MILLINGTON, Tenn. -- The Sooner pitching staff continued its dominance at the Service Academies Classic on Sunday with a 4-3 victory over No. 22 Notre Dame at USA Stadium. For the second consecutive day, the Sooners rallied from behind and took the lead for good in the seventh inning off a Kody Kaiser double to right center that plated Joseph Hughes and Kevin Smith.
OU is 2-1 against ranked teams this season, defeating Notre Dame and then-No. 19 Long Beach State after dropping to then-No. 5 Rice.
Senior P.J. Sandoval did not receive the decision, but pitched deep into the game for his third consecutive start and gave way to John Brownell (1-0) and Will Savage (4th save) who combined to close the game out and improve the Sooners’ overall record to 9-3 and drop Notre Dame to 2-2. The OU starting rotation consisting of Sandoval, Steven Guerra and Daniel McCutchen have last five or more innings in all but one game this season.
“We got another outstanding pitching performance from our starter today,” said OU head coach Sunny Golloway, who is 21-9 at the Sooners’ helm. “P.J. put together another quality start and he has been great for us in three straight weeks. His performance allowed us to get into a flow against a good team like Notre Dame.
“Even though we did not get a lot of hits, our guys did a great job of making their starter throw a lot of pitches. The fact that we made Notre Dame go to its bullpen allowed us to win because we knew that our bullpen would be better.”
Notre Dame took its first lead of the ball game in the fifth inning off a three-run homer by Mike Dury, which countered the Sooners’ two-run shot off the bat of Aaron Reza in the third inning. With a 3-2 lead, the Irish turned to their bullpen in the sixth frame and OU proceeded to chip away at the one-run lead.
The Sooner rally started with Smith being hit by a pitch to lead off the seventh inning. After that at-bat, the game got interesting with a sacrifice bunt laid down by Hughes. Notre Dame reliever Sam Elam delivered the pitch to the plate and as the bunt rolled towards first base, Dury scooped up the ball and proceeded to tag out Hughes. But the OU center fielder stopped in his tracks about halfway down the line and entered a standoff with Dury. With Smith already on second base, Dury briefly checked the runner and Hughes took advantage of the situation by ducking under the tag and then legging out a high throw that sailed into foul territory, allowing Smith to reach third.
“In all of my years of baseball, I have never seen anything like that play,” said Golloway. “Joseph made the correct play when he backed up and he never gave up. That was an unbelievable play and the great thing about it, is that it also teaches all of our guys never to give up on any play or in any game.”
With runners on the corners, Kaiser connected for his second hit of the game, a double to deep-right center field that brought home Smith and Hughes. The drama did not stop there as the eighth inning featured a familiar sight for OU baseball fans this season. In the Irish eighth, Matt Bransfield came up to the plate with two outs and Brett Lilley on first base. Bransfield benefited from a single that dropped in between the Sooner infield and outfield and allowed Lilley to make his move to tie up the game. But Hughes, patrolling center field, did exactly what he managed to do in the Texas State and Long Beach State games, throw down a potential game-tying run at the plate. As the throw from center took one hop and hit catcher Jackson Wiliams’ glove, Lilley found a road block on the path that ended the Irish’s chances to tie the game.
Brownell picked up his first win of the season after allowing just two hits in 2 1/3 innings of relief. Brownell stuck out two batters before giving way to Savage, who received some defensive assistance on a 6-4-3 double play that produced two quick outs in the ninth after the leadoff batter reached first on a single up the middle. Savage nailed won his fourth save of the year on a routine ground out to second base.
Sandoval last five innings-plus for the third consecutive start, giving the Sooners 5 2 /3 innings of four-hit ball. Sandoval allowed three earned runs and struck out four batters opposite three walks, the only free passes allowed by the OU pitching staff over the three games this weekend. For the Irish, the decision also ended with the bullpen as Jess Stewart (0-1) took the loss. At the plate, Sean Gaston led the Irish with two hits. Notre Dame starter Jeff Manship was solid, except for the two-run homer by Reza, giving up two hits and two earned runs over five innings tossed.
OU managed to collect just four hits opposite Notre Dame’s seven but made the most out of its chances. Kaiser led the charge with two hits and Reza and Williams contributed the other Sooner base knocks.
“With every weekend we have been able to identify weaknesses and things we need to work on,” added Golloway. “And we have been lucky enough to still find a victory while we work on those things.”
The Sooners return home to host Wichita State on Tuesday at 3 p.m. at L. Dale Mitchell Park. The game is the start of a four-game home stand for OU and a stretch that will see the Sooners play seven of their next eight contests in Norman.