"I feel like I'm like one of these 18 or 22 year olds, that's how excited I am about it," said Mainieri. "I'm 46 years old, I'm in my 22nd year of coaching in college and I still get as excited for the first trip, the first game, as I was when I was a college kid myself playing this game. I'm very, very confident in this group of guys. We've had very, very good preseason workouts. Our assistant coaches, Terry Rooney and David Grewe, have done an excellent job of getting the pitchers and the hitters ready. I feel we're as ready as we could possibly be."
Baseball is a game played outside, but the Irish haven't had much of a chance to get outside to practice all preseason. Mainieri said he isn't concerned, and felt his team made a big step towards being ready last week. "I felt like this last week, something just started to click with our team. Our players had a little extra bounce in their step. Their confidence is growing, their timing and their skills developing--I think we're ready to play."
Often, the key to early wins is solid pitching and solid defense. Hitters usually struggle early so defense is a priority. Irish Eyes watched on impressive infield session before this interview. Mainieri was clearly excited about what he saw as well. "You witnessed that drill just now," said Mainieri when asked how solid his defense would be this year. "I thought they looked great. I feel like our defensive team is going to be outstanding, I really do. With (Cody) Rizzo in the outfield, and (Danny) Dressman in the outfield when he's playing, I think that gives us two above average outfielders. The leftfielder situation, depending on who's out there, might be just adequate or it might be outstanding."
"Our infield really excites me," Mainieri continued. "Matt Edwards has worked extremely hard at first base and is handling himself very well over there. (Steve) Sollmann has been phenomenal his whole career, (Greg) Lopez is, in my opinion, as good as your going to get to play shortstop, and Matt Macri played very well at short for us last year so he's our "A-rod." We're moving him from short to third. I think our two catchers are very, very solid. Our infield excites me."
The Irish appeared to have the makings of a dominant pitching staff for 2004 at the beginning of fall practice last season. Season-ending injuries to 2003 nine-game winner John Axford and highly-touted freshman Jeff Manship were setbacks from the 2004 staff. The Irish do regain the services of former ace Grant Johnson who sat out 2003 with a shoulder injury. They've also moved former first baseman Joe Thaman to the mound to give the Irish another lefty to call upon from the bullpen.
Johnson won't be in his expected starting position at least for a while. "When this whole thing happened with Grant last season, I was hoping that he'd be ready by the start of the season to go back to being co-ace with Chris Niesel. He's had phenomenal medical care. The schedule for throwing has been great. Even though Grant can't go out and pitch five or six innings right out of the gate, we're still excited about where he is. He's throwing the ball extremely well. His velocity is back, his control is back and he's really throwing the ball great. We are just going to keep him on a very strict pitch count. He's not going to throw more than 50 pitches so you're talking maybe three innings max at least for this weekend, and maybe next weekend as well. We just felt if he's only going to throw for two or three innings we might as well use him at a time in a game where he can have an impact in the result of the game."
The Irish will start current staff ace Chris Niesel against San Diego State. "Chris Niesel gives you a lot of confidence because he's been there. The guy has had two fantastic years at Notre Dame. Last year he was our number one guy. Every game it seemed like he went out and pitched a great game for us. He'll go out and throw a lot of strikes and let our defense play behind him. I expect that he'll pitch very well for us on Friday."
How far the Irish go this season will depend a lot of some young and inexperienced pitchers. "Our whole season is going to come down to how our freshmen pitchers perform for us. I'm speaking specifically about Derek Olvey, Dan Kapala and Jess Stewart. We're not going to be able to ease their way into college baseball—they're going to be thrown right in. The other key guys for us are going to be guys like Joe Thaman and Tyler Jones, and Tom Thornton is going show that he can elevate his game. Ryan Doherty is going to have to show that he can do a good job for us out of the bullpen and I believe he will, I think he's going to do a great job."
Some freshmen position players could also see the field as early as this weekend for the Irish. "Danny Dressman is going to have an important role on our team, Sean Gaston might catch quite a bit for us this year, and Mike Dury might get some time also. The freshmen position players will help some, but they're not going to carry the load that the freshmen pitchers will."
San Diego State (7-8) already has 15 games under their belt so the Irish will be playing some catch up early in the game. The Irish will then play USC on Saturday and 5:30 PM PST and follow with a game on Sunday against Louisville at 9:30 AM PST. Irish fans have to hope the Irish are not as rusty as this reporter when they take the field.