"I thought this was one of the best fall's we've had since I've been at Notre Dame," said Mainieri. "I was really excited about it going into fall practice because I thought we had accumulated the best depth in our position players that we've ever had. I was excited to watch our intrasquad games. When I wrote out the lineup, I wasn't sure which team was going to win."
The Irish position players came out swinging in the series, plating 45 runs in the three games. The Blue team won the series winning the first two games.
With all the runs scored, we asked Mainieri if he was concerned about his pitching. "The last time I was really nervous about our pitching was in 2002," Mainieri said. "That fall, we had some freshman pitchers by the name of Grant Johnson, Chris Niesel, and John Axford that gave up a lot of runs in fall practice."
"I'm really not overly concerned about our pitching because I know what Chris Niesel is going to give us," Mainieri continued. "I know when Grant Johnson gets back to full strength; he's going to be outstanding for us. There's a lot of other guys, Ryan Doherty, Tom Thornton, and a lot of other guys that I know what they're capable of doing."
The flip side to the runs for Mainieri is that he's really excited about his team's hitting.
"The fall of 2002, I remember asking myself ‘do we have a really good hitting team, or are we really a poor pitching team?' The answer came out in the spring that we really had an outstanding lineup in Stanley, Bushey, O'Toole, and Stavisky, and guys like that."
"I like to think our pitchers were facing as good a hitter's as they will face in the spring time," Mainieri continued. "I honestly believe that when you see those high scoring games, it was a matter of our hitting being really outstanding. Once a hitter sees the same pitchers over and over, by the third or fourth time you see a pitcher, you kind of get an idea of how he's going to throw."
Mainieri's freshmen pitchers struggled at times as well, but Mainieri says that's typical of freshmen. "Those freshman arms, it's very typical for freshman to struggle in the fall. I thought every one of those guys, Olvey, Stewart, Kapala, Vasami, I thought every one of those guys showed glimpses of what they're capable of doing. It's just that consistency is an issue for freshmen in their first semester. If those guys can put it together, I really feel we'll have a really good pitching staff."
Mainieri says he's not certain how he'll use his freshman pitchers at this point. "What will happen is guys will kind of pitch their way into certain roles as we roll through the season."
Starter John Axford had an amazing start to his season last year, but ended the season struggling on the mound. Mainieri says Axford has always had a great arm--he just needs to be more consistent. Axford ended fall baseball sidelined with a sore arm.
"His situation is a little bit up in the air because he was having a little bit of soreness in his arm at the end of fall, said Mainieri of Axford. "He's actually scheduled to see a doctor this week. If he is O.K. physically, I still have a lot of confidence in John Axford. Some of these guys take a little bit longer than others to get the kind of consistency that they need. Nobody has ever questioned his arm strength, or the quality of his breaking ball. The only question has been his consistency, his control, and we still have a very strong belief he's going to get it."
One pleasant surprise for Mainieri was the development of Joe Thaman as a pitcher for the Irish. Thaman is a lefty and would add valuable depth to their bullpen. "I was really excited about the development of Joe Thaman on the mound. I thought that was one of the real highlights of fall practice."
With Thaman now on the mound, Mainieri says things have kind of fallen into place in the field. "It's kind of funny how one thing affects another. Matt Macri dove into first base in the last week of the Cape Cod, and severely sprained his thumb, and had to miss the first three weeks of fall practice. Because of that, Greg Lopez was the only shortstop out there. I thought Greg Lopez really took the ball and ran with it. He played shortstop as well as anyone I've seen play shortstop at Notre Dame."
"I've also felt all along that Matt Marci's best position was at third base," Mainieri continued. "So by the development of Lopez, it allowed us to move Marci to third base. With Marci now at third, that bumps Matt Edwards to first base. With Edwards at first base, I thought Thaman's playing time would be limited. I thought we needed the help on the mound, and I thought it was very much worth letting Joe concentrate on pitching. If you talked to any of our players, they'll tell you that Joe Thaman was one of the toughest pitchers to hit this fall."
Was asked Mainieri what he felt was the biggest surprise for him this fall. "I just think the improvement that some of the sophomores have made between their freshman and sophomore year's is really eye-popping. I mentioned Greg Lopez at shortstop and how well he played. He swung the ball well, too. I thought Greg Lopez was really coming on as a hitter. He swung the bat like I thought he would when we recruited him."
"I thought that Cody Rizzo, by far, was the highlight of all practice," Mainieri continued. "He hit eight or nine home runs in intrasquad games, and he consistently hit the ball hard. He gives it everything he has, every day. He'll do whatever it takes to help the team win. Now, you add the more pop in his bat, now you're talking about one heck of a ball player."
