Late Game Heroics Saves Irish

As Pittsburgh was clinging to a 8-7 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning and warming up reliever Justin Cicatello, head coach Paul Mainieri went over and had a discussion with freshman Jeremy Barnes. The skipper wanted to know if his young gun was ready to produce in the clutch.

"And I said definitely," Barnes said. "I wanted to get up there and swing the bat. It was a little reassuring on his part."

After Cicatello walked two straight Notre Dame batters to load the bases, Barnes got his chance and came through big time. The freshman from Garland, Texas lined a single to left field that scored two Irish players as Notre Dame beat Pittsburgh 9-8 in a thrilling contest at a gusty and overcast Frank Eck Stadium. The Irish (17-8, 5-1 in the Big East) swept Pittsburgh over the weekend in the three-game set and have now won seven in a row. Mainieri likened this battle to a situation that occurred earlier in the season down in Texas.

"It was like after we beat Texas A&M," Mainieri said. "We were 2-5 (before the game). We were down 4-1 in the eighth inning and scored four runs to beat A&M. I told our team after the game that we became a team. We've been winning a lot of games but we haven't been playing great. All of a sudden, your team has the lead, you fall behind and then you comeback.

"It does unbelievable things for your team as a confident group and as a group that's excited to be at the field. You never know when those wins are going to happen. You don't draw those up on the board. If I drew that up on the board, I wouldn't live very long because my heart couldn't take it. When they're done and over, you're glad you had a win like that because they do wonders for the enthusiasm of your team."

Notre Dame looked to be in good shape heading into the ninth inning. After the Panthers had tied the contest up at 5 in the top half of the eighth, the Irish took advantage of a Pittsburgh error followed up by some clutch hitting. Ross Brezovsky's RBI single scored Danny Dressman to give Notre Dame a 6-5 lead. Mainieri caught Pittsburgh off guard on the next batter when he called for a suicide squeeze. Sean Gaston executed it perfectly and Barnes scored from third to increase the lead to 7-5.

That's when trouble hit the Irish. Reliever Joey Williamson hit the first two Pittsburgh batters and then two Panthers later, an infield single by David Cline plated a run to make it 7-6 Notre Dame. Mike Dury replaced Williamson and was one strike away from sealing the deal. But Jimmy Meyer's double to left field scored Jeff Stevens and Cline to give the Panthers a 8-7 advantage and a blown save for Dury.

"I knew Mike Dury would throw strikes," Mainieri said. "I had a pretty good feeling he wasn't going to strike that guy out. But I was hoping he'd hit it at someone. I probably had the left fielder playing a little deep and it dropped in. With that wind, it was tough to gauge anything."

The Irish showed resiliency in the bottom of the inning. Greg Lopez started it off with an infield single and was moved to second on a sacrifice by Alex Nettey. After Cicatello intentionally walked Craig Cooper, Dressman walked on five pitches to set up Barnes's game-winning heroics. Jess Stewart got the win for Notre Dame after he relieved Dury while Cicatello was pegged with the loss. It was the sixth straight win for the Irish over Pittsburgh (11-15, 2-7 in the Big East).

The win added to Cooper's huge day at the plate. The senior leadoff hitter from Plainview, New York was 3-for-5 and a triple away from the cycle. Cooper's home run to left field tied the game at three in the fifth inning. It was his second homer of the year and 19th of his career at Notre Dame.

"I had Cooper batting third at the beginning of the year and he was struggling," Mainieri said. "I put him back at the leadoff spot, which is where he was at the end of last year. All of a sudden, he's locked on as a leadoff hitter. He's not your prototypical leadoff hitter. He's got the most power on our team. I think it intimidates the opposing pitchers to see him batting leadoff and take those big swings and hit balls hard. It sets the tone for the team."

Was Cooper ever thinking about the possibility of a cycle?

"It crosses your mind a little bit," Cooper said. "Especially after you get the third hit of the cycle, you come in and see if you can drive that ball in the gap for the triple. But when it was late in the game, you put that to the side for the rest of the guys." Top Stories