Baseball "State of the Union"

I know it's the beginning of January, but it's also time to start getting excited about Notre Dame baseball again. The Irish have the pieces in place to field one of their best teams in Irish baseball history. Plenty of talent and experience returns for Coach Paul Mainieri to make a title run in 2004. We caught up with Mainieri to get a "State of the Union" before the Irish begin their first practice of the season at the end of January.

We all know what a big fan I am of Irish baseball--you should be as well. I've been preaching the gospel about Irish baseball after being bit by the bug last spring. The planets have lined up to give Irish baseball fans a wonderful season we can all be proud of. Dominant pitching, clutch hitting, and hopefully some long balls are on the horizon. And who knows, maybe a trip to Omaha for yours truly.

Since I'm a "newbie" to preseason practice, I thought I'd ask Mainieri what the schedule looks like before the Irish leave for their first trip to California on February 20th. "We'll begin practice on January 13th," said Mainieri "We practice in small groups until January 30th. We work with 3-4 guys at a time. January 31st is our first official day of full-squad practice. We have about five weeks of practice to get our club ready for our first weekend."

Mainieri says that getting his pitchers on track is his most important goal. "The biggest thing is to get our pitchers on schedule. We need to make sure that Chris Niesel, or Grant Johnson, or whoever can give us five or six good innings. That will be important for the first month of the season."

The Irish don't have the luxury of nice, warm weather to prepare for the season. The team has to do all their practicing inside—not ideal circumstances for a game played in the elements. "It's a challenge. We use two separate facilities. We use the indoor pitching and hitting facility over at the Eck baseball stadium. We do all our hitting, pitching and catching there. All our position players do their defensive work in the Loftus Center. We really have to have a very coordinated effort to take advantage of our facilities and our time."

One important piece to the Irish puzzle this year will be the return of junior pitcher, Grant Johnson. Johnson is an intimidating force on the mound. Standing almost 6-7, and weighing 215 pounds, he strikes fear in opposing hitters with his 90+ mile per hour fastball. Johnson sat out last season with season-ending shoulder surgery, and is on track to return to his winning ways of 2002 when he led the Irish to the College World Series.

"Grant is coming along great," said Mainieri of Johnson's recovery. "The last time he threw was around the first week of December. He was throwing full-speed, off a mound, in a bullpen type of workout. We shut him down for about five weeks. He'd been going for a few months in rehabilitation so we decided the best thing was to give him some rest. He should be throwing this week."

Johnson wasn't able to participate during fall practice due to his injury. We asked Mainieri how he was throwing before they closed fall practice. "If I had to put a percentage on it, I'd say he was throwing at about 75 percent at the time we shut him down. We were really, really encouraged. He was throwing nice and easy, effortless, and the ball was popping in there pretty good. He was only throwing fastballs and changeups. He won't throw any breaking balls until after the first of the year."

The Irish were dealt a blow when 2003, 9-game winner; John Axford was sidelined with elbow surgery at the end of fall practice. "John Axford is out for the season. He had Tommy John surgery, which is a reconstruction of his throwing elbow. He'll miss this spring season. We expect that he'll be back and ready to pitch during fall practice next September."

The Irish added another arm to the bullpen when freshman football player Jeff Samardzija said he was going to give pitching for the Irish a whirl. "Jeff was quite a baseball player in high school. He was actually all-state as an outfielder. We saw him pitch one night, and thought he had the potential to help us on the mound. It was also something that he was really interested in doing all along. It's kind of been the agreement all along that he'd be given the opportunity to see if he can contribute to the team."

Samardzija will begin workouts with the team next week when students report back for the spring semester. "He'll start working out with the team fulltime as well as doing his football conditioning work. We'll get him on a throwing schedule, will let him pitch against the hitters in the indoor simulated games, and we'll see how he does. He's certainly a big, strong guy with a strong arm."

The Irish also recently signed another recruiting class. We talked to Mainieri about all the players that signed with the Irish in this 2003 recruiting class.

The Irish signed six total players. Two position players were signed, as well as four pitchers.

"We recruited two infield guys, Ross Brezovsky and Brett Lilly. Both of those guys are going to play very important roles for us next year. We know we're losing Steve Sollmann. We believe we're going to lose Matt Macri as a draft-eligible junior. We have Greg Lopez coming back. Chris Fournier is a freshman that I really believe can hit. We really need to see if he can line up and play second base defensively for us every day. Brezovsky and Lilly are going to be thrown right into the mix with those guys. One of them, for sure, is probably going to start. The other is going to have a very important role, or both could start."

