Matt Edwards kicked off his Irish baseball career with eight starts at shortstop in his first nine games before breaking his leg and ending his freshman season. The injury was a setback for Edwards and the road back was not easy. The determined Edwards fought through rehab and came back to lead the Irish and the BIG EAST in RBI in his sophomore season erasing any doubts of him fulfilling his vast potential.
Edwards' comeback was remarkable as he earned first team all-BIG EAST as a sophomore. He ended up hitting .376 with 69 RBI and a .538 slugging percentage. But, Edwards admits he really didn't feel like himself out there. "It was tough because I wasn't as quick as I was before," said Edwards. "I couldn't run the bases like I used to. It was just fighting through the season. I felt good at the plate all year so that was a good thing. I was just trying to help out my team as much as I could with my hitting."
Edwards' diminished ability to move quickly was a real battle for him. "When you out there and you know you're not as quick as you used to be, it is frustrating because you just miss getting to a couple of balls you used to be able to get to."
"This year is different," Edwards continued. "I don't feel like I'm struggling anymore. I've got most of my speed back and I think I help my team out on the bases as well. I'm quicker in the field, too. It feels a lot better knowing you can play up to your potential in the field and running the bases."
The junior sensation was also given his third different position in three years this season. Edwards is now playing first base for the Irish—a position he started picking up as a sophomore. "At first base all you've got to do is concentrate on catching the ball, and when you field the ball, as long as you knock it down, you'll have time. We've got so many shortstops on this team that not all of them can play shortstop. I was the one who moved and I think it's great for a team right now."
"It's just a matter of getting used to the footwork around the bag," said Edwards of the transition. "Last year was a learning experience and now it feels much more natural. I really enjoy playing first base. It really wasn't that big of a transition."
Hitting coach Dave Grewe has been very impressed with Edwards' glove at first base so far this season. "His defense at first base is tremendous for us," said Grewe. "He's worked really hard in the off-season to become a good first baseman. I think that's a real key for us. His whole game has been taken to a new level."
Edwards is also swinging the bat well for the Irish this season. He's hitting .377 with 17 RBI so far and has a .679 slugging percentage. He's also leading the team in homeruns (4).
Grewe says Edwards has made some important adjustments so far this season. "His confidence at the plate is at the highest level right now," said Grewe. "He's really swinging it well. The big adjustment he's made is really understanding how guys are going to pitch to him. He's made several adjustments in his hitting approach. He's been able to sit off-speed and sit fast ball, but he's also been able to hit stuff away and that is exactly what guys are trying to do to him."
Edwards agrees that he's seeing the ball well at the plate. "I feel very comfortable," said Edwards. "I feel very confident at the plate. It's all about it my approach this year—knowing that I'm not going to see a lot of great pitches this year hitting in the third spot."
"He's getting pitched away," said Grewe. "He's getting a lot of breaking balls thrown to him and his timing is right on those. In the Florida Atlantic game, with a lefty trying to pitch to him away, he's able to hit two balls out of the park because he was sitting off-speed. He's doing a great job."
"They're not going to challenge him with fastballs early in the count so he's accepted that challenge and understands that this is the position he wants to be in," Grewe continued. "His approach at the plate is what has taken him to the next level. They won't challenge him early so they'll throw off-speed stuff. And, later in the game when he's already hit their off-speed stuff, they'll want to challenge him so he's done a great job of understanding that."
Edwards knows hitting in the third slot will be a big challenge this year. "I'm going to see a lot of off-speed pitches and you have to adjust to that," said Edwards. "You've got to hit the ball to the right side—especially with runners in scoring position—you're not going to see a lot of good pitches to hit. You have to concentrate. If you get something around the plate, you've got to do what you can with it. If it's just a ground ball up the middle then that is what you have to do."
Edwards is also concentrating on taking what the pitcher gives him. "I'm not trying to force any homeruns. If I try to force homeruns then I'll start hitting a lot of ground balls. If I do get that pitch, I'll put the same kind of swing on it. If I get it, I'll hit it with power, too."
The conversation during the game between Edwards and Grewe is what has really helped Edwards. "Coach Grewe and I talk a lot—even before each at-bat about what my approach is going to be. He'll come over and say ‘I really think they are going to start you off with a couple of changeups. I think they'll work you away." He and I stay close contact in every game. He's helped me out a lot with keeping my focus. He taught me that a base hit to the right side is O.K. He really helps me with my approach."
Edwards also has a lot of faith in his teammates and believes this Irish squad will be a special one. "The chemistry on this team is great. We have a bunch of guys that pull for each other. We play so well together—I think that is what makes a great team. Not to mention that this is the most talented team that I've ever played on. There isn't one thing that were really lacking right now. Our pitching is getting the job done, our fielding is great and we're hitting the ball."
Edwards also believes this teams is united with one goal—something he credits Irish coach Paul Mainieri for. "I wouldn't be happy playing on a team that doesn't have the chemistry that this team does. Everybody on this team has the same goal. We all want to win, we pull for each other, and we don't have individuals, we all have the same goal. Coach Mainieri preaches that and that really rubs off on us. We think we can play with anyone."
Edwards has battled through the injury to become one of the most feared hitters in the BIG EAST. He should continue to murder the baseball this season, and how far the Irish go will largely depend on Edwards. We expect him to continue to deliver.
(Notre Dame Sports Information contributed to this story)