Jan. 21, 1998
New Challenges - 1998 Baseball Outlook
Notre Dame baseball team looks to build on its record-setting 1997 season, with bulk of lineup and pitching staff back for '98 campaign.
In the game of baseball, records are made to be broken. And in the case of the 1998 Notre Dame baseball team, the Irish have several standards to aim at from the 1997 season.
Notre Dame is coming off a '97 season in which it set team records for home runs (66), doubles (127), slugging percentage (.529) and strikeouts thrown (399) while equaling the record for batting average (.334). Despite losing 10 of 26 letterwinners from that 41-19 squad that just missed qualifying for the NCAAs, the Irish could field one of the program's most talented all-around teams in recent memory, with seven position starters and five pitchers with significant starting experience set to return.
"Our overall talent, in terms of versatile hitters and pitching depth, has the potential to be the best in my tenure," says fourth-year Irish head coach Paul Mainieri, who must replace three all-conference performers in catcher Mike Amrhein, centerfielder Randall Brooks and pitcher Darin Schmalz. "We will need several players to step it up a notch and will need to stay healthy, but this has the makings of a great year."
The Irish pitching staff returns a solid core from the unit that closed with a 1.91 team ERA over the final 10 games of 1997. The top returning pitchers include a talented junior threesome --righthanders Alex Shilliday (5.11, 7-3, team-best 72 strikeouts) and Brad Lidge (6.21, 4-3) and lefty Chris McKeown (3.26, 4-3) -- plus sophomore lefthander Tim Kalita (3.67, 3-1).
Six of the seven returning starters hit .300-plus in '97, led by junior catcher Jeff Wagner (Louisville, Ky.), a two-time all-BIG EAST Conference selection (.374, 17 home runs). Fifth-year senior and team captain J.J. Brock (Colorado Springs, Colo.) -- who will move back to shortstop after spending most of '97 at third base while sophomore Brant Ust (Redmond, Wash.) will return to third base after spending parts of his freshman All-America season at second base, shortstop and third.
Wagner could become one of the nation's top home run threats and led the BIG EAST during '97 conference games in batting average (.488) and on-base percentage (.538) while ranking second in slugging (.988). Brock likely will hit leadoff, after providing clutch hits at the bottom of the order in '97 (.365, 50 RBI, 25 extra-base hits). Ust, slated to move up to the number three spot, won BIG EAST freshman of the year honors while also earning a spot on the all-BIG EAST first team as a second baseman, after leading all BIG EAST freshmen in batting (.372), home runs (11) and RBI (54).
"Brock, Ust and Wagner will provide the offensive foundation and each of them has proven to be a clutch performer throughout his career," says Mainieri.
Junior Allen Greene (Seattle, Wash.) and sophomore Jeff Felker (Ellicott City, Md.) should anchor the middle of the lineup. The switch-hitting Greene will shift from left field to center, after batting .365 in '97 with seven home runs, 55 RBI and a team-best .435 batting with runners in scoring position. Felker, a lanky, 6-5 lefthander, will move from first base to right field, after batting .319 as a freshman with 29 RBI and four home runs.
"The most pivotal part of our offense will rest in the middle of the lineup," says Mainieri. "Greene and Felker will face a bigger challenge this season but each has made major strides in his all-around ability."
Senior Todd Frye (Aledo, Ill.) returns at second base after starting 37 games in '97, when he provided a boost with his .308 batting. Frye is slated to hit in the #2 spot, after batting later in the lineup last season. Sophomore Jeff Perconte (Arlington Heights, Ill.) could find himself at any position in the lineup with the exception of catcher, after appearing in 36 games and serving as the starting right fielder for the final 15 outings of '97 (.282, 3 HR).
Senior Dan Leatherman (Orland Hills, Ill.) -- who saw spot duty as a junior after transferring from St. Xavier University -- has the inside track at first base due to his defense. Sophomore Larry Zimont (Oak Forest, Ill.) could put his tremendous body strength on display as a designated hitter. Two freshmen also could make major contributions, as Ben Cooke (Bay Village, Ohio) will back up Frye and Brock while an impressive fall from Alec Porzel (Lisle, Ill.) landed him the spot in left field.
