Irish Baseball Team Kicks Off Fall Practice

The Notre Dame baseball team kicks off fall practice today and Irish head coach Paul Mainieri has some big shoes to fill. Gone are MLB draftees Grant Johnson, Chris Niesel, Steve Sollmann, Javi Sanchez and Matt Macri. Mainieri says the Irish still should have enough horses this spring to field another excellent team.

"Fall practice this year is going to be significantly different than last year," said Irish coach Paul Mainieri. "Last year we were so deep in position players. We've got a couple of guys out for the fall so we're going to be much more limited in our numbers. We're going to have to do some imaginative ways of setting up games until we have walk-on tryouts."

Our first order of business was to find out the status of some the injured Irish players. Mainieri said he expects to have a few players out for fall baseball.

"Greg Lopez had back surgery right after the season," Mainieri said of his junior shortstop. "We expect he's going to be 100 percent ready to go, but not during fall practice. He may do some limited things towards the end of fall practice, but won't play in any competitive way."

"Matt Edwards, during the summer, had some discomfort in his throwing arm," Mainieri said of his future third baseman. "We feel we need to just shut him down. He's not going to throw at all during fall practice, just to rest (his arm).

"So you're talking the entire left side of your infield is not going to be participating during fall practice. Edwards may hit a bit, kind of as a (designated hitter) towards the end of fall practice."

Besides Lopez and Edwards, Mainieri is anxiously waiting for some top-shelf pitchers to return to action in John Axford and Jeff Manship.

"They're both progressing right on schedule, maybe a little bit ahead of schedule," Mainieri said of his two star pitchers. "Axford has been up on the mound. We're really excited about the progress he's made. We feel very confident that he's going to contribute in a big way in the spring. I'm not sure that he'll throw in any competitive way during fall practice."

"I think he's going to make more of an impact earlier than Grant (did last year)," Mainieri said of Axford. "Grant's injury was a shoulder and those are much slower (to recover). I feel like when we roll around to February, John is going to be basically 100 percent ready to go.

"Jeff is right on schedule. His surgery was later than John's. John's was in the first of November, while Manship's wasn't until the first of February. He probably won't climb on a mound until the first of November."

Mainieri said those four injuries are the extent of the walking wounded at this point.

"Those are the only four, but those are four pretty big ones," Mainieri said with a big laugh. "Derek Olvey missed most of the season, but as of right now, he looks very good. We anticipate he'll be able to participate in fall practice."

Also sitting out of summer baseball was rightfielder Cody Rizzo. Mainieri also expects Rizzo back for fall baseball.

"Cody Rizzo sat out the entire summer," he said of the junior outfielder. "He had the wrist injury and he just needed to take the summer off and rest it. He avoided surgery, and he just needed to rest it a bit to give that wrist time to heal."

Also reporting this fall were six freshmen that will be added to the Irish roster. We asked Mainieri about his first impressions on all of his freshmen.

"We started to work with them this week after they passed their physicals. Everything I've seen out of both Ross Brezovsky and Brett Lilley has really got me excited," Mainieri said of his two freshmen infielders. "They were really the kind of players I felt we needed to have in this class.

"Both are middle infielders that are kind of (Steve) Stanley clones. Both are scrappy, lefty, line-drive hitters than can bunt and run and do all those things. They're tough to strike out. I'm kind of excited about having that kind of hitter in our lineup as well as the guys who can hit the ball out of the ballpark."

"I think they're both going to be good defensive players," Mainieri continued. "I think they can both run real well. They both have very short; compact; line-drive swings and they have good throwing arms. They have everything I was hoping they'd have. It's going to be interesting to see them this fall against higher competition."

While Mainieri has seen his position players; he says he's yet to get a good look at his freshmen pitchers.

"I haven't seen any of them on the mound yet," Mainieri admitted. "Yesterday was the first day I've seen any of them throw a baseball, period. They've worked with coach Rooney and have tried to learn his terminology and the drills we put them through every day."

"Wade Korpi, he's your classic pitcher," said Mainieri. "He's a left-handed pitcher that's got everything together. He's going to throw strikes. He can throw three pitches for strikes. He's not an overpowering guy, but he's just your classic pitcher that knows how to pitch."

"You can just tell David Gruener and Joey Williamson, that with their arm action, their arm strength, and some experience, you can just tell they're going to develop into some good pitchers."

Mainieri also high on a right-handed Fort Worth (Tex.) native.

"Tony Langord is just a very high-energy, good arm, throws strikes, gives you all he's got type of pitcher. He's a good athlete on the mound."

The return of Olvey, Manship and Axford, plus four freshmen pitchers should keep pitching coach Terry Rooney very busy this spring and fall according to the Mainieri.

"With four new pitchers coming in, plus the three coming back from injury, it's like having seven new pitchers coming in," he said. "Terry Rooney's got a lot of work ahead of him. But, he's one of the best so we're excited about that."

The lost of the five draftees will likely see the Irish start down in the National rankings this season. Mainieri says he not concerned with where his team will be ranked in the preseason.

"If we're not in the top 10, that's not going to bother me at all," said the veteran coach. "I wouldn't expect that we would be. We've lost 2/3rds of our starting rotation, an All-American at second base, another big leaguer at third base, and a great player behind the plate. Those are some pretty big holes to fill.

"I feel very, very confident about this team that we're going to have next spring. When you look at out junior class, five of them are going to be every day players in Rizzo, (Craig) Cooper, Lopez, (Steve) Andres and (Matt) Bransfield. Alex Nettey seems to be making a lot of progress so he could emerge. And then you look at two pitchers, Tom Thornton and Ryan Doherty, and they're two of our very best guys.

"Then you have Matt Edwards back and John Axford returning so we've got experience," Mainieri added.

"We are not going to have a real deep team, especially when it comes to position players, so we've got to hope for some luck there. I have a feeling that by the time we're playing in March that we're going to be a pretty good team."

The Irish won't be as deep as 2004, but they should have plenty of talented players to make yet another run at the College World Series. We'll be at a number of the fall practices this season updating what we see on baseball board on Irish Eyes. Top Stories