Irish Eyes wanted to get a few words with the guy who will open the season for the Irish in 2004 to kickoff our coverage of Irish baseball. Chris Niesel has been a rock of consistency for coach Paul Mainieri and the Irish. His career numbers (13-1 record, 2.95 ERA, 149 Ks, 39 BB, 170.2 innings pitched) show how remarkably consistent he's been.
Even more impressive are Niesel's postseason numbers (2.05 ERA, 27 Ks, 11 BB, 34.1 innings pitched)—numbers posted against the best competition he would face. His consistency and his ability to rise to the occasion have given him the nickname "bulldog" by some—everyone refers to his bulldog mentality when speaking of Niesel.
Pitching coach Terry Rooney has only worked with Niesel for a short period of time. In that time, he's been very impressed with Niesel's ability and attitude. "We really feel like when Chris goes to the mound we know what we're going to get," said Rooney. "We know he's got a bulldog mentality, he's going to give it everything he has--he's going to be consistently around the zone with his pitches. Those two traits combined with his experience will lead him to a lot of success."
Niesel says his bulldog attitude was born inside him. "I think that is just something that comes from me and who I am," Niesel said. "I have always been competitive. It was the way I was raised, to be as competitive as I can be while I am out there. I have total confidence in myself and my teammates. It is just how I have always been."
That attitude was obvious last season. We watched Niesel come just short of his first collegiate no-hitter against West Virginia in the opening-game of a doubleheader to earn the 1-0 Irish victory. The Mountaineers were the nation's sixth-best hitting team at the time, and if not for a last-inning bunt single, Niesel would've had his first no-hitter. It's important to note that the successful bunt put the tying run on base, and instead of folding like the Chicago Cubs this past season, Niesel buckled down and became more determined than ever to earn the victory 1-0 victory. This was just another moment in the many gutsy performances by Chris Niesel.
Performances like the above mentioned have earned Niesel the right to be named an Irish captain by his teammates. "I feel honored to be a team captain and I am glad that my teammates look up to me and have confidence in me," Niesel said. "To me it means leading by example. We have a young pitching staff this year and I think me leading by example will show the young guys how we get things done around here. Javi (Sanchez) and Steve (Sollmann) are more vocal, I tend to lead by working."
Rooney also names Niesel as the leader of the pitching staff. "He's the leader of this pitching staff, not only from a game-standpoint, but from an everyday standpoint," said Rooney. "He's really taken the bull by the horns as far as a work ethic and leadership standpoint. Obviously we have some young pitchers without experience so we need a guy like Chris to lead these guys every day in practice and he's done that very well so far this year."
As good as Niesel's been, both he and Rooney saw room for improvement during the off-season. "He's a fastball, curveball, changeup guy, but we've added a slider and kind of a two-seam fastball this year," said Rooney. "He's had a lot of success here at Notre Dame, but he's kind of a top-to-bottom type of pitcher--he has that low 90s fast ball, that 12 o'clock to 6 o'clock curveball and his changeup."
"We talked this fall and agreed that he needs to have more pitches he can throw on the sides of the plate," Rooney continued. "The slider will open up the outer-half of the plate, and that will give him a big advantage this year and when he plays professional baseball. We're looking at it as an out-pitch--something he can go to when guys are behind in the count and trying to protect the plate."
Niesel also spoke about adding the new weapon and how he plans to use it. "I have added a fourth pitch, I will be throwing a slider," said Niesel. "That is one thing I have been working on since last season. I definitely think we will be seeing a lot of the fourth pitch. I am hoping it is going to turn into a strike out pitch for me, boost my strikeout totals."
The most important thing Niesel brings to the table is the ability to start any series with a probable win. "It's very important to know that we have a proven guy that we can run out there every weekend to open every series," said Rooney. "We might have two in both he and Grant Johnson. It's very important that we have our opening starter go deep into the game. That relieves the stress on the bullpen and Chris has always given that to us. It gives us a tremendous edge."
Niesel says he's hoping to get off to a good start on Friday. "I think it is definitely important for a pitcher to get off to a good start. It helps with your confidence. Everybody would ideally like to be in mid-season form at the beginning of the season but that's not going to happen. We will take our hits early but hopefully with our confidence and ability to come back; hopefully we will be in mid-season performance when the time counts."
The Irish have had excellent pitching staffs for a number of years. What they've been missing in some years is the one guy that can lead this team offensively to get them over the final hump. "I hope that guy this year will be Matt Macri," said Niesel. "He missed his freshmen year, he played hard last season and I hope this year he has a breakout season. As far as he goes I think our team will go in terms of performing. I don't want to put all the pressure on Matt as I think we have a more well-rounded team this year. Coach Mainieri says it is one of the deepest teams we have ever had. There is ample opportunity for other guys to step up. We have so many guys who can do a great job with the hitting. I think we will be fine."
But, Irish fans want to know if this team has the juice to make it to the College World Series. Who better to ask than a College World Series veteran in Niesel? "I think this team has all the components to be another College World Series team. I see similarities to the 2002 team. It seems that everyone gets along in the locker room, off the field we are starting to gel as a team. We have veterans and we have young guys, there really isn't anything in between so I think when we all get to know each other better we will have better chemistry."
This could be the last year Irish fans get to see Chris Niesel wearing the Irish jersey. He becomes draft-eligible after his season, but Niesel says he's not thinking about that in the slightest. "I am so thankful to have played at Notre Dame with my teammates and for these fans. I really attribute my success and the team's success first of all to the coaches and then, being a northern school and having such great indoor facilities. That has really helped our team prepare for the season. It matters so much here with these facilities as we get to face live hitters and batters, it is much more realistic." And about the draft? "I just try to shut all that out of my mind and go out there and pitch as I am capable of doing. I will worry about that when the time comes."
If this is Niesel's last year in an Irish jersey; you can expect it to be a magical one. Niesel has never been anything but consistent and effective for the Irish—we don't expect that to change this year. Hopefully his determination and focus will rub off on some of the young Irish pitchers. We know Niesel will bring a more than probable win every time he takes the mound, and hopefully the first win of the season for the Irish on Friday.