Irish Sweep Huskies With 6-3 win

<P>The Notre Dame baseball team completed the 3-game sweep of Connecticut with a 6-3 win over the Huskies in game three. The Irish won game one 3-2 and game two 11-4. Notre Dame (34-9, 13-2 in BIG EAST play) sits at the top of BIG EAST standings and will face one of the top teams in the BIG EAST this weekend in West Virginia (28-12, 11-3 in BIG EAST play). The Connecticut sweep allowed the Irish to take sole possession of the BIG EAST lead. </P>

Irish pitcher Chris Niesel (6-1) took the mound on Sunday and was on cruise control most of his outing. Niesel threw seven innings allowing six hits, three runs while striking out seven to pick up the win. He dominated the first four innings allowing only three hits while striking out four Husky batters.

In the fifth, Niesel managed to record two outs before the Husky batters found their stroke. The inning almost ended on a Kris Billmaier diving catch but the ball popped out of Billmaier's glove scoring two runs. "It was a bit of a tough inning for me," said Niesel. "I thought I got the guy to pop up but the ball didn't stick in Billmaier's glove out there. You've got to pitch through it and make the big pitches to get out of the inning. I shook off Coach, I probably shouldn't have. I left a curveball up and he drove it pretty good to left-center. I think if I would've kept that pitch down, I would've got him out."

Senior Brandon Viloria pitched a hitless eighth and senior closer J.P. Gagne (S 10) closed the ninth allowing no hits and retiring all three batters he faced to pick up the save.

The Irish bats provided some timely hits. Second baseman Steve Sollmann (1-for-2, 2 runs) led off the bottom of the first with a double. Brennan Grogan (1-for-3, run) sacrificed on a bunt to move Sollmann to third. Matt Edwards (1-for-2, 2 RBI) finished the job by flying out to center to score Sollmann to give the Irish the 1-0 lead.

The Irish picked up two more runs in the bottom of the third led by a Edwards double down the right field line giving the Irish the 3-0 lead.

Notre Dame scored two more runs in the fourth. Catcher Javi Sanchez (1-for-3, run) reached with two outs after being hit by a pitch. Freshman DH Matt Bransfield did his job with a double to left-center plating Sanchez. Third baseman Greg Lopez (3-for-3, run, RBI) then lined a ball into right-center scoring Bransfield to give the Irish the 5-0 lead.

The final run came on a Lopez single to right-center that he stretched for two bases on a fielding error. Lopez advanced to third on a balk by Husky pitcher Erik Brown and later scored on a Brown wild pitch giving the Irish an insurance run in a 5-3 game. The run was the final run for the Irish, as the Irish bullpen closed the door for the final score of 6-3.

Coach Paul Mainieri was pleased with his team's performance throughout this series. "I'm never satisfied and I think we can get a lot better," said Mainieri. "I thought we pitched magnificently all weekend. I thought our defense was borderline spectacular. I thought our pitching and our defense really were the key things all weekend for us and it's been that way for us all year. We scratched together a few runs today but I still think we can be a better offensive team than we've shown and we may need to be. We've got three weekends left that are going to challenge us as much as any three weekends we've ever had in this conference. As far as winning all three games this weekend, I thought it was really critical."

Mainieri knows his three remaining conference series will be the most difficult of the season. The Irish face West Virginia this weekend at home and will be on the road the final two weekends against Rutgers and Virginia Tech. All three teams are in the top four in BIG EAST standings along with the Irish. "We've got West Virginia coming in next weekend who I think is going to be really, really tough and then at Rutgers and at Virginia Tech. We've got nine barnburners left so you've got to win your home games and the games you should win. Our kids responded this weekend and I thought they played good baseball all weekend."

The Irish will travel to Michigan on Tuesday to face the Wolverines and come back to Eck Stadium to face Oakland (MI) on Wednesday before their big series with West Virginia at home this weekend. Heading into last weekend, West Virginia led the league in batting average (.334), on base percentage (.420), slugging percentage (.532), RBI (240) and home runs (51). The Mountaineers clearly are the league's best hitting team and rank sixth in pitching with a team ERA of 5.14.

Mainieri knows his Irish pitchers will be challenged. "Their the best by far, their one of the best in the country," said Mainieri of the Mountaineer hitters. "One thing we've done through the last several years is we've done whatever it takes. I don't even know if we've ever led the league in hitting. When we go up against the good hitting teams it's seems that our kids rise to the occasion. That's been the legacy of our program. I feel confident that they will but this is where they're going to be tested. We haven't done anything yet. We've got three weekends to go and whatever we get, we're going to earn because we're going to do it against the teams that are challenging us right now and that's the way it's supposed to be."

The next three weekends will tell the tale for the Irish. If they can continue to pitch well and find some timely hits, they should be in good shape. The Irish will face three very good teams in the next three weekends and their hope for an NCAA regional bid will likely depend on the outcome of these games. They clearly have enough pitching and the question remains if they have enough hitting. Mainieri is correct in that his kids usually rise to the occasion.


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