Irish Baseball Kicks Off Fall Practice

<P>The Irish baseball team started fall baseball on Sunday. Irish Eyes got a chance to see practice on Monday and we came away very impressed with what we saw. Here's a quick look at what you might expect to see in 2004. </P>

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Coach Paul Mainieri was in excellent spirits as his Irish team took the field. Plenty of freshmen were on hand showing their potential and the veterans looked solid once again. This could really be a special year for Mainieri and Irish baseball.

The Irish position players took the field with some bunting. Mainieri set up some cones and each Irish position player had to place a bunt between the two cones or it was off to the races for a lap around the field.

Mainieri made it a game within the drill and one could tell the Irish players didn't want to run. The banter was back and forth between coach and players and the players won in the end placing four straight bunts avoiding what we assumed was a team run. Celebration was loud as the Irish players beat the old man (sorry Paul) at least for this day.

The Irish then had batting practice and the big sticks were out for the day. Matt Edwards hit two home runs and one off the fence in his first round. Edwards looks to really have gained some strength over the summer--he was crushing the ball. He hit two more out of the park in his final two rounds. Matt Bransfield was also peppering the ball and took one out of the park. He also hit the fence a couple of times and hit many hard-hit line drives. Sophomore Craig Cooper also hit two bombs and senior Zach Sisko added one for good measure.

Freshman Chris Vasami had the longest ball of the day hitting the upper portion of the scoreboard in left. Vasami clearly has the most power on the team and should become the bomber Irish fans are hoping for. His swing isn't pretty but there is a lot of aggression in his swing. Once he fine-tunes his swing, he is going to hit a lot of balls out of the park for the Irish. He is just a big man and I can't emphasize man enough. He looks older than I do and I'm 35.

Freshman Mike Dury also impressed. He is a natural out there. He's very solid in the field at first base and he has the prettiest swing on the team. He looks to have that Ken Griffey build and swing although he's more of a line drive hitter at this point. He's a very good hitter and has a lot of power. I expect him to play often this year. I was very impressed with his natural talent. Dury appears to be a guy who can hit .400 with 10 home runs and a lot of RBI. It's only one practice but his swing appears to be very sound.

Danny Dressman also impressed. He has great speed and is bigger than I thought he would be. He's your typical lead-off man--contact hitter who gets on base. He didn't get much of a chance to show his skills in the field because everything was hit right at him but his speed was evident when running the bases. If he can prove he can hit consistently, I think he has a shot to win the center field job this year.

Chris Fournier also impressed me. The freshman infielder has a very strong arm and pretty good glove. He's another contact hitter who hits a lot of line drives. He hits the ball very hard and has some power and seems to have pretty good speed. He has a pretty swing and appears to hit all pitches well. He could push for playing time at short, third or second base.

Freshman catcher Sean Gaston sat out with very a minor injury. He should be back soon if not today but I've heard very good things about him.

The Irish played a 6-inning game on Monday. The team is divided into two squads and they played each other in a game. Ryan Doherty started on the mound for the gold and freshman Derek Olvey started for the blue. Doherty looked very strong in his two innings of work. Retiring the only three he faced in the first and striking out the side in his second inning after giving up a couple of walks. Doherty looked very good and strong on the mound. He is fearless and I bet he ends up being the closer when all is said and done.

Olvey gave up a lead-off triple to Steve Sollmann in his first inning and was driven in by Dressman on a fielder's choice. Olvey struggled early in his first inning but settled down in the second with a three-up, three-down performance in his final inning. Olvey has a great fastball and threw a good curveball for strikes. He was a little off the plate at first but threw an excellent second inning. He should develop into a great pitcher for the Irish.

Joe Thaman then took the mound and gave up a couple of singles but then battled out of it ending the inning without giving up a run. He then pitched a perfect second inning by retiring all three hitters he faced. Thaman could become a great addition to the staff because he's a lefty who throws pretty hard and for strikes.

Freshman Matt Whittington took the mound for the blue and also impressed. He is small in stature but he is crafty. He doesn't have an overpowering fastball but he places the ball well. My notes were not clear on his performance but I don't think he gave up a run in either inning he threw.

Junior Tyler Jones had a rough first inning including a 3-run home run by Cody Rizzo. The Irish hitters came alive this inning with some hard hit balls including back-to-back hard-hit singles by Dury and Vasami. Jones had a better second inning not allowing a run.

Junior Martin Vergara also struggled his first inning giving up a Bransfield double down the left field line and an Alex Nettey 3-run home run. Vergara settled down his second inning and pitched well.

