"I thought it was a monumental night for Notre Dame baseball," head coach Paul Mainieri said. "We had a packed house, beautiful weather, a 19-game winning streak on the line and a guy like Jeff Samardzija, who is practically a rock star celebrity."
Despite all the hoopla, the Irish did not disappoint. Samardzija struck out six and Craig Cooper blasted two home runs to lead Notre Dame past Rutgers 11-5. The victory by the Irish (30-8, 12-1 in the Big East) extended their winning steak to 20 games (12 in league play), which builds upon their single-season record set earlier this week. The 1907-08 Notre Dame team won 21 games in a row over the course of two seasons. Wins on Saturday and Sunday against Rutgers can break this hallowed mark. It's also the third quickest Irish team to earn 30 victories.
"It's not even on our mind," Mainieri said of the streak. "It's not even a thought. Don't get me wrong: we want to win every game. We want to win them all. But once we broke the single-season school record, that was it. The media can make a big deal of it and the fans can make a big deal of it and if it creates interest, so be it. But our players are not going to worry about the streak anymore. I know the media hates the saying ‘one at a time.' But we're only concerned with beating Rutgers because it's our biggest rival in the league and we have our hands full against them."
The offense finally found their groove in the middle innings. Tied 2-2 heading into the bottom of the fifth, it didn't take long to break the deadlock. Alex Nettey started it off with a leadoff walk. The next man up, Cooper, made Rutgers' Steve Holt (4-5) pay for the pitching sin. The senior first baseman sent an offering deep to right field and out of Frank Eck Stadium. Cooper provided more fireworks in the bottom of the seventh with another two-run round tripper, this one also to deep right to make it 11-2 Notre Dame. It was his first multi-home run game of his career. Cooper now has eight home runs on the season and extended his hitting steak to 19 games. Not bad for a leadoff hitter.
"It gives us a little boost when we turn the lineup over," Cooper said about batting leadoff. "I've been getting a lot of pitches to hit. Early in the games and early in the count, pitchers have been coming after me and giving me a chance to swing the bat."
"He's been phenomenal," Mainieri said of Cooper. "If he's not the Player of the Year in the conference, I don't know who is. He's been fantastic on defense, getting clutch hits, getting us going and hitting home runs. It's been a great thing."
Most of the fans, a lot of them in town because of tomorrow's Blue-Gold football game, came to see Samardzija. The opening frame wasn't pretty. The senior right-hander allowed a double down the left field line to Frank Meade to give Rutgers (17-16-1, 7-6 in the Big East) an early 1-0 lead. The rocky road first inning is a trend for Samardzija. In his past three starts, he's allowed five runs on four hits while walking six in the first inning.
"Usually I come out and I'm all excited," Samardzija said about the opening inning. "The ball stays up in the zone or I fall behind in the count. It's something we're working on and come playoff time, we're going to have that ironed out. Those are the things that can kill you in the end. It's a work in progress every week trying to get through that first inning."
But like the other starts, Samardzija settled down and began to dominate the contest, much to the delight of the record crowd. For the game, he allowed three runs on six hits in just over seven innings of work to move his record to 6-1 on the season. Samardzija did allow his first home run of the season to Steve Hook in the fourth inning but "The Shark" got his busy weekend off to a roaring start.
"We got the players and the talent to play with anyone," Samardzija said. "It's great to see it all come together like this. It's been getting better every weekend and I hope it continues."
Cooper and Samardzija were not the only ones who shined for Notre Dame. Brett Lilley went 4-for-5 with two runs scored and two runs driven in. Greg Lopez, the eighth hitter in the lineup, went 2-for-3 and had two runs scored. More importantly, Lopez, as usual, was flawless in the field at the shortstop position. For the game, Notre Dame did not commit an error. Nettey's box score line was not pretty: 0-for-1. But the senior center fielder scored three important runs and drew two walks for the Irish in the ninth spot in the batting order.