Irish Looking to Continue Winning Ways

The Irish baseball team started their season with two impressive wins over the weekend against San Diego State and Southern California. Pitching and defense led the way for the Irish and we caught up with Irish coach Paul Mainieri to get his thoughts on the weekend and the tournament they will play in this coming weekend.

"The guys really played well," said Mainieri. "They just played remarkable. We knew we were going to have a really good defensive team. Our only error was a catcher's interference so we basically never mishandled a ball or made an errant throw in two games and the conditions were pretty difficult with the wetness."

The Irish bats were also impressive over the weekend hitting .310 as a team. "I was really pleased with us offensively. I was actually happier with the way we swung the bats against USC than I was against San Diego State even though we didn't score as many runs. We must've had seven or eight times where we hit the ball right on the nose with runners in scoring position but just had bad luck and it was right at somebody. We beat Southern Cal 3-1, but I felt we should've been up about 8-1 with the way we were hitting the ball."

Staff ace Chris Niesel was his usual self and got the Irish off to a solid start with their first win of the season. "He did exactly what we hoped he'd do. He goes right out there strikes out the first two batters of the game and that kind of relaxed everybody. He just did his thing, threw strikes, kept the ball down. He actually pitched his best at the end of his outing. His best innings were his fourth and fifth innings. He was really settling into a groove. Because it was his first start, we didn't want to overextend him so we took him out."

Also impressive on the mound was sophomore Tom Thornton. Thornton threw six solid innings allowing just four hits and zero earned runs against an excellent hitting team in USC. "He was outstanding. In the first inning, they had a runner on third base with only one out and their third and four-hole hitters coming up. He got Metropolis to pop up and then struck out Clement. Those are two of the best hitters in the country. Metropolis led the Cape Cod league in homeruns last summer and Clement hit 21 last year and was the National freshman of the year. To get those two guys out in that clutch situation shows that Tom has got a lot of courage."

Mainieri was also pleased to see Grant Johnson back on the mound. The former co-ace sat out the 2003 season with an injury and hadn't pitched in over a year. "Seeing him back on the mound for the first time in a year and a half, that was heartwarming for all of us. I thought he threw very, very well. He only threw two innings because he was at 42 pitches and it was not our intention to get him past 50."

Junior Matt Edwards also picked up the offensive load in the first game with three hits including the first Irish home run for the season. "Matt Edwards has got to be our big run producer. He was last year with 69 RBI which is a good amount. I expect he'll do the same this year and maybe more. That is what the guy that bats in that third spot is supposed to do for you. Matt certainly met that challenge for us. He's a great hitter, he had a great game, it was good for the team. I've always preached to our kids that in order to win games on the road somebody has got to step up and have a big day and he did that for us."

Also shining in his first action was freshman Danny Dressman. Dressman picked up his first Irish hit and two RBI while playing solid defense in the outfield. "Danny Dressman I thought really played well in both games for a freshman. To go into California against those two teams in that environment and play as well as he did I thought was tremendous. I'm not surprised at all. I've always thought Danny was fearless. He's played a lot of good baseball in California in his high school days. It didn't surprise me at all. He hit a lot of balls right on the screw so I was very encouraged about that."

Mainieri was also impressed with the play of sophomore Cody Rizzo. Rizzo picked up three hits and made a number of outstanding plays out in right field. "He is a star in the making. The thing that you love about Cody is he plays the full game. He's going to hit and hit a lot for us. But, on the days when he doesn't hit, he makes contributions to this team. In that Southern Cal game, he made three great plays in one inning. He made two very difficult diving catches on fly balls and then he throws out the tying run at the plate to end the inning. He's going to be a great player for his career here."

The Irish will travel to Florida this weekend to play in the Florida Atlantic Classic. The Irish are scheduled to play four teams this weekend. The Irish first tackle Winthrop, and have games lined up against Florida Atlantic, Minnesota and have added a fourth game with Florida Memorial as a make up game.

Freshman Derek Olvey was slated to start the game against Louisville that was rained out last weekend. We asked Mainieri if he was tempted to start Olvey against Winthrop and saving Niesel for the game against Florida Atlantic—the highest-ranked team in the tournament. "Chris Niesel is our number one guy and will pitch the first game every weekend. We do that because we hope he gets us off to a very good start. You also hope he pitches long into his outing so it doesn't tax your bullpen. It saves the other guys for the rest of the weekend. Derek Olvey will get his chance to pitch on Sunday against the 25th-ranked team in the country. We have a lot of confidence in him."

Mainieri believes this weekend will be one of the most difficult for the Irish on the season. "Not many Irish fans probably know the names of these schools because they don't have the powerhouse football teams, but I can assure you that Winthrop and Florida Atlantic have as good as baseball programs as you want to play. Minnesota is a BIG 10 school and they have a great baseball program."

"I told some people privately before we left last weekend that I thought the second weekend would be tougher than the tournament in California," Mainieri continued. "When you look at this tournament, there are four teams in the top 30 in this tournament. We're 10th, Florida Atlantic is 12th, Winthrop was 28th but I think they fell out of the top 30, and Minnesota is 25th. These are as good of teams as we'll play all year."

Some younger players will also get their first shot to play this weekend. "We added a game with Florida Memorial. We did that as a makeup game with Louisville because we think we'll have to cancel some more games when we get back to the Midwest because of weather."

"I think we're going to start Jess Stewart," said Mainieri of the likely starter against Florida Memorial. "The positive of having this game is it will give us a chance to pitch some other guys, to use our whole staff. It also allows us to play some other guys. It gives us a chance to catch Sean Gaston two ballgames which is something I wanted to do. We get a lot of players some playing time with this game."

This weekend will be a good test for the Irish. They will be playing three high-quality baseball teams. Irish fans should get a good idea of how talented this team is this weekend. It's very early in the season, but the Irish appear to be up to the challenge and finding their stride in all facets of the game.


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