The first position player we discussed was Ross Brezovsky. Brezovsky is a middle infielder who plays the game the way Mainieri loves to see it played. "Ross Brezovsky comes from a very rich baseball area in Naples, Florida. He is the prototypical gamer. He uses all fields, he runs the bases great, he's a good defensive player. He's a really scrappy, hard-nosed, gamer kind of kid. He also bats from the left side which will help us in our lineup."

The Irish were also able to steal another middle infielder from Stanford in this class. "Brett Lilly is a very similar player to Brezovsky. We're really excited about both of those guys. He was a really highly-recruited kid. His final decision came down to us, Georgia Tech, and Stanford. We don't often beat Stanford head-to-head on a recruit. I really like his makeup. He's a tough kid, really hard-nosed, plays the game 100 percent all the time. He's also a good hitter. ."

The Irish went down to Florida and signed two high school pitchers from the same high school. Santaluces high school must have one heck of a baseball team. "It was very unusual for us to recruit two players on the same team. This is the first time I've ever done this. In all honesty, they were two of the top pitchers in the country in our minds so you can imagine how good that team is."

The first of the "Santaluces Duo" is Wade Korpi. Mainieri says Korpi reminds him of another great Floridian currently on the Irish roster. "Wade Korpi is a lefthander who really knows how to pitch. So often you find lefthanders that are projectable guys—if they can throw strikes, if they develop a changeup, if they can develop a breaking ball. Wade Korpi has all of those things. He throws strikes, he knows how to pitch, he's got three quality pitches, and he's a thinking pitcher. He's a Niesel type. He doesn't throw quite as hard as Niesel at this point, but being left-handed, he doesn't need to. He's a winner, he knows how to pitch, and he's at an advanced stage with his development, which I think is going to give him a chance to come in and pitch a lot of innings as a freshman."

The second pitcher of the duo is Joey Williamson. Mainieri believes that Williamson has got a lot of potential in his right arm. "Joey Williamson is more of a harder thrower--more of a nasty slider type of guy. You could visualize Joey coming in and being more of a closer as a freshman. You could see him developing as a starter. He's got a good, high ceiling. We don't think we've seen the best of Joey Williamson yet. He's going to be a guy, because of where he's pitched, that's going to be ready to pitch as a freshman, yet he still has room for growing. He's got the arm strength, the physique, and the arm action that's going to allow him to grow."

Mainieri and his staff then went to Texas to find another "Mainieri" type of player. Knowing Paul as I do, he loves these scrappy types. He also gave Tony Langford a big compliment by comparing him to a future 300-game winner in the big leagues. "Tony Langford is to pitching, what Brezovsky and Lilly are to infield play. He's kind of an undersized guy, but a good athlete, and a gamer on the mound. He's the kind of guy who's going to go after the hitters. He's got a nice, loose, live arm. His fastball has a lot of run on it. He's going to throw strikes, he's going to field his position well, and he's also an infielder that could help us. He's a Greg Maddux type. He won't be afraid to throw the ball over the plate, and he'll pitch with a lot of energy and a lot of competitiveness."

Mainieri didn't stop there. He went to Washington State to find another guy that he's really excited about. "David Gruener is more of a projectable type of lefthander. He's pitched in the upper 80's and touched 90 miles per hour. We're really excited about his upside. He could become a really dominant pitcher at Notre Dame. He's got a good arm, he's got a big body, he's already come along to the point where he throws strikes consistently. I just think were going to see this kid really blossom over the next couple of years."

The 2004 season could be another magical season for the Irish. Mainieri believes that this team can go far in 2004. "I really think we have a chance to do something special this year. I felt that way in 2001, I felt that way in 2002. I thought last year was going to be kind of a growing year for us, yet I thought winning 45 games, winning the conference championship, and making it to the finals of the regional was a tremendous accomplishment. We had so many young players that we were depending on. Last year we had basically six new players in our every day lineup."

"Now those six guys have a year under their belt, as well as those that shared time," Mainieri continued. "I feel like our lineup is going to be solid. We 15 or 16 position players that I can put out there on the field with a great deal of confidence at any time—we've never had that kind of depth."

Losing Axford was a blow for the Irish pitching staff. Mainieri feels he has the players to fill the void. "Losing John Axford is a big blow to us already. But, it seems every year we are dealt a difficult blow we have to overcome. The history of our program is that we overcome it. Simply because we have quality kids that are waiting for their chance, with a good attitude, and good ability, and they believe they can do it. That's been the history of our program, and I expect nothing less this year."

