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Baseball: Irish win 7 of 9 on Texas trip

Matt Gamber | Tuesday, March 17, 2009

With conference play just four days away, Notre Dame seems to be hitting its stride at the right time – and the Irish have their best record after 15 games in five years to show for it.

The Irish (10-5) won seven of nine games on their Spring Break trip to Texas, falling only to No. 7 Rice and Illinois State while topping Oral Roberts, Washington State and Trinity (Texas) in single games. Notre Dame also swept two-game sets with Grambling State and Texas Pan-American.

“Anytime you can go on the road and win seven of nine, it’s a very successful trip,” Irish coach Dave Schrage said. “The biggest and most consistent thing is that we played good defense for all nine games, and our pitching was fairly strong. And our hitting started coming around at the end of the trip.”

Notre Dame’s road swing began at the Rice Classic in Houston, where the Irish edged Oral Roberts – a team receiving votes in most polls – 2-1 on March 6.

“It really set the tone for our trip,” Schrage said. “We faced [Jerry] Sullivan, who’s one of the top pitchers in the country, and to be able to beat him – [sophomores] Cole Johnson and Todd Miller matched him pitch-for-pitch, and we had some timely hitting. That was really a statement game for us saying, ‘Hey, we could beat anybody.'”

Senior shortstop Jeremy Barnes drove in the winning run in the bottom of the eighth, and Johnson (1-0) gave up just one hit over six innings, striking out a career-high seven. Miller (1-2) threw two innings of one-run ball to earn the victory, and junior Steven Mazur (2-1) picked up his first save of the year with a perfect ninth inning. Sullivan went 9-2 a year ago and hadn’t lost in his last 15 appearances, and Schrage said that victory was a major confidence boost to his squad.

The next day, the Irish were blanked 9-0 by national power Rice as the Owls batted around in both the third and fourth innings, scoring five and four runs, respectively. All-American Ryan Berry, the reigning national pitcher of the week, threw a two-hit shutout for his second straight complete game.

“We had the one bad inning and other than that, we ran into a really good pitcher there,” Schrage said.

The Irish finished the Rice Classic on March 8 with a 7-3 win over Washington State, a team Schrage said could be one of the best in the Pac-10 conference by season’s end. Junior Eric Maust (2-0) threw seven solid innings, giving up two earned runs in picking up the victory in a game the Irish never trailed.

Notre Dame then traveled to San Antonio and beat Grambling State twice – 3-2 last Tuesday and 10-7 Wednesday.

Junior centerfielder A.J. Pollock blooped a jam-shot into left field for a single and the game-winning RBI with two outs in the bottom of the ninth after the Tigers tied it in the top half of the inning off Mazur, who then earned the victory. Freshman Steve Sabatino (1-0) struck out nine Tigers the next day for his first career victory.

Notre Dame saw its three-game win streak snapped by Illinois State lefty Ryan Copeland in a 3-2 loss Thursday in the opener of the Irish Baseball Classic in San Antonio. But the Irish recovered, scoring 28 runs over’s their next three games to beat Trinity 11-8 and sweep a double-header with Texas-Pan American 10-7, 7-2.

“We talked to our team, and whether we have to win 2-1 or 11-8 … Each game is different, and that was kind of exhibited on this trip,” Schrage said. “We had both kinds of games to deal with, and our kids responded.”

Notre Dame hasn’t entered its home opener – which is today at 5:05 p.m. against Ball State (9-7) – with double-digit wins since 2004, when the Irish started 13-2 and won a school-record 51 games in capturing the Big East’s regular season and tournament titles.

Today’s contest begins a stretch of seven-straight home games for Notre Dame, which hosts Valparaiso (5-9) tomorrow before opening Big East play Friday against Seton Hall (7-5), with whom the Irish will play three games in three days.

“We always look forward to playing at home in front of our fans,” Schrage said. “It’s a place we’ve had success, and we’re excited to have a little stretch here of having some home games.”