaign is not yet over for No. 19 Notre Dame – with the Big East tournament and an almost assured NCAA bid ahead – but the team has etched itself a permanent place in the Irish record books.

Starting with a 12-2 win against Georgetown in the nightcap of a March 25 doubleheader, the Irish won 23 straight games – surpassing the previous modern record of 18 set by the 1991 team – and took control of the Big East standings. The streak lasted a little over a month and ended with an 11-8 loss at the hands of Bowling Green.

The Irish collected wins over Pittsburgh, South Florida, Rutgers, Purdue and various non-conference foes during the span – including a dramatic 7-5 come-from-behind victory against St. Johns on April 15.

“The guys took turns being the heroes,” Irish coach Paul Mainieri said of his team during the streak. “It’s something we should be very proud of. That’s something they can never take away from us.”

One of those heroes on a consistent basis was senior first baseman Craig Cooper, who muscled out a 21-game hit streak within Notre Dame’s win streak. His consecutive hit mark was snapped a game prior to the win streak.

Notre Dame (38-14-1, 18-5-1 Big East) still has a firm grip on the Big East regular season title with a final conference series remaining to be played this weekend against Villanova. Villanova holds an 8-15 record in conference play and resides in tenth place.

But the Irish have suffered from a recent string of close defeats, dropping four of their last six Big East games. Three out of the four losses were by a single run.

The losses came on the past two weekends to league rivals Louisville and Seton Hall, and Michigan took a 3-1 decision Tuesday from Notre Dame in non-conference play.

“We’re in a lot of [tight games],” Mainieri said. “We’re winning most of them but we’ve still lost some close ones. That’s a little discouraging at this time of the year – you have to win those games. I think you have to look at the big picture, nobody wins them all in baseball.”

But this isn’t the first time the Irish have struggled to mine wins from the diamond this season – they posted a 2-5 record on the road at the Service Academies and Dairy Queen Classics to kick off the year. Big XII powerhouses Nebraska and Oklahoma delivered two of the losses to Notre Dame, while Memphis, Minnesota and Arizona were responsible for the other three.

“Traditionally we have a great challenge early in the year because not only do we play great teams, but we’re coming outdoors for the first time,” Mainieri said. “We got out to a little bit of a slow start, but I never worried. Once we get to play on a more consistent basis our talent showed. We had a great game against Texas A&M and it kept going from there.”

The big three in the Irish pitching rotation – Jeff Manship, Tom Thornton and Jeff Samardzija – have a combined 19-5 record and have been instrumental in Notre Dame’s 18-5-1 conference mark. But sophomore southpaw Wade Korpi – a newcomer to the rotation – has had an impact on the mound on par with his older counterparts.

In nine starts this year prior to Tuesday’s game against Michigan, Korpi boasts a 5-1 record with a 1.09 ERA and 72 strikeouts. Opposing batters have a .184 batting average against Korpi and have only 16 walks in his 57.2 innings as a starter.

“It’s one thing to go on the weekend and have your top three pitch well in league games,” Mainieri said. “But then when a guy comes out on Tuesday and Wednesday and pitches a good game for you, its bridges the gaps on the weekends.”

The Big East tournament begins May 23 at Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater, Fla. – the Philadelphia Phillies’ spring training complex. NCAA Regional play is slated to begin June 2 at campus sites. The Irish can earn a berth in the NCAAs either through an automatic berth via the Big East tournament or with an at-large selection.