"All three of us coaches have been going all over the country," Schrage said during a phone interview. "That'll continue for the next couple of weeks and then we'll settle on the guys we want to really go after. I'll be out making home visits at the end of July and into early August. This is probably our busiest time of the year with recruiting. I don't think there's been a day the past three weeks where we weren't doing something."
This type of persistence paid off in the 2007 class. Schrage, assistant coach Scott Lawler and pitching coach Sherard Clinkscales put together a first-rate group that included three top-40 pitching prospects, several stellar catcher and other position players to provide depth for the 2008 team. The three catchers coming, in particular, will shore up a need for next season. Notre Dame had 27 passed balls in 2007 which extended many innings and led to more scoring chances for the opposition. Sean Gaston, who sat for the year with an injury, will also be back in 2008 to give Schrage ample depth at a need position for next season.
"We were one or two in the league in passed balls," Schrage said. "We had a ridiculous amount of passed balls. Getting Gaston back will help in that area. We have a few freshmen catchers coming in that are strong defensively. That'll shore up our defense and not have teams run against us as much."
As for the 2007 wrap-up, it was a disappointing end to the year. The Irish ended the season by losing eight of nine, including being swept out of the Big East Tournament. The streak occurred started a week after Notre Dame beat Seton Hall two of three games for their fourth straight series win. Two weeks before, the Irish went on the road and downed at-the-time conference leader and eventual Big East Tournament champion Rutgers two of three contests. The momentum was there for Notre Dame heading into a road series at Louisville.
The wheels came off in the three-game set. The Cardinals beat the Irish 3-1 in the first contest of a doubleheader on Saturday by scoring two runs in the bottom of the eighth. In the second game, Louisville once again scored a narrow victory, this time a 4-3 decision over Notre Dame. The Cardinals completed the sweep on Sunday 7-3. The Irish did not regain the momentum in the final six contests.
"I think we were pretty hopeful going down to Louisville," Schrage said. "Our guys were pretty excited about going down there with a chance to win the series. We lost a tough opener where it was 1-1 in the eighth. We lost the second game that day and then another one on Sunday. After we came back, we lost a little of that look in our eyes and a little bit on confidence.
"I'll be the first to say we should have won two of three against Connecticut. Losing late (in the third game) never should happen. When you lose a game like that with four chances to end the game with two outs, you lose some momentum heading into the tournament. It was a disappointing end."
Part of the problem this year was pitching depth. David Phelps was a consistent force and the ace of the staff. The sophomore right-hander was 8-5 with a 1.89 ERA, which led the Big East. Phelps also led the conference in strikeouts with 102 in 110.1 innings pitched. The Irish ace should once again be one of the best pitchers in the league in 2008.
After Phelps, the picture gets fuzzy. No other hurler consistently stepped up to give Schrage a solid pitching threesome over the Big East weekend. Wade Korpi followed up a solid sophomore season with a 1-5 record and 4.02 ERA. The junior left-hander walked 43 batters in 53 innings of work. Sophomore Sam Elam showed brilliance with a one-hit, nine-inning performance in a 1-0 extra inning victory over Purdue. But control was the left-hander's problem as Elam walked or hit 32 batters in 32.1 innings pitched. Brett Graffy (3-2, 5.68 ERA) and Eric Maust (2-0, 3.65 ERA) also might be options to be in the conference weekend rotation.
Schrage can hope his incoming freshmen will alleviate the problem. Right-handers Evan Danieli, Brian Dupra and Ryan Sharpley are were rated among the top-40 pitchers coming out of high school. All three hurler fastballs over 90 MPH and these three should compete for playing time with the returning veterans in 2008.
"We never established who are three starters were for the conference weekend," Schrage said. "We started eight different guys. Phelps obviously had a great year. We rode that horse all year long. But after that, we didn't get any starter to go more than 5.2 innings. That was a real downfall. I think we were third in the league in pitching but it hurt us not to have that consistency as far as getting the same three guys out there."
There are other changes set for 2008. Schrage would like to get Kyle Weiland to work exclusively out of the bullpen. The right-hander saved 16 games as a freshman but was forced into a starter's role last season because of the starting pitching inconsistencies. Weiland, who started off the year injured, was 5-3 with a 5.66 ERA in 2007. Schrage is toying with the idea of moving Brett Lilley back to third base, A.J. Pollock to center field and incoming freshmen Greg Sherry to shortstop. Pollock, who Schrage called the best athlete on the team last season, committed 19 errors at third base in 2007 in his first ever experience at the hot corner. Schrage thinks Pollock would make a great outfielder and there's a hole in center with Danny Dressman gone to graduation.
Another change Schrage would like to see is an increase in the power hitting game. Notre Dame ranked in the middle of the Big East in hitting but seemed to struggle with not getting the big knock with runners on base. The leading RBI guy was outgoing senior Mike Dury, who also led the team in home runs with nine. After Dury, the team combined for 15 round trippers. Schrage said a few incoming freshmen, along with some possible transfers, could help with the problem.
"If you look at our power numbers, they were very poor," Schrage said. "We brought some guys in that have the potential for power, home runs and driving people in. I think another thing you're going to see, and he's already hit two home runs this summer, is for Ryan Smith to emerge into a power hitter for us. Him and A.J. Pollock had great freshmen years for us.
"The problem for us was driving in people with runners on base. We singled people to death. We didn't have a lot of extra base hits. Sometimes it took three hits to score a run in an inning."