Blue-Gold Series to Close Fall Ball

While most fans are submerged in everything Irish football, the Notre Dame baseball team also has some excitement surrounding the program. With a brand new coach and a brand new start, there is plenty to get excited about Notre Dame baseball.

Yes, there is fall baseball practice, much like there is spring football practice. And they also end their season very much like the football team does with their annual Blue-Gold series.

The Blue-Gold series is an intrasquad three-game series set to kick off this weekend. The Irish will play the first game on Thursday, October 5, at 5:05 p.m. They'll play the second game on Saturday, Oct. 7 at 9:30 a.m. (before the Notre Dame/Stanford game). The final game will be held on Sunday, Oct. 8, with a game schedule at noon.

As many of you know, the Irish have a new skipper at the helm, Dave Schrage, and we spoke to Coach Schrage to get his thoughts on the Irish this fall, and to find out what's been happening with Irish baseball since his announcement as Notre Dame's next head baseball coach.

"When we started the fall the whole purpose of the fall was to get that trust developed between us and our players," Schrage said when asked his overall thoughts from his first look at his new team. "The other thing was to evaluate our team. I told our guys that everyone was on a clean slate. If you've been a two-year or three-year starter, you've got to go out there and prove it. If you weren't a starter this gives you new life. Because of that the competition has been great this fall and we'll benefit from that this spring time.

"I think the guys have really competed for jobs. I see a lot of talent out there. I see a great work ethic. When guys come to practice they're very focused. I think the fall has been very good for us. There's always an adjustment in terms of terminology (when a new staff comes in). Getting used to a new way to do things is usually the biggest part, but our guys have adapted really well."

The Irish have lost some major contributors from the 2006 team including some outstanding pitchers in Tom Thornton, Jeff Manship and Jeff Samardzija, but Schrage says the 2007 team still has plenty of talented arms.

"I think we have a lot of pitching depth," he said. "I think that's the strength of the program. You have (Wade) Korpi returning. You have (Dan) Kapala coming off of injury. Two guys who've pitched a lot. Then you have the emergence of three guys who have really thrown well this fall in Dave Phelps, Joey Williamson and Sam Elam. All three are power arms and have thrown the ball extremely well and I think they're ready to step into those (starting) roles and contribute. The negative is they don't have the game experience. The positive is they definitely have the talent to do it."

"Then you have a guy like Kyle Weiland, who's one of the top pitchers in the country. The freshman pitchers coming in, Andrew Scheid, Steven Mazur and Eric Maust, have all done a great job this fall and I expect all of them to contribute this year. I think we have a lot of good arms and that should be the strength of our team."

The Irish also lost some key position players and hitters as well from the 2006 squad including Craig Cooper, Matt Bransfield, Greg Lopez, Cody Rizzo and Alex Nettey.

"We lost five guys out of nine starters but we have a nice nucleus returning with (Brett) Lilly, (Jeremy) Barnes, (Ross) Brezovsky and (Sean) Gaston," Schrage said of his position players. "You have a steady guy in Danny Dressman, who will play a lot in the outfield.

"We're going to play some freshmen this year. I think the recruiting class was really good. We've had some guys play really well this fall…..Billy Boockford, Brayden Ashdown and Michael Wright in the outfield; A.J. Pollock and Ryan Intlekofer in the infield. There are some young guys that are going to have to play."

The real question mark this season will be in the outfield where the Irish lost pretty much their entire outfield from 2006, although Dressman did start some in left and center throughout the year.

"If there was one question mark so far this fall that would be it," Schrage said when asked about his outfield. "Our outfield defense has to get better. I think it's just the experience factor out there. I think the talent level is there to compete. It's just a matter of getting that game experience. I think the first part of our spring season is going to be very important and very valuable that way. Our schedule is tough. We play good people and we'll get a good feel for our team very early."

Another concern is replacing the steady Lopez at shortstop. Lopez was a real leader for the Irish the past two seasons and Schrage says there are a number of possible looks to the infield this spring.

"We're not set on it for sure," Schrage said. "We have a lot of options. We went into fall thinking we'd let three or four guys compete for the job (shortstop) and see who our starter is and possibly move a couple of other guys to other positions. Right now Brett Lilley has played really well there and Jeremy Barnes has played really well there. I think we feel very solid with that.

"Each one can move to another spot. We can move Lilley to third if we want to play Barnes at short. If we want to play Lilley at short, we've had a freshman named A.J. Pollock who's done a nice job at third. Then we can move Barnes to second and maybe hit Brezovsky at (designated hitter) or even move Barnes to first base. We have a lot of options.

"Defensively, we're very, very happy with how our defense is playing right now in the infield."

First base is also open with the departure of Cooper and it doesn't appear that Schrage has a clear-cut winner at the position at this point.

"We've looked at a couple of guys," the first-year coach said. "Mike Dury could be one of our leaders and a senior over there. He's had a good fall. Matt Weglarz has played some first base over there, and Eddie Mendiola has played some over there a little bit. Barnes or Pollock could also play over there. We're still evaluating it."

But probably the most pressing question will be about the long ball. The Irish will likely struggle getting the ball out of the ballpark in 2007. Last year the Irish only hit 33 total homers and 22 of them were hit by players who have since moved on.

"We ask the same question," Schrage said with a laugh when asked where the power was going to come from. "I think we're just going to have to adapt to what we have. We're just going to have to be a team that puts pressure on a defense with our speed and hitting. I don't think we can sit back and wait for a three-run homer. That's just not how our team is. At the same time we have some team speed and guys who handle the bat really well and get on base. From that standpoint I like our offense.

"We have some guys who could potentially hit a bunch of homers. I think if Dury could be a little more consistent he could be a big power guy. Matt Weglarz is another guy who can hit with some power. Bill Boockford is a freshman outfielder who hits with power. Ryan Smith, who's also a freshman, he'll be a backup catcher and he also has some pop. We won't set any record for team home runs this year, but I still think we can have a strong offense."

Everyone who follows Irish baseball knows that former coach Paul Mainieri built the program around pitching and defense. Don't expect that to change under Schrage.

"You win with pitching and defense," Schrage said when asked about his philosophy towards winning baseball. "That's what wins you championships. They haven't been to 10 straight regionals and won five or six Big East titles in a row without solid arms. I think that's what separates programs from the top to the bottom…pitching depth. That should be the staple. I'm not going to change much as far as recruiting goes. You have to build it on the mound first."

And speaking of recruiting….

"I think the response has been outstanding," Schrage said about recruiting for the future. "I think the school kind of sells itself. When you mention Notre Dame, kids just want to listen. I think we've done a great job of recruiting right now. Scott Lawler, our recruiting coordinator, and I were basically out for an entire month trying to get into as many homes as we could. I think it's gone very well. We currently have six commitments right now and we're very, very excited about them. Obviously, you'll hear about them sometime in the future, but recruiting is going very well."

Finally, we asked Schrage what he hoped to get out of the Blue-Gold series this weekend.

"I think it's two-fold," he said. "We've been going for four weeks now. You're looking for how the kids have picked up the system and what we've been teach. Are they in the right spots in plays and doing the things we've been focusing on the past few weeks? Second thing is, we have been doing some scrimmaging, but we try to make this more like a game situation. Sometimes guys play differently in games and we want to make it as close to a game as possible. Guys are competing for jobs. They know that, so you're watching that. You just try to heighten it a bit and see how kids respond. Then there's the pride factor. The losers have to buy the winners pizza. I'm sure that will be motivating for them as well."


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