Another player making a move is sophomore Matt Bransfield. Bransfield would add some much-needed pop in the lineup. "Matt Bransfield really stepped forward. He had a two home run game, and really hit the ball hard pretty consistently. He had several extra base hits that stayed in the park."
The outfield was a concern last year for Mainieri. The Irish played a number of players at various positions and didn't find the right combination until later in the year. We sensed Mainieri still wasn't pleased with his outfield, and why he recruited freshman centerfielder, Danny Dressman.
Mainieri says the outfield picture is starting to sort itself out. "This is as deep of an outfield situation as we've ever had here at Notre Dame. Clearly, Cody Rizzo is going to play every day. Right now we're probably leaning towards playing him in right instead of center because I really like Danny Dressman in center. He's shown that he can play at this level, he's not intimidated, he's got a lot of confidence, and he has the ability. Is he going to play with the same desire and ability that Steve Stanley used to? If he does, he's going to play every day, if he doesn't, he probably won't play all the time and Rizzo will play some centerfield."
If Dressman doesn't play as well as Mainieri hopes; he says he has plenty of options. "That opens up two spots for Craig Cooper, Brennan Grogan, Matt Bransfield, Steve Andres and Chris Fournier into the mix at left field or right field. I'm not sure that it's clear-cut at this time."
How far this team will go into the tournament will likely depend on the senior leadership of two players that Mainieri is very fond of—Steve Sollmann and Javi Sanchez.
"Had Steve Sollmann not come back for his senior year, he would still have gone down as one of the outstanding players in Notre Dame history. Having him back for his senior year is really a tremendous boost for us. He's a gamer, he's a winner, he's a leader by example, he is one of my all-time favorite players."
Sanchez is also a natural born leader according to Mainieri. "Javi Sanchez is one of those unique guys that has that personality that people gravitate towards, and they'll follow him anywhere. Javi has proven to be the most unselfish player you could ever ask for. (He's) a very outstanding player. It's going to be hard to believe this is his last year because he's given so much to this program. I think both are really the backbone to our team."
The ace of Mainieri's pitching staff is Chris Niesel. The Irish will have to ride his arm all year—Mainieri feels strongly that Niesel will deliver. "Chris Niesel, it all starts with Chris Niesel. That's where the confidence of the team begins. When you know that your No. 1 starter is a consistent guy, that gives the team a great deal of confidence that when you go out and play against anybody, he's going to keep you in the game. Chris was the BIG EAST pitcher of the year last year. Obviously, his freshman year, he pitched an enormous game for us. Chris has been an outstanding pitcher for us, and we expect him to pitch at an extremely high level for us this year."
Two arms on the mend this fall have been those of Jeff Manship and Grant Johnson. Manship enrolled with a lot of accolades and many feel he will be the future No. 1 starter for Mainieri. Manship sat out fall ball resting his arm after pitching a lot of innings in the spring and the summer. Former ace, Johnson, is ahead of schedule to return from shoulder surgery according to Mainieri.
"Jeff Manship, I really thought he pitched an awful lot for his high school team, and he pitched a lot for the USA team this summer. We know Jeff Manship is going to be an outstanding pitcher. He had a little bit of soreness in his elbow this summer, so we felt the best thing to do was to shut him down and let him rest for a few months. When he starts working out, he can come back at full strength. He'll resume throwing again in November, and we expect him to be raring to go in the spring."
"Grant Johnson's rehab from shoulder surgery is probably ahead of schedule, even though we played it very conservatively. He looks really, really good. He's throwing the ball nice and loose, effortless, and his ball has a lot of pop on it. He has no pain; we're just taking it slow to make sure that he'll be ready to go in February."
The Irish begin their schedule on the road, as always, playing in tournaments across the country. We asked Mainieri how the early part of the season will begin. "The first weekend, we go out west for a tournament at Southern Cal. We open up the season against San Diego State. That's going to be a tremendous challenge. Then we play a game against Southern Cal and Louisville is the fourth team out there, and we play them on Sunday."
"The next weekend we go down to Florida Atlantic," Mainieri continued. "Florida Atlantic is a team that you don't hear much about because they don't have big time football at this point, but they're a great baseball program. We're in a tournament with Minnesota, Florida Atlantic, and Winthrop, which is another team you don't hear about, but is a great baseball program."
Mainieri is excited about the potential of this team, and so are we. Our only concern heading into fall baseball was hitting. We're sure Mainieri had a few more concerns than we did.
The sophomore class has made a lot of progress in hitting. They were pounding the ball like we saw out of a great hitting team, West Virginia, last year. The return of Sollmann was a real big boost for Mainieri and the team.
If Johnson comes back strong, they find a solid third starter, and they can find a solid closer, Mainieri and the Irish might be heading back to one of our favorite places, Omaha, Nebraska.