"We have decided to go with Chris Niesel," said Irish coach Paul Mainieri on Friday's starter. "I'm going to do that for a couple of reasons. The major reason is that Niesel pitched against Arizona earlier this year. With that being a possible match up in game two, I thought (it was best) to give a team we may play a different look. They know Niesel, they know his pattern of pitching, they know his stuff. I thought why not save Johnson for game two in case we play Arizona? "
"The other reason is because Chris Niesel has really been our No. 1 pitcher for about the last year and 2/3rds," Mainieri continued. "I have all the confidence in the world in Chris Niesel. I believe he's going to go out there and do a great job for us and get us off to a great start on Friday."
Niesel enters the game with an 8-2 record and a 3.71 ERA. Niesel also owns a career 1.51 ERA in post season play in six starts. The junior said he was thrilled to get the nod. "Coach came to me and said ‘Chris, how would you feel about throwing the first game on Friday.' I said ‘that'd be great.' Our whole team is excited, we can't wait to get out there to play," Niesel said.
"I've always tried to tell myself during the post season that it's do or die," Niesel said of his impressive post season stats. "The post season is a different mindset. If you don't win that first game, it's a tough road because you have to come back and win four straight. We hope to get off to a good start."
The Irish only played three games last weekend using very little of their bullpen. Niesel thinks that might be an advantage for the Irish this weekend. "I think our starters did a great job," said Niesel of their starting pitching performance last weekend. "Grant Johnson threw seven innings, Tom (Thornton) threw seven, and I pitched seven so we saved our bullpen a little bit. We saved our fourth starter—Jeff Samardzija—he didn't have to throw in the fourth game. I think that is a little bit of an advantage for us."
Catcher Javi Sanchez said he's excited to be playing in Eck Stadium in front of the Irish fans one last time. "This is my third year out of the four years that we are hosting," Sanchez said. "I'll tell you, it's a big difference, it's special and I think these fans deserve it. This is what you work hard for all year. I think we're playing great baseball and we just need to play it one day at a time."
Sanchez is a team leader—a role he takes seriously—but he says the team's success has little to do with his leadership. "I don't think it's so much my leadership or the senior leadership, I think it's our whole chemistry as a unit, it's so special," Sanchez said. "The guys contribute day in and day out. A different guy steps up every day and that's when you have a special team, and a dangerous one."
One dangerous guy has been junior Matt Macri. Macri has been on fire lately at the plate and leads the team in average (.380), hits (84), runs, (72), homeruns (14), doubles (15), and triples (7). "I feel really good at the plate right now," said Macri. "I feel really confident at the plate and in the field. I'm just seeing the ball really well and hitting everything hard."
Another area the junior has really shined has been with his glove. Macri has made a number of dazzling plays at third base since making the switch from shortstop this season. "I don't mind that I don't get mentioned much with that," said Macri about not getting enough credit for his play in the field. "It's a different transition to playing third. I'm used to it pretty well now. I'm just working at it every day."
Senior Steve Sollmann will be playing in his final regional this weekend and he says he can't wait for Friday to arrive. "It's going to be exciting," said Sollmann. "I can't wait to get back on the field and playing in another regional. I think if we go out and play our game, and play hard, we're going to be successful."
Sollmann has had a storied career at Notre Dame and was just named Academic All-American for the second consecutive season. What's been just as impressive is how he's played since his injury. He's hitting .314 and is playing like he never missed a beat both at the plate and in the field. "I just tried to keep learning while I was hurt," said Sollmann. "I just watched and tried to learn from my other teammates. I was still working out. I got to work with coach Grewe and he really kept me in shape."
Sollmann's glove has meant a lot to this Irish team. The Irish turned a number of critical double plays last weekend in the BIG EAST tournament and Sollmann agrees that the defense has been excellent since his return. "I think it means a lot to the pitchers, for sure--not just myself, but the whole team," Sollmann said. "We can really play good defense when we have our heads in the game. It's something that I take a lot of pride in."
Sollmann is also a team leader and he and Sanchez are two of the few remaining 2002 College Worlds Series participants. We asked Steve what he would tell his team about how to play in this tournament. "I just tell them that there is no doubt that we have the talent to do well in this tournament," Sollmann said. "All we have to do is play hard and play smart. If anyone can beat us, it's ourselves. I think if we play Irish baseball, we're going to be fine."
The Irish were snubbed by the NCAA selection committee earlier in the week and were not awarded one of the coveted top eight seeds despite being ranked as high as fifth and winning 49 games on the season. Mainieri said his team will have to move on and just play the games. "You want to focus on this weekend," Mainieri said. "In fact, we want to focus on Friday and play one game at a time. Deep down, there is a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. It's disappointing to me that we can win 49 out of 59 ballgames (and not be chosen)—I don't understand what it is that you have to do to gain that kind of respect from the selection committee."
"It might've bothered us for a little bit, but that's not something we've concerned ourselves with," said Sanchez. "We've just got to show to the teams across the country that we can compete with anybody and we're going to go out there and show them."
Macri agrees and said you have to beat them all anyway if you want to end up on top. "It was definitely disappointing," said Macri of the snub. "Whether we are a top eight seed or not, we've still got to get it done on the field. It's the same thing we've got to do, just without being a national seed."
The Irish sure looked like a confident team on Wednesday. The team was very loose and having a lot of fun in typical Mainieri fashion. This Notre Dame team does have the talent to get back to Omaha, we'll have to wait and see if they do indeed do just that.