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Baseball: Dead zone

Michael Bryan | Thursday, April 16, 2009

CHICAGO – Playing at a big-league stadium didn’t help Notre Dame keep the ball inside the park Wednesday, as two home runs from Northwestern’s Tony Vercelli led the Wildcats to a 5-1 victory at U.S. Cellular Field.

The regional rivals played the non-conference tilt at the home of the Chicago White Sox in front of a crowd of 2,101, with proceeds of the game benefiting White Sox Charities, which supports hundreds of Chicago-based causes from cancer research to youth education and athletics.

The Irish (20-13) fell behind early, as Northwestern (9-23) struck first in the top of the first. Second baseman Trevor Stevens reached first on a bunt single and was driven home on third baseman Chris Lashmet’s double to put the Wildcats on the scoreboard.

Northwestern added another run off freshman lefty Ryan Richter in the third, but Notre Dame was fortunate to escape down only two. Richter began the inning with a walk, consecutive singles, and another walk, giving up one run and loading the bases with no outs. Richter, who was making his first career start, then settled down, forcing a pop-out and striking out two to escape the inning.

The Irish never threatened Wildcats’ sophomore pitcher Eric Jokisch until the fifth, when junior first baseman Casey Martin and senior shortstop Jeremy Barnes started the frame with singles. Jokisch then induced two ground balls and a fly to deep center

Jokisch held Notre Dame to just four hits and no runs over five innings pitched. The sophomore was accurate and efficient with his pitches, striking out three and making it through five innings on only 55 pitches.

“You have to tip your hat to Jokisch,” Notre Dame coach Dave Schrage said. “We knew we had a challenge with him on the mound … he’s one of the top pitchers in the Big Ten.”

The Wildcats struck again in the top of the seventh, with the designated hitter Vercelli blasting a pitch from Irish reliever Todd Miller into the bleachers in left field.

“I started out 0-for-3, and my fourth at-bat I got aggressive,” said Vercelli. “I didn’t think I hit it good enough, but the left fielder kept trailing, kept trailing, and it went over.”

Notre Dame finally got on the board in the bottom of the seventh, when Barnes launched a homer of his own into the opposite-field bullpen in right. It was a bit of déjà vu for Barnes, who homered to almost the exact same spot at U.S. Cellular last year when Notre Dame took on Northern Illinois.

“He’s been our leader all season long as far as hitting goes, and likes hitting in this ballpark,” Schrage said.

Vercelli added a couple of insurance runs for Northwestern in the top of the ninth, hitting his second homer of the night down the line in left field off Irish reliever Steven Mazur, scoring Lashmet, who had walked.

“I was looking slider, and it came up slider,” said Vercelli. “To hit a home run [in a major league stadium] is a dream come true, and to hit two is a fantasy.”

Northwestern coach Paul Stevens was thrilled with his team’s performance, much of which he attributed to their excitement at playing in a major league stadium.

“I can’t even tell you how excited I am,” Stevens said. “They were overwhelmed just walking through the front of this place … tonight all our hard work and persistence paid off.”

Barnes and catcher Cameron McConnell led the Irish offense with two hits each. Richter took the loss for the Irish, but struck out a career-high six batters.

Schrage said he hopes Notre Dame can continue the recent tradition of playing at U.S. Cellular.

“It was outstanding to play here, we did it last year and it was every bit as good this year as far as the ballpark and the crowd,” said Schrage. “Hopefully we can keep doing this in the future. It was a great atmosphere.”

The Irish return to action this weekend at home with a three game series against Big East opponent West Virginia.