Phelps struck out a career-high 11 batters in a complete game gem in the Irish's 3-1 victory over Seton Hall at Frank Eck Stadium. Notre Dame improves to 26-20 on the season but more importantly is back to .500 in the Big East at 9-9. The Irish have won eight of their past 11 league games after starting out 1-6. The mark is good for fifth in the conference. The top eight teams qualify for the Big East Tournament. Tomorrow, senior Dan Kapala (0-4, 2.51 ERA) will go to the hill for Notre Dame. First pitch is scheduled for 1:05 PM. If Kapala can have anywhere near the performance that Phelps had on Friday, the Irish should be in good shape.
"He threw the ball extremely well last fall," head coach Dave Schrage said of Phelps, who was 2-0 as a freshman with a 7.09 ERA. "He came back with something to prove. He was rejuvenated with a new coaching staff coming in. He took ample opportunity to show us what he had. He's out there on Fridays pitching like a three-year veteran. He's been unbelievable and to go 11 strikeouts with no walks is phenomenal."
Phelps, whose ERA fell even farther to 1.58, was in control from the get-go. In one stretch in the fourth and fifth innings, the sophomore right-hander struck out five of six batters. For good measure, Phelps also picked off two Pirate base runners. Seton Hall scored their lone run of the game in the sixth. Mike Young came through with an RBI single to right center field on a 2-2 count to cut the Notre Dame lead to 2-1.
It looked like the Pirates (19-21, 5-11) might tie the contest in the seventh. John Walsh led off the frame with a double down the left field line. Phelps (8-3) dug deep and made some personal history in the process. The sophomore struck out the next three batters in a row to end the Seton Hall comeback attempt. The third victim was Phelps' 11th of the contest, which broke his career-mark set earlier in the year in a 1-0 win against South Florida. In that game, Phelps struck out 10. The sophomore was one off the Frank Eck Stadium record of 12.
"We've been talking all year as a pitching staff that the biggest thing for us with runners in scoring position is to get the big strikeout," Phelps said. "We need to get the big out and make big pitches. We've focused on that and it really helps. Last year, things would just snowball out of control. Now, it's easier to throw strikes with runners in scoring position because we've worked on it so much."
It was the Notre Dame pitcher's fourth complete game in 2007 and Phelps did not walk a single batter in allowing five hits. The 1.58 ERA would be the lowest for an Irish pitcher since 1990. There might have been some revenge for Phelps in this game. Last year as a freshman against Seton Hall, protecting a 14-4 lead in the ninth, the right-hander allowed six runs in just 0.2 innings, eventually being pulled from the game. It would be fair to say Phelps was a little better on Friday.
"That skyrocketed my ERA," Phelps said of the 2006 effort. "It ended up leaving me off the post-season roster. I definitely had a chip on my shoulder to get back at these guys."
The Irish backed Phelps early. Notre Dame took a quick 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning on only one hit. Brett Lilley led it off with a hit by pitch, the junior's 75th of his career. A.J. Pollock lined a single to center field and Lilley went to third on the play. A wild pitch from Seton Hall starter Corey Young (2-5) allowed Lilley to score to make it 1-0. Pollock crossed home on Ross Brezovsky's RBI groundout to increase the lead to 2-0.
Pollock added an insurance run in the eighth inning. With Notre Dame clinging to a 2-1 lead, the freshman placed a perfect bunt down the third base line for a hit. An errant pickoff attempt allowed Pollock to go from first to third. Brezovsky added his second RBI of the game with a sacrifice fly to left center field to make it 3-1 Irish. Pollock had two of Notre Dame's five total hits and scored a pair of runs.
"The biggest thing is speed never slumps," Schrage said. "A.J. Pollock's speed manufactured a run in the eighth. Ross Brezovsky doesn't have anything to show for it but we put him in the three-hole to make contact. He got an RBI with a groundout and a fly ball. Earlier in the season, we were getting strikeouts in the three hole not driving in runs. Today, Ross did the little things to help us win."