As always, the Notre Dame baseball team kicks off their season with their annual Opening Night Dinner that will be held on Feb. 10 this year. Irish coach Paul Mainieri has really topped himself this year by bringing in two outstanding speakers for the event in big-league pitchers Roger Clemens and Brad Lidge.
"I think the thing is going to be sold out tomorrow," said Mainieri of the team's fourth annual dinner. "We're going to have 1.750 people there, and we're going to break the attendance record again. The first two years we had 1,100 people. Last year we had 1,300. This year we're going to have over 1,700 so that is exciting."
Mainieri has had some big names speak before at the dinner including Tommy Lasorda, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, and famed author John Grisham, but he also believes it's important to have former players speak as well at the event.
"Besides the keynote speaker, and last year we had John Grishman, who did a wonderful job, I think it's important that we have a former player speak," Maineri said. "Last year we had Steve Stanley speak and it was so well received. Everyone remembers his career here, and I think it's important to have a former player speak.
"It just so happens that this year the former player, Brad Lidge, probably could've been the keynote speaker himself. I called Brad to see if he wanted to do it. He's absolutely thrilled and is really looking forward to doing it."
Most Irish baseball fans are well aware of the huge success Brad Lidge has had in the big leagues, but we had to know how Mainieri got Roger Clemens to speak at the dinner.
"We have a parent of a former player, who's an attorney in San Antonio, Texas, by the name of Ben Davis, who's always been involved in bringing our team down to San Antonio each year on spring break," Mainieri said. "Roger Clemens is a very close friend of his so I called Ben to ask him if he thought Roger would be interested in doing it.
"Roger calls me one night and said he'd love to do it. The night he called me to tell me he'd like to do it, we were just talking some baseball and I asked him if he was in Houston right now. He said ‘no, actually I'm in Washington D.C., and I'm going to have dinner with the president in about an hour, but I wanted to call you first.' I said ‘I'm glad you have your priorities in order.'"
The Opening Night Dinner should be a great way to kick off the season, but Irish baseball fans will also want to know about the season. We spoke with Mainieri about how some injuries to key players are coming along.
"We're going to be really conservative with (Manship) early in the year, but we're really encouraged by the way he looks. I think John Axford looks really good, too. Derik Olvey is throwing the ball well. I think all three of those guys will make a full recovery and at some point will be back 100 percent. I can't promise that it will be at the start of the season, but they're all throwing great, and we're really encouraged.
"I'm really expecting all of them to start the season and to be able to pitch 2-4 innings and pitch very effectively."
Also injured has been shortstop Greg Lopez. Lopez will likely be a team leader this year, and his health will be instrumental to the success of the Irish this season.
"Greg Lopez looks great," Mainieri said of the junior infielder. "He had back surgery after the season. It's tough to keep Greg down for very long. He tells me every day that his back feels 100 percent. I'm just looking forward to seeing him play an entire season without playing in so much pain. I think he's going to have a great year."
Also key to the Irish success will be the healthy return of infielder Matt Edwards. Edwards is a key power guy in the Irish lineup.
"Matt Edwards is doing fine," Maineri said. "He's primarily going to play first base because of how well Ross Brezovsky has come along. The little elbow problem he had won't come into play."
Mainieri said he expects to use the everyday lineup of Edwards at first base, freshman Brett Lilley at second base, Lopez at shortstop and freshman Ross Brezovsky at third base.
"I think that's going to be a pretty good infield," Mainieri said. "You have two veterans, but you also have two rookies. Normally a coach would be lying awake at night worried about the two freshmen, but these two kids are really something."
Another key player the Irish will count on is outfielder Cody Rizzo. Rizzo was primed for a huge season for the Irish in 2004 until he injured his wrist.
"He played through tremendous pain last year and people have no idea how much that affects a hitter," Mainieri said of Rizzo. "First of all, he couldn't take much batting practice. Second, swinging a bat hard, it had to clearly affect him and his swing. I think you're going to see Cody Rizzo back to 100 percent this year."
Probably the most important transition this year will be at catcher according to Mainieri. Sophomore Sean Gaston will try to replace a critical guy in Javi Sanchez. Sanchez played a vital role last season, and Mainieri's hoping Gaston can step into that role soon.
"Now you're touching on what I think is going to be the key to our season—how well Sean Gaston does, and also the backup situation," Mainieri said. "I don't question that John has the ability. There's no question about that. He has a chance to be a really, really great player for us.
"When you replace a guy like Javi Sanchez, who was such a leader for this team, those are some big shoes to fill. That catcher position is like the quarterback of your team, and you need to have a real leader there.
"I think Sean, until he gets his feet wet, is not quite as assertive as I would want our catcher to be. I think Sean's personality is not quite that way, so I think once he gets some confidence and some experience, I think you're going to see him become more of a leader. We're going to need him to be.
The other two outfield spots will be manned by a combination of four different players on any given day.
"I think Steve Andres and Craig Cooper are clearly the starting players for us, and are going to be two of our key offensive guys," Mainieri said of his outfielders. "I think Cooper is really ready. He had a great year last year. He led the BIG EAST in hitting and had 10 or 11 home runs.
"He's got a chance to be a pretty high draft choice this year. I think Craig Cooper is ready to be one of the best players in the BIG EAST conference if not the entire country. Steve Andres has shown what he's capable of. He's had a lot of big hits for us. I think both of those guys will be starting in the field. I'm going to play Cooper in centerfield and Andres in left (field). I also think Alex Nettey and Danny Dressman are going to get a lot of playing time, too. I'm real confident that we have a deep outfield and that's the least of my concerns."
Most Mainieri teams are known for their outstanding pitching and defense as well as an opportunistic offense. With so many key injuries with the pitching staff, we asked Mainieri if he felt the Irish bats might have to carry the load early in the season.
"I think we're going to have a good offensive team, but I hope people take our pitching lightly because we might just sneak up on them. I think we're going to have a tremendous pitching staff this year.
"With Jeff Manship, Axford and Olvey back, and we've still got a lot of good guys remaining from last year—Dan Kapala, Ryan Doherty, Jeff Samardzija and Jess Stewart all pitched very well for us. And then we've got some rookie pitchers that are going to help us quite a bit—especially Wade Korpi and Joey Williamson.
"I think our pitching is going to be really good. I think it might take a little time for that staff to develop, but I think by a certain time in the season you're going to see a pretty dominant pitching staff."
2005 is shaping up to be another big season for the Irish. Matching their 50-win season last year might be difficult, but if the pitching comes along quickly, this team might surprise a lot of people in a hurry. Irish Eyes will be there covering Irish baseball all season long.