Super Sophs Pushing Irish Over the Hump

The Irish baseball team has gotten off to very fast start in 2004 with a 25-4 record heading into Monday. One major reason for their success has been vast improvement at the plate by some Irish sophomores. We spoke to the man who's done the tinkering of their swings to get these young players producing so quickly and consistently—Irish hitting coach Dave Grewe.

Players do improve over the course of their careers and most players make their most improvement between their freshman and sophomore seasons. It should come as no surprise that some of these sophomore hitters have improved at the plate. What is very impressive, however, is how much improvement they've made, and how many of them have become much better hitters for the Irish.

Take for example Greg Lopez. Lopez hit just .243 last season for the Irish. He had 33 hits, one double and 26 RBI in 132 plate appearances.

This season Lopez has raised his overall average to .343 and his slugging percentage to .495. He's added nine doubles and 2 home runs while chipping in 22 RBI in 99 at-bats this season.

Lopez credits his success to time spent in the weight room and working with Grewe. "First I think through weight lifting, putting on some weight, I've gotten bigger and stronger," said Lopez of the secret to his success. "I've really worked hard with Coach Grewe on getting my swing and getting everything sound and hitting the ball to all fields."

The Upper Arlington, Ohio native says he's taken Grewe's advice and made it work for him this year. "He wants me to be more of a situational hitter. If there's a runner on base, I need to move him over. If he's is scoring position, I need to come up with the clutch hit. I've been trying not to strike out as much and to work all fields."

Lopez says Grewe's love for teaching the game makes playing for him all the more fun. "He's a really passionate guy about the game. He loves to be a part of it. He loves to teach the game. It's not work or practice with him, it's more just fun."

Grewe says Lopez is the type of kid any coach would want to play for his. "His work ethic is what stands out. That kid works so dang hard. He listens to everything that we're telling him about hitting and he applies it at the plate. He listens to us at every at-bat and takes what the pitcher is giving him. He's been able to hone his mechanics, become a good fundamental hitter, but at the same time be the hitter we need him to be."

Another sophomore who has made some major improvement has been Steve Andres. Andres hit .269 last season with a .442 slugging percentage. He hit two doubles, two triples and four home runs in 104 at-bats last season. He also recorded 24 walks and had a .415 on base percentage.

This season Andres is hitting .348 with a .594 slugging percentage. He's hit three doubles, a triple and four home runs in just 69 plate appearances. He's also recorded 24 walks and has a team-leading .526 on base percentage among the regulars.

Andres says his success comes from being more relaxed at the plate and understanding how pitchers will pitch to you. "I feel a lot more comfortable at the plate," said Andres. "I think my approach is a lot better. Just learning how pitchers pitch to you. Coach Grewe helped me out a lot with that. I feel like I'm improving every day."

The hardest adjustment for Andres was getting used to the breaking pitches he sees every day. "Last year was a big adjustment. I think the biggest adjustment was the control of the off-speed pitches that college pitchers have. I had a little bit of trouble with that. I feel like I've gotten a lot better and I see pitches a lot better."

Andres said Grewe helped him make an adjustment to his swing that has really helped him this year. "He knows everyone's swing and he knows that everyone is unique in their own way. He also can tell when something's wrong and makes slight adjustments to your swing. If it's just our hands are a little too high, or we're sliding a bit early, just tweak our swing a little. He's great at picking up those little things."

"Early on in the year he told me that my weight was out in front," Andres continued. "He made a slight adjustment and I had my stride down a little early. It's helped me a lot to stay back on off-speed pitches and still be geared for the fastball."

Grewe said Andres makes pitchers pay for their mistakes. "He's become a much better mistake hitter," Grewe said of Andres. "What I mean by that is when a pitcher leaves a ball that he can drive he'll take advantage of that. He really gets his money's worth when he swings. He's got good bat speed and that is where the power is generated from.

"He's made an adjustment to get his stride down early and that's made a huge difference for him," Grewe continued. "He gets his stride down and he's able to hit balls the other way."

Sophomore Craig Cooper has really begun to swing the bat well for the Irish. Last season Cooper hit .303 with a .385 slugging percentage. He hit six doubles, two triples, and zero homeruns for the Irish in 122 at-bats.

Cooper has found his stroke recently hitting .342 with a .569 slugging percentage. He's hit four doubles, a triple and four homeruns in 73 at-bats this season. He's already passed last season's 15 RBI with 18 RBI this season.

Cooper says he stopped trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark each time at the plate. "I've gotten back to being more of a traditional line drive hitter," said Cooper. "Last fall I came in and swung the bat the way I normally do. Come spring time my swing kind of changed and I was pulling off, trying to hit homeruns. Once I was able to get back to my old swing everything kind of evened out."

Cooper says Grewe helped him find his swing again. "He focused on my hands and letting my hands do the work. If I keep my weight back, let my hands go first and follow with my body I have more of a chance of driving the ball instead of getting out in front and lifting the ball."

Grewe says Cooper had to make a mental adjustment at the plate and that has helped him as much as anything. "One of his big things that he had to work on is that baseball is game of failures as well as successes and you're going to hit some balls hard and fail more than you're going to succeed. He's been able to limit the emotional side of hitting and he's able to focus more. He's starting to really scorch the baseball. He's come a long way."

Englewood, Colo. native Matt Bransfield is also having a career season at the plate. Bransfield hit .310 for the Irish in 2003 and finished with a .352 slugging percentage. He recorded 3 doubles, zero homeruns and 10 RBI as a freshman in 71 at-bats.

Bransfield has become a power man for the Irish hitting a team-leading six homers. He raised his average to .333 and his slugging percentage to .603. He also chipped in 22 RBI on the season in 78 at-bats.

"He talks to you a lot about your approach at the plate," said Bransfield of Grewe. "He'll tell you what to look for and where to take the ball. He's very good about telling you what your approach should be for that certain pitcher."

But, is Grewe right more often than not? "Yeah, he is. He is usually right on the money with the way a pitcher is going to pitch you."

Grewe says Bransfield has learned to take the ball the other way and that has been the difference in his hitting this year. "Matt has done a really good job of taking the ball the other way. Most of his homeruns are to the opposite field. When you do that, you're going to be a great hitter. He's worked really hard on just getting square to the baseball."

"What we really worked on with him was to get his load early and to get his stride down," Grewe continued. "We worked on that all preseason and he's now doing a great job of that. He's striding to the baseball early and then squaring to the ball which is allowing him to see the ball better and attack it."

The Irish had high hopes for right fielder Cody Rizzo this spring. Rizzo hit eight home runs in the Blue/Gold series this fall and came into 2004 murdering the baseball in practice, but a wrist injury has hindered his production. Rizzo continues to battle through the injury and Grewe says it won't be long before we see Rizzo swinging the bat like he did this fall and in preseason practice.

"When he keep his hands in he creates that bat speed," said Grewe of Rizzo. "The kid is a true gamer. Even when he's not swinging well he's going to come up with that big hit. When he starts getting into a groove, he's going to start scorching balls all over the field. He's going to hit very well for us here."

"Anybody who has a hand problem, that's going to affect them a little bit," Grewe said of Rizzo's injury. "He's a tough kid. He won't tell you how bad his hand hurts because he wants to play. It takes away power and it takes away bat speed. He'll be back swinging it the way he was real soon."

The Irish look like a totally different team at the plate this year and a lot of credit has to be given to Grewe. The success these sophomores have at the plate will carry the Irish for the next couple of years because they should be in the regular lineup for foreseeable future. We can't stress enough how impressed we've been by their production and confidence at the plate.


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