SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame freshman pitcher Pat Connaughton never flinched when the beast of the Big East, Rutgers’ Patrick Kivlehan, dug into the batter’s box with the bases loaded and the Irish trying to hold on to a two-run lead.
Even after a passed ball allowed Rutgers to close to the gap to one run and put runners at second and third, Connaughton stood tall on the pitcher’s mound. With the count 1-2, the 6-foot-5 right-hander gripped the ball, reared back and threw inside heat to Kivlehan. Strike three, threat ended.
Notre Dame went on to handcuff the Scarlet Knights the rest of the way, securing a 2-1 victory Sunday at Frank Eck Stadium.
The Irish took two of three games from Rutgers, and, in the process, locked up a berth into the Big East Tournament on May 23-27 in Clearwater, Fla.
Notre Dame (27-23, 13-11) closed out its home portion of the 2012 campaign with the crucial victory. The Irish play a non-conference game at Northwestern on Tuesday, then head to Connecticut for a three-game series starting Thursday.
The Huskies are one game up on the Irish in the Big East standings. Rutgers (28-22, 13-11) closes out league play against Villanova.
“I was composed, I was focused, and I knew what I had to do,” Connaughton said of ending the threat by striking out Kivlehan, who was 4-for-4 with a homer in an 11-6 victory Saturday. “I trusted my arm. It felt great to get that out. It was just rear back and bring it on, power on power.
“I really had to bear down in the fifth. We’re up 2-1, the game’s on the line. You have to find that focus, and I was able to do it. You can’t be tentative. I love those moments. I love them in basketball and baseball. Those are moments you live for. You want to be that man throwing that pitch. If you don’t want it, that’s when you get in trouble.”
Notre Dame catcher Joe Hudson said that there was no hesitation to call for Connaughton to throw heat against Kivlehan, who entered the game leading the league in hitting (.404) and homers (11).
“Pat has a lot of guts,” Hudson said. “He made a big pitch in a tough situation. You can’t ask for anything better than that. We have all the faith in the world in Pat. He’s a great kid. He’s a better competitor than most guys. We wanted to pitch (Kivlehan) in. His swing kind of opens up the inside part of the plate. That’s what we wanted to do to him. Pat made a great pitch right where we wanted and we got out of the inning.”
Connaughton pitched five innings, allowing one run and five hits. The Irish flame-thrower lit up the radar gun at 93 mph, while striking out six and walking one.
“I thought Pat (Connaughton) was really good,” said Irish coach Mik Aoki. “He needs to work a little bit more ahead of the count, but outside of that, he has a little more margin for error than most guys do, with as hard as he throws, and as good as his pitches can be. I thought he was excellent.
Connaughton, who plays for the Irish basketball team, had more than one coach singing his praises Sunday.
Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey was in the stands for the dramatic showdown between Connaughton and Kivlehan and later beamed about the way he has excelled in both sports.
“That was part of the process when we recruited him,” Brey said of Connaughton playing two sports. “I remember his dad said, ‘Coach, are we going to be able to pitch?’ I said, ‘We’ll work that out. No problem.’ And it’s worked out great.
“Mik and I have worked it out, of course, I’m paying for school, so they better listen to me in the baseball office,” Brey joked. “Pat does a little bit of baseball in the fall, he’s with us late fall and winter. It’s been good. It’s been fun following him, and I’m thrilled that he can help two teams be successful.”
Irish relievers Sean Fitzgerald and Dan Slania closed out the Knights, only giving up one hit and no walks in the final four innings. Slania faced a threat in the ninth, when a single and hit batsman put two on with two out. A strikeout by Slania, who hit 95 mph in the ninth, gave Notre Dame its fourth series victory in the last five Big East weekends.
“I thought Fitz was really, really key to bridge the middle of that thing, and then Danny goes in there and closes it out in a typical, grab-your-heart style,” Aoki said of his relievers. “It was a well-played game. I like that fact that we won a game in which we committed two errors. I thought we responded to it. It didn’t affect us. We kept attacking. We kept trying to win the game instead of defending and going into a prevent defense and hoping good things happen for us.”
Notre Dame pounced on Rutgers starting pitcher Ryan Fasano for a pair of runs in the fourth inning. Frank DeSico started off the inning with a walk, and then Ryan Bull lashed a double to right-center, putting runners at second and third with none out.
Eric Jagielo lofted a sacrifice fly to deep right field to score DeSico and advance Bull to third. Trey Mancini then ripped a double to left-center to score Bull.
At Frank Eck Stadium
Rutgers 000 010 000 — 1 6 0
Notre Dame 000 200 00x — 2 4 2
Ryan Fasano (L, 5-5); Pat Connaughton (W, 4-3), Sean Fitzgerald (6), Dan Slania (8; S, 11)
2B: Ryan Bull (ND), Trey Mancini (ND)
T — 2:11. A — 523.