The Notre Dame baseball team limped into finals weeks looking like the walking-wounded. Shortstop Greg Lopez, right fielder Cody Rizzo and catcher Javi Sanchez were all batting minor injuries. The Irish were also without their 2003 All-American second baseman, Steve Sollmann for a number of games after suffering a broken jaw. The Irish should have all four ready to play starting on Sunday according to Irish Coach Paul Mainieri.
Mainieri said he greeted the time off this week with open arms. "I think this break came for us at just the right time," Mainieri said. "I think we were on fumes, both the coaches and the players. We've been on the road so much. We've only had two weekends at home all year."
"We've had so many guys nicked up," Mainieri continued "The Sollmann situation has been well-chronicled. Javi Sanchez, Greg Lopez and (Cody) Rizzo have been banged up. It was really good for us to have a break now."
Despite the injuries, Sanchez, Lopez and Rizzo tried to battle their way through their injuries until they could get to the break—Lopez and Rizzo didn't quite make it. "All of those kids are courageous warriors," Mainieri said. "They have something special about them. They will play through whatever they will play through. You almost have to step in and tell them they are not playing.
"Greg Lopez has a sore back. We just felt if we were going to make it with him through the rest of the season that we would have to shut him down. Rizzo has been dealing with a sore wrist since he dove for that ball in Texas. He'll probably have that until he can take a month or two off to let it heal properly. Because of Sean Gaston's mononucleosis, Javi Sanchez has had to take on the fulltime catching duties. That position can be very taxing on you, catching 15-inning games and coming back to catch the next day. We're just hoping we can keep everyone taped together."
Sanchez is going to be the fulltime catcher for quite a while according to Mainieri. "We won't anticipate Sean being back until at the earliest, the Virginia Tech series, if that."
The very good news for the Irish is Steve Sollmann should be back this weekend. "I believe that he's going to play this weekend against Connecticut," said Mainieri of Sollmann's status. "I actually threw batting practice to him on Monday for the first time. He's got doctor's clearance. They fitted him for a special mouthpiece. We've also fitted a football facemask on his batting helmet. He's just happy to be out there. (Wednesday) will be his first day in the field. I'm going to go out and hit him some ground balls, let him turn some double plays and see how he feels. Depending on how he does today, Friday and Saturday, we'll decide on if he can go this weekend."
The Irish players have been focusing on finals this week and Mainieri said the team wouldn't practice as a unit until Friday. "We haven't seen the guys since last Friday, (Wednesday) will be the first day we'll actually start back with individual workouts with some players around their final exam schedules. Friday we'll have the whole team back together. We'll practice on Friday and then we'll have a workout Saturday morning and then we'll head to Chicago to fly over for the series with Connecticut."
The Irish had been struggling at the plate lately, but Mainieri believes that will change soon. "I believe that our hitting is going to improve now that classes are over and the guys can just concentrate on baseball. I think we're going to start to swing the bats a lot better."
Mainieri also knows the key to his team's success come tournament time will be how his team pitches and plays defense. "I don't think when you get to this point in the season that you can count on hitting to carry you through the playoffs. It always comes down to pitching and defense. The key for us is going to be Grant Johnson going out there and extending himself, Chris Niesel pitching at a very high level, and then getting the rest guys. Tom Thornton and Samardzija are going to be huge. Ryan Doherty has got to be that great closer, Kapala and Joe Thaman, all of those guys have to be at their best as we finish the season and head into tournament play."
The Irish do tend to play their best baseball at the end of the season. Mainieri says he's excited to see what the final few months bring for the Irish. "Traditionally this is always an exciting time for us. As school has ended and they can put all their attention to baseball, it's seemed to give our team a lot of life as we go into the last three weeks of the season. After we get through this weekend with Connecticut and the one game next week with Michigan, we finish with eight games at home. Our destiny is basically in our own hands."
Fear not Irish fans, the Irish do traditionally play their best baseball at the end of the season. The Irish might not be as deep in the pitching department as past teams, but we do believe they will be able to hit well down the stretch, and we see some real impressive pitching right before the break. Having a rested Greg Lopez, Javi Sanchez and Cody Rizzo will certainly help, but a healthy Steve Sollmann should do wonders for this team.