The 2003 Irish baseball team had a nice run in the NCAA tournament last year but ultimately lost to Cal State Fullerton in the regionals. The Irish position players were very young and made their run behind the bats of a few talented veterans and a lot of freshman. Hitting coach Dave Grewe says his freshman—now sophomores--have developed and his veterans are hitting better than they ever have. We didn't ask Grewe about every single player but he gave us plenty of information.
"Right now our older guys are showing a tremendous amount of leadership in terms of how they're playing the game," said Grewe. "Steve Sollmann is continuing to get his hits, steal bases when he gets on base. He's doing all those little things that make him an All-American and he's doing it in fall baseball. That kind of shows the younger guys how to play the game and that helps us."
The team leader—Javi Sanchez—lead his team all through the BIG EAST Tournament and through the NCAA Tournament last year. Grewe said Sanchez is a clutch player. "Javi Sanchez has been doing the same thing. He's getting two-out hits on some of our top pitchers. He's getting it done and he's probably the biggest gamer we have on our team. He's going to come through in the clutch for us and always has."
Grewe marvels at Sanchez and how he is able to elevate his game when his team needs him the most. "That is totally the makings of a special player. He's a guy that thrives on clutch game-time performances. There were so many times when he played mid-week games and he was forced to play because of the lack of catching depth that we had. When it comes crunch-time and everything matters the most, he's the guy you want up at the plate. You want him to be blocking that ball in the dirt. He's a clutch player and he steps up his game like no one other and that's why he's the biggest leader on this team. When guys see that, they follow."
Another veteran that has shown the ability to take the ball out of the park is Matt Edwards. Edwards has good power and could be a guy who really takes off this year. "Matt Edwards isn't swinging the bat as well as he can this fall but he's doing enough good things and showing enough competitiveness at the plate to really compete for playing time."
If the Irish hope to make their run, they will have to get hitting production from their talented sophomore class. Players like Cody Rizzo, Greg Lopez, Steve Andres, Craig Cooper, Brennan Grogan and Matt Bransfield will have to be productive according to Grewe. "Those are the players that are really going to take this program to the next level this year. We saw a lot of those guys come on at the end of the year. We saw them compete at the highest level at the BIG EAST Tournament and out at Cal State Fullerton."
"Cody Rizzo has been a tremendous player this fall for us," said Grewe. "He's almost making it looking it easy. We shortened his swing, keeping his hands inside the ball and staying quick to the ball. He's doing those things and he's getting a good pitch to hit. He's swinging with an aggressive style and jumping on balls. I think he's hit eight home runs already. Not only that, he came up yesterday and took a pitch to the opposite field which he needs to do."
Bransfield is another player that has shown the ability to hit the long ball. Bransfield hit 11 home runs in summer baseball. "Matt Bransfield is showing a lot of good bat-speed. He's showing a lot of ability to drive the ball out of the park and into the gaps to drive in runs for us."
Greg Lopez is fighting for the starting spot at shortstop. Lopez is a master with his glove and is starting to become a solid hitter according to Grewe. "The biggest thing that Greg needs to do is contribute whatever his at-bat calls for. If there is a runner on second base with nobody out, Greg Lopez needs to hit the ball to the right side to move that runner over. He's got to do all those little things. Those things are going to make Greg Lopez a great baseball player. He's actually swinging the bat really good right now. He's hitting hard line drives and Greg Lopez is definitely going to hit for us."
The Irish have added five more position players in their freshman class. Irish Eyes has been impressed with every single freshman in this class. Grewe also sees a lot of potential in his freshman. "Chris Fournier and Mike Dury have definitely shown some flashes of being highly productive. Chris Fournier, every time he hits the ball it's on the money. He's staying behind the ball and even his outs are line drives in the outfield. He's made us very excited about his future."
"Same thing with Mike Dury," said Grewe. "The other day he was 3-for-3 with three doubles. He takes the ball out of the park right-handed, the ball jumps off his bat and as a left-hander he's pretty darn good."
A critical addition to this class was catching prospect Sean Gaston. Gaston should allow Sanchez to rest during mid-week games and should be the catcher of the future. "Sean Gaston is a guy who can bring a lot to the table as a hitter. He's already won a game for us this fall. He had a ninth inning two-out hit with a line drive up the middle. The next game, he was in the exact same situation and drills a bullet to centerfield and the center fielder has to make a diving catch the save the game. He comes up the other day and hits probably one of the hardest-hit balls all fall."
The Irish also needed a true centerfielder. Grewe thinks they've found their centerfielder and he might be that guy this year in Danny Dressman. "Danny Dressman is working extremely hard to be the type of hitter he needs to be--that's a guy who gets on base. He can drop down a bunt, he can use his speed, he can hit the ball the other way and move a runner over. He's working extremely hard to do that."
The one thing the Irish have been missing is a true power-hitter. Chris Vasami certainly looks the part with his 6-4, 235-pound body. "Chris Vasami has a chance to be a power-hitter for us. He's a guy that sits back and drives balls and he's a guy that we're trying to get to hit for power and drive the ball out of the park and into the gaps. He should be able to do that for us."
Grewe thinks we will see a much improved offensive team in 2004. "Our offense is going to be so much different than what you saw last year. That's going to be exciting. A guy like Matt Macri goes off to the Cape and hits seven home runs there. His power numbers should be going up a bit. Overall, you're going to see guys who have more experience. They're going to have seen more live pitching. They're going to be able to not swing at a pitcher's pitch, they're going to swing at their pitch and that's what we're seeing a lot of so far."
Pitching usually gets you to the College World Series and keeps you competitive in the series but hitting usually wins the series. We asked Grewe if he felt his hitters will be able to produce if they get to series. "There's no question that I believe that and that's why were so excited about the team this year. There's going to be days where you have to produce offensively to win a game and I think this club has that. We've just have to gel as a team. I think we're going to have leaders and hitters all over the field. With the right attitude and with the right approach, these guys have a chance to have a very special team."
The Irish did lose some team leaders in J.P. Gagne, Kris Billmaier and Ryan Kalita but Grewe thinks they have plenty of leadership both in the field and on the mound. "I'll be honest with you, I think we've got a leader in one of the biggest positions that you need a leader in and that is at catcher. Javi Sanchez is a tremendous leader by the way he plays the game, by how vocal he is and he's a special leader and he's in a position where he can definitely control the outcome of the game by his leadership skills."
"I think we'll have leaders on the mound. We have enough veteran pitchers that are going to contribute and lead the right way. We've seen that out of Chris Niesel this fall. Chris Niesel has gone above and beyond what a lot of guys have done in the past in terms of how he helps out with the younger guys."
The 2004 Irish baseball team has all the ingredients to make a run to Omaha. With the return of a healthy Grant Johnson, this team could go very far in the tournament. How far will likely depend on how well they can hit. Irish Eyes can tell you that from what we've seen, this team is hitting the ball with a lot more aggressiveness and elevating the ball—taking it out of the park with much more frequency.
All the freshman position players last year—sophomores this year—hit a lot of balls on the ground and a lot of lazy fly balls to the outfield. Grewe has made each player a much better hitter this year. They are getting much more of the ball and hitting line drives into the gaps and over the fence. Rizzo is putting on a hitting clinic out there. Craig Cooper has shown more power as has Bransfield. Lopez has really come on with his bat.
The future is unbelievably bright for this team. The freshman class of position players looks to be equally as talented if not more talented than the sophomore class. Grewe and Mainieri are going to have a hard time settling on a lineup and that is a problem I'm sure they're happy to have.