With seeing only one practice, I can't begin to make predictions. The sophomore class was very strong and players like Craig Cooper and Bransfield have really started to develop. The good news is the freshman class appears to have a lot of talent to push the sophomore class. Brennan Grogan, Greg Lopez, Rizzo and Steve Andres saw a lot of action for the Irish last year and all look to have sharpened their skills. All are lifting the ball more at the plate and getting more of the ball than they had in the past. Cooper and Bransfield appear to have grown into their bodies more and the power is starting to show.

Coach Paul Mainieri says fall baseball practice is very important for his team. "Fall ball for us is so critical being a northern school," said Mainieri. "When we start the spring we're forced in doors because of the weather. Fall ball is kind of like our spring training. I think it's important for us to work on fundamentals but I think even more important is that we find out who the guys are that we can count on in the spring."

"We also get guys used to playing games so they have instincts for the game and the game-readiness. That's why we spend time on fundamentals but we also scrimmage every day because then you can see what these guys can do when the competition is on."

Mainieri has been very excited about the effort and results he's seen so far. "So far, I can't tell you how pleased I've been with what I'm seeing out here."

Greg Lopez is one player he's really excited about. "I'm really pleased with Greg Lopez playing shortstop. Matt Macri is hurt right now with a thumb problem. He'll hopefully be able to play a week or 10 days of fall ball but Greg has shown us that he's certainly at worst going to be the shortstop of the future for us. When Macri comes back, we'll see how things are going."

The outfield was another area of concern for Mainieri. The Irish were missing Steve Stanley in centerfield last year. "I think our outfield defense—especially with Danny Dressman—has really been outstanding."

Mainieri is also really pleased with his catching situation. "I think the two catchers, (Javi) Sanchez and Gaston have really done well. Sean Gaston shows a great talent, quickness and agility. He's going to be an outstanding catcher for us."

The real battle will be for third base this fall. Edwards and Bransfield will compete for the starting position but plenty of other options abound. Greg Lopez is playing a great shortstop right now so where does that leave Macri? Some think third base is the best spot for Macri but Bransfield and Edwards are hard to take out of the lineup with their power potential.

Vasami has the most power and plays right field. His bat will be hard to keep out of the lineup but he could DH. Grogan, Rizzo, Cooper, Andres and Dressman will all battle for spots in the outfield along with Vasami. Andres can catch but Gaston will likely take at least the second slot. Sanchez is going to be hard to sit if he isn't catching. He also plays infield but will have a hard time breaking into the lineup there.

Right now, only second base (Sollmann) appears to be set. Dury could play a lot of first base but Thaman and Edwards have played first base in the past and Edwards could see a lot of time there to make room for Marci or Bransfield.

The problems are good problems for any coach to have and Mainieri agrees. "Overall, defensively and offensively with the position players, we've had some great competition out here. It's only going to make everybody out there better."

"It's those decisions you want to have as a coach. You want someone to rise above another guy but if you have to choose between two guys who are playing excellent, that is a nice problem for a coach to have. It's when you have to choose between two guys who aren't playing at a high level that it becomes frustrating."

Pitching is also a concern. The Irish will have to replace some great talent in players like J.P.Gange, Ryan Kalita, Pete Ogilvie, Matt Laird and Brandon Viloria. Mainieri says this young staff has a ways to go. "What Chris Niesel does in fall practice is irrelevant. I know in the spring he's going to be ready to pitch for us. John Axford, fall is more important to him because he had a rough ending for us but I know Axford is going to be ready and I thought he threw pretty well yesterday. Ryan Doherty showed today that he's going to help us a lot."

"It's actually time for the young kids to develop as pitchers. I was really happy with Joe Thaman today. He pitched two great innings, he showed a great changeup and he looks like he can help from the left side this year. Derek Olvey showed some real promise today. We've got a lot of work to do on the mound but the talent is there. I think we'll have a very good pitching staff."

The Irish will have to develop some pitching and settle on a lineup. Niesel, Axford and hopefully Grant Johnson will be a solid starting nucleus. Sophomore Tom Thornton has starting experience and pitched well for the Irish last year. Doherty also has starting experience and shined at the end of the year but we feel he will develop into a closer this year. The Irish will have to find some spot pitchers that can give some solid relief in the middle innings. Johnson's health and return to form could really be the difference for this team.

At the plate, the Irish have some talent. Sollmann's return was critical. Dressman could be the lead-off guy with both Sollmann and Dressman adding speed on the bases. Edwards, Bransfield, Cooper, Vasami, Andres and Dury look to be guys who can add some pop in the lineup.

The 2004 Irish team could have a special year. They have excellent talent but must fill some holes left by graduation. Irish Eyes will try to follow fall baseball as much as we can. All future reports will be on the Irish baseball forum so check there for future information.


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