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ND Softball: Irish sweep doubleheaders

Chris Masoud | Monday, April 20, 2009

The final stretch of the Big East regular season can either propel a team into the playoffs or break its back permanently. For the surging Irish, the home stretch has brought out the best in a young team looking to make a statement in an unforgiving conference.

Notre Dame (31-13, 13-3 Big East) is playing its best softball of the year, sweeping Villanova and Rutgers over the weekend to maintain its third-place rank in the Big East standings. The Irish extended their winning streak to 10 games and have yet to lose a conference game on the road.

The Irish handed the Wildcats (19-19, 4-15 Big East) a pair of losses Saturday, taking care of the Big East’s weakest team by scores of 3-0 and 7-1 respectively.

Senior Brittney Bargar picked up her 17th win of the year in game one, striking out five in the four-hit shutout, her seventh of the year.

Although the Irish came out sluggish at the plate in the opening frames, they turned it on in the fourth to the tune of three runs on three hits. Freshman Dani Miller plated two runs after a bunt by junior Heather Johnson and an error by the Wildcats brought in the game’s first run.

Game two was a decisive victory for the Irish, as all the pieces came together in a display of fundamentals and confidence. Solid hitting, airtight defense and shutdown pitching set the tone from start to finish.

Miller continued her hot streak with a home run to left field to ignite the offense in the fourth, followed by a two-RBI single by freshman Alexa Maldonado later in the frame. Junior Alexia Clay added some insurance in the seventh with a two-run fly to give the Irish a six-run lead.

Sophomore Jody Valdivia picked up her 12th win of the season by going the distance, giving up only one run on three hits and striking out seven.

Many teams will fall into complacency, resting on their laurels after picking up a sweep on the road. But not the Irish, who capped off a stellar weekend on the diamond by taking both games of a twinbill against Rutgers by scores of 4-3 and 4-1 Sunday.

Not only did Sunday’s victories extend the conference road winning streak to eight, but it also marked the 20th consecutive game in which Miller has recorded at least one hit. Miller reached base safely in each of the four games against Villanova and Rutgers this weekend to build upon her school record.

Rutgers (17-28, 4-14 Big East), second to last in the Big East rankings, had their hands full, as solid defense and clutch hitting highlighted a weekend of trademark Irish softball.

The Irish fell behind in the first game of the doubleheader when Brittney Lindley doubled in a run in the second to give the Knights a narrow lead. But Bargar was stingy the rest of the way, picking up the win and lowering her ERA to a meager 1.72 to put her fifth in the Big East overall.

Notre Dame broke loose for three runs on five hits in the fourth to overcome the deficit and take the lead. Led by Johnson’s 3-for-3 day at the plate and timely team hitting up and down the lineup, the Irish cruised past a struggling Rutgers team that faded away as the game wore on.

The back end of the doubleheader was a much closer contest, as the Irish needed a little bit of heroics in the seventh from Valdivia to complete the sweep.

Rutgers opened the game with a two-run homer from Sarah Kalka to take the early lead. But once again the Irish bats came alive in the fourth, scoring four runs in the frame to pull away from a dangerous Scarlet Knights team desperate for a win. The inning was highlighted by Miller’s two-RBI double and an RBI single by sophomore Katie Fleury.

Kate Valiante pulled Rutgers within one with a lead-off homer. But Valdivia put it together in remarkable fashion, striking out two and inducing a flyout to conclude a hugely successful Irish weekend.