Irish Pick Up Two Key Wins, Big East Lead

Big East co-leaders Notre Dame and St. John's squared off in a double-header on Thursday and the Irish came out on top taking both games. The two wins pushed Notre Dame into the league lead in a key match-up in early Big East play.

Notre Dame (26-8, 10-1 Big East) used both clutch hitting and pitching to grab the Big East lead on Thursday with 9-2 and 13-7 victories over the Red Storm.

Irish junior Jeff Samardzija struggled early in the first game of Thursday's double header, but the right-hander battled throughout his outing giving the Irish enough time to get the bats going.

Samardzija (4-1) didn't have his best stuff on the mound, but forced three inning-ending double-play balls to get out of jams and picked up his fourth win of the season.

Samardzija's gutsy performance gave the Irish all the pitching they would need as they picked up a run in both the second and the fifth inning, and then exploded for five more runs in the sixth. Notre Dame tacked on two more in the seventh to cushion their lead.

Junior lefty Mike Dury entered the game in the eighth and pitched two scoreless innings of relief.

Craig Cooper (2-for-5, R, RBI), Brett Lilley (2-for-3, R), Sean Gaston (3-for-3, 2R, RBI) and Danny Dressman (1-for-4, 2 RBI) did most of the damage for the Irish at the plate.

St. John's struggled mightily in the field committing six errors in the key first game.

"They obviously helped us with some plays on defense," Irish head coach Paul Mainieri said after Thursday's first game. "If you're hitters a hitting hard ground balls and forcing them to make tough plays, then occasionally the other team will help you. Even though some of it was because of their defense, I think our (offense) forced them a little bit into making mistakes because we forced them into making some tough plays."

"He battled," Mainieri said of Samardzija's performance. "Those double plays really helped us a lot. We took advantage of the mistakes they made and ended up doing some good things offensively. Samardzija hung in there and Dury did a great job in the end."

With one win under their belt the Irish hitters didn't let up.

Notre Dame senior Tom Thornton uncharacteristically struggled in his start in the second game, surrendering six earned runs in just 2.1 innings on the mound.

The Red Storm plated two early runs in the first, but the Irish bounced back with three runs in the bottom of the inning. Craig Cooper led off the bottom of the first with his fifth home run of the season--a liner over the right field wall. Matt Bransfield and Sean Gaston also picked up an RBI a piece in the inning giving the Irish the early 3-2 lead.

St. John's recaptured the lead scoring four more runs in the top of the third and exiting Thornton from the game.

Thornton's off night put the ball in junior Jess Stewart's hands and Stewart delivered when called upon.

The Manassas, Va. native entered the game in the top of the third with runners on second and third and one out. The right-hander forced the next two hitters to ground out and fly out to end the St. John's threat, but the Red Storm had already grabbed the early 6-3 lead.

After scoreless innings by both teams, the Irish exploded once again in the bottom of the fourth plating eight runs on six hits and two Red Storm errors.

St. John's would add a run in the top of the sixth to narrow the lead, 11-7, but Notre Dame answered with two more runs in the bottom of the inning, closing the door on the Red Storm and solidifying their Big East lead.

The Irish hitters pounded out 16 hits in the game led by Lilley (2-for-5, R, 3 RBI), Bransfield (4-for-4, R, 2 RBI), Gaston (2-for-5, R, 3 RBI), Greg Lopez (3-for-4, 2R, RBI) and Cody Rizzo (2-for-4 2R).

"I don't know if we can play much better," said Mainieri after Notre Dame's second win of the day. "It's a scary thing to say as a coach because you're always looking for things to improve upon, but I just felt we played great. Our starting pitching wasn't phenomenal, yet we still found a way to win."

The savior of the game was Stewart, who came in and pitched 5.2 innings of relief allowing just one unearned run on two hits.

"Jess Stewart came in and did a fantastic job," Mainieri said. "Stewart has been a valuable pitcher for us in that role. He's been so key for us all year."

The Irish took command of the Big East with two wins on Thursday and can increase their lead with a win and three-game sweep over the Red Storm on Saturday. Irish right-hander Jeff Manship will head to the mound in Saturday's 12:05 p.m. game. Manship (4-1) has a 1.96 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 46 innings this season.


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