Back in the Tournament

<P>The Notre Dame baseball finished conference play by capturing the BIG EAST Tournament title last weekend and landing themselves into the NCAA Tournament. The Irish will face Arizona in the Cal State Fullerton Regional on Friday, May 30 (3:00 PST). Notre Dame is the third seed in the regional that also includes 7th ranked Cal State Fullerton and San Diego State. </P>

The Irish won their first game of the tournament with a 9-1 win against West Virginia behind the strong pitching of reliever—turned starter J.P. Gagne. Notre Dame advanced to the championship round with a 9-3 win over Rutgers behind the strong pitching of Ryan Kalita (6-1).

Rutgers then had to beat the Irish twice to win the tournament. The Irish lost the first game after blowing a two-run lead in the ninth eventually dropping the game 15-11. The Irish roared back from a 9-1 deficit before losing the lead in the ninth and the game.

Notre Dame came back strong in the final game behind the complete-game effort of senior Matt Laird. The Irish won the game 11-3 to capture the BIG EAST Tournament crown.

The Irish did it both on the mound and at the plate. The Irish had 53 hits in the four games they played and gave up a total of three earned in their three wins. "We swung the bats all weekend, starting with the West Virginia game in the first inning," said Mainieri. "Cody Rizzo got a big two-run single and I think we had about 17 hits. Gagne pitched great and we played great defense behind him."

"Against Rutgers, it was more of the same," added Mainieri. "Kalita pitched great and we got some big hits in the game. Javi Sanchez placed a perfect squeeze bunt down. We hit the ball, pitched well and played great defense in both games."

"On the final day, with the exception of the way Ogilvie and Axford pitched, we played great in that game," said Mainieri. "What a phenomenal comeback. I felt bad for Viloria and Gagne who have pitched so well for us all year. I'm mad at myself for putting Gagne in that situation. The kid had pitched two days earlier and just didn't have great stuff. I feel terrible that I had done that to him."

The Irish won the tournament after giving up the 2-run lead in the first game of the championship series by shutting down Rutgers at the plate behind the arm of senior Matt Laird. "The way our kids came back and played the last game the way they did was an unbelievable show of character. Matt Laird pitched outstanding and our kids played their hearts out."

Junior Javi Sanchez was awarded the tournament MVP for his 8-for-11 effort with 6 RBI, 5 runs, 4 walks and 4 sacrifice bunts. "Javi really stepped up this weekend. He had as good a series as you could hope for and came up with some clutch hits and plays for us. He is a real leader on this team."

Mainieri also singled out the play of freshman Cody Rizzo. "He looked like a major league outfielder out there" said Mainieri of Rizzo. "He made a diving catch against Rutgers in the first inning. It kind of set the tone of the game. In the first game on the championship day, he pulled the ball back in (would-be Rutgers home run), that balls was gone, it was a highlight reel catch. That kid just played his tail off all weekend."

Mainieri's team is young with six freshmen playing regularly in the field and two more that see a lot of innings on the mound. "Not only does this give us hope for the NCAA tournament; it gives us hope for the future. We've played so many young guys this year. They needed something special to happen to them for them to understand how special it is to wear that Notre Dame uniform. This weekend, they did it. They raised it to a whole different level. Now they know what it takes to win these big games. I'm really excited about these young kids and where they can take us this year and for them coming back next year."

The Irish will now face Arizona—the second seed—in the Cal State Fullerton regional.

The Irish somehow were ranked third in their regional despite winning the BIG EAST Tournament and posting a 43-16 record on the season. "I'm disappointed we didn't get to host because I felt we deserved to. I'm even more disappointed that neither us, Minnesota or Ohio State got to host. I can understand if Minnesota or Ohio State got the host site over us. For none of us to get the chance to host is setting back the progress that we've made in college baseball in the North. There's no regional in the North, I just don't think its right."

Mainieri expanded on his feelings about the selection committee and some of their choices. "A team like West Virginia absolutely deserves to be in this tournament. A team like Florida that doesn't even make the eight-team SEC tournament gets in? You're telling me that team deserves to be in more than West Virginia who finished a half a game out of first place in the BIG EAST and had the sixth best hitting team in the country? I just don't think its right. Arkansas who was 11-13 in their regular season conference games and goes two and out in the conference tournament, they're a two seed? We're a conference champion and we're a three seed on the heels of having gone to the World Series last year?"

Mainieri is no fan of the RPI ranking system. The same system had the Irish ranked 44th last year heading into their College World Series run. "I've said all along that the RPI, which they use very extensively to choose these teams, is tremendously flawed. You know it's flawed when in 2002 on selection day, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are rated as the 44th best team in the country. All we do is win two games against the number one ranked team in the country at their place, go to the College World Series, beat a team from Texas and finish fifth in the country but on selection day were are ranked 44th. That RPI is not right, even if it is right and you use it, how does West Virginia not get picked? They're 35th in the RPI, how are they are not picked?

Mainieri was clear that he wasn't complaining about his seed in the tournament. Mainieri is upset with the selection process as a whole. "It's not sour grapes, we're in the NCAA Tournament. I really don't care where we're seeded. Once the tournament begins it doesn't matter where you are seeded, you have to do it on the field. What bothers me is that it kind of sends the message that had we not won the BIG EAST Tournament, we probably would not have gotten a bid." Considering the treatment of West Virginia by the selection committee, Mainieri is probably right.

The Irish will face one of the most storied programs in college baseball in Arizona on Friday. They might have to do it without their ace in Chris Niesel . "It's still a day-to-day thing. He did play catch yesterday and he felt a lot better. We're hoping that either today or tomorrow he is going to throw in the bullpen and how he responds to that will tell us if he is going to be available. We're planning that he's not available. If he is available then obviously that is a big boost for us."

Mainieri knows this bracket will be difficult. The Irish will not have any easy road from here on out. "This is a tremendous opportunity for us to prove our ability in another region in the country. Last year we went into the deep south and we showed some people down there that we can play with anyone. Now we're going out west. We take on a team that is as rich in tradition as anybody. I think Arizona has three National Championships in their trophy case. It's a great opportunity for our kids to show that we can beat anyone in the country.

If the Irish advance, they will face the winner of the Cal State Fullerton/San Diego State match up. "I think it's going to be a great experience for our kids. We've got nothing to lose. We're going to go out there and let it all hang out and leave it all out on the field. We'll see if we can put some pressure on the other team and see if we can't get a little luck for the Irish."

The Irish have somehow managed to advance to the tournament and keep their streak of 40 wins in a season alive without their ace pitcher Grant Johnson on the mound. They won the BIG EAST Tournament without this year's ace Chris Niesel who was out with a finger injury. This Irish team seems to overcome the injuries and setbacks and continues to find a way to win. The Irish might not advance far in this tournament but the future is certainly bright for Mainieri and his young team.


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