"I do feel we have some quality guys. Just like every year, it all comes down to pitching. I'm confident because we have Chris Niesel leading the way. I'm confident that Grant Johnson is well on his way to a full recovery. When you look at the rest of the staff, you are talking primarily about some inexperienced guys. You have Ryan Doherty and Tom Thornton who have a year under their belt who we're going to count on for integral roles."

Mainieri will have to count on a lot of freshmen pitchers, but he does that every year. He said he's excited about his young arms. "We're going to count on probably five freshman pitchers to really contribute to the success of our team. How quickly they come along is going to have a lot to do with how well we do this year. Who knows which ones will play the most important roles. Guys like Jeff Manship, Derek Olvey, they've got a chance to be a third starter, or a closer. No doubt they are going to pitch some important innings for us. Jess Stewart, Dan Kapala, Chris Vasami, they are guys that are going to play important roles on our team."

Mainieri believes his freshmen pitchers have made progress over the off-season. "They all showed signs in the fall that they were ready to contribute. Terry Rooney did some wonderful work during the winter months where he worked individually with them. They've made improvement since fall practice. I'm really anxious to see how they do in the middle of January when they start working against the hitters indoors."

The Irish enter the season ranked 10th in Collegiate Baseball preseason poll—something Mainieri is very excited about. "So many coaches play-down rankings, but I'm not one of them. I'm glad we're ranked 10th. I'm glad the expectations are high, I'm glad our name is out there. When you are a northern school, people find it hard to believe that a northern school can compete with those traditional college baseball powers, those warm-weather schools. It helps your team to be ranked, and your name mentioned with all those traditional baseball powers."

"I'm glad we're ranked 10th, I'm glad our kids get the attention they deserve, I'm glad people are taking notice of our baseball program. I think there's a challenge to prove we're one of the top 10 teams in the country—I believe we are. I believe we have the team that will go out there and prove it again. I'd like to finish a lot higher than 10th. I'd like to be about nine spots higher--that would be fine with me."

Being ranked in the preseason is old news for the Irish. Mainieri says this is a statement to where the Irish program has risen in terms of other traditional baseball powers. "This is the third time in the last four years that we have had a preseason ranking in the top 10. Last year we were ranked 12th. It's something that our players have become accustomed to. They are not afraid of it. They kind of wrap their arms around it. Now the challenge is to go out there and prove that we belong there, or higher."

I want to invite all Irish fans to give Irish baseball a chance. This is a special group of young men, and a special group of coaches doing something many didn't think was possible—becoming a dominant program a northern school.

Mainieri has already built a proven winner, a College World Series team, and the Irish are not far from being mentioned with the likes of Stanford, Miami, and LSU as a dominant program.

I can't describe what it's like to see someone like Steve Sollmann play the game every day. Irish fans fell in love with Steve Stanley because of his gutsy play—Sollmann is his equal in attitude and performance.

I've never seen one player pick up and entire team and carry them on his back the way Javi Sanchez did in the Big East Tournament and the Regional last year. You can't help but love Javi Sanchez.

I can't describe what it's like to see Chris Niesel stare down a team like West Virginia and dominate them. The Mountaineers were the country's sixth-best hitting team and he almost no-hit their team if not for a cheap last-inning bunt. Interviewing Niesel after the game, he wanted to go out and throw the second half of the double-header because he was so angry he missed his no-hitter.

And who can't wait to see the new and improved Grant Johnson? Running Niesel and Johnson back-to-back just doesn't seem fair to the competition.

There are plenty of other reasons to get excited about Irish baseball. Seeing the next Steve Sollmann, in Greg Lopez, play the game like it's meant to be played. Watching the sweet swing of Mike Dury (as sweet as Ken Griffey Jr, I swear). How about seeing the sure, mammoth size of Chris Vasami and what he can do to a baseball? I can't wait to see the Jeff Manship curveball. Watching those Danny Dressman diving catches in centerfield spark memories of Steve Stanley.

How about watching Cody Rizzo hit 12 bombs this year and wondering how such a smaller guy can get such good wood (metal) on a baseball? Or "Sluggo" favorite, Matt Bransfield hit towering bombs over the scoreboard in left field?

There are plenty of reasons to get excited about Irish baseball. I will do my best to cover them as the year goes on. Give Irish baseball a try, you won't be sorry. Top Stories