Wagner is scheduled to catch the majority of the games in 1998, following the graduation of Amrhein. "It would seem key for our team that Jeff Wagner stays healthy all year," says Mainieri. "Jeff is probably the most feared hitter in the BIG EAST right now, so of course you want him in the lineup, but he also is our most experienced catcher and will have to spend a lot of time behind the plate. He'll have to be a warrior for us."
Junior Mike Knecht (Newport Beach, Calif.) will back up Wagner, after appearing in just 12 games last season. Knecht has made strides in his defensive ability and will be looking to improve on his offense with further experience in 1998. Freshmen Andrew Stohl (Grand Ledge, Mich.) and Matt Prill (Billing, Mont.) will round out the Irish catching unit in 1998.
Despite its record-setting offense and late surge on the mound, Notre Dame struggled in the field during the 1997 season, posting a .942 fielding percentage that ranked last in the BIG EAST. The effect that poor defense had on the '97 season is readily seen in the won-loss column. Of Notre Dame's 19 losses, unearned runs provided the margin of defeat in eight - including both losses to Villanova in the BIG EAST Tournament.
"When you look at those eight games, if we had won four of them we would have been 45-15 and probably in the NCAAs," says Mainieri. "There's no question, we have to be stronger and more consistent with our infield defense. We have some experienced players who will rise to the occasion, but defense will be a real key."
Brock emerged as the starting shortstop, after a fall competition between four candidates - Brock, Ust, Perconte and Cooke.
"J.J. is eager to show that he can handle the responsibility that goes with being a Division I shortstop," says Mainieri. "He'll also be the guy that makes us go as the leadoff hitter, so J.J. has the perfect role for a fifth-year senior and captain."
Ust is a very capable option at third base, having played the first 16 games of '97 at the hot corner. Ust also played 28 games at second base and the final 16 at shortstop but responded with a solid .931 fielding percentage (18 errors, 262 chances). When the postseason awards rolled around, he fittingly became the first freshman middle infielder ever named first team All-BIG EAST.
"Brant has come through wherever he has played and that's something very valuable for a team looking for a defensive identity," says Mainieri. "It's hard to fathom that he can improve on the great year he had last season, but Brant's the type of player who will push himself to continually improve."
The hard-working Frye edged out Cooke for the preseason nod at second base, despite limited experience during his first two seasons (15 games, 16 at-bats). After leading the BIG EAST in '97 with 12 sacrifice bunts and ranking second on the team for percentage of runners advanced (61.0), Frye is a natural for the #2 spot in the batting order. "Todd Frye is the classic story of a guy who beats the odds and truly earns a spot. He has developed into a great leader and certainly will play an important role for us this season," says Mainieri.
Leatherman faces an expanded role, after appearing in 36 games and making nine starts as a junior. "Dan's ability to dig balls out of the dirt and play great defense will be a huge lift at first base. He also will need to come up timely situational hitting, so Dan will have his shot at making an important impact for us," says Mainieri.
Cooke and Perconte are the primary infield backups, as is sophomore third baseman Matt Nussbaum (South Bend, Ind.). Cooke is noted for his scrappy play and raw speed that could earn him spot starts and pinch-running appearances. The versatile and switch-hitting Perconte - who will open '98 as Notre Dame's primary DH - provided a big boost to the Irish in the final month of 1997, when he emerged as the starting right fielder.
The defensive play of the Irish outfield also will be of primary concern, with each player facing the challenge of a new full-time position. Porzel makes the move from the infield to left field, where he will be able to showcase his strong arm and overall athleticism. Greene will slide over from left to center field, which has been patrolled during the past four seasons by all-conference performers Scott Sollmann (1994-96) and Brooks ('97). Felker played a handful of games in right field during his freshman season but will face the challenge of reacting to considerably fewer fielding chances than in 1997, when he made 393 putouts and 20 assists at first base.
Notre Dame's other outfield options include Zimont, the versatile Perconte and Cooke, whose speed makes him a candidate to play some center field.
Like their offensive counterparts, the Notre Dame pitching corps is headed by a veteran contingent.
Shilliday (Dunwoody, Ga.) rebounded from a rocky 1-3 start in '97 by winning his final six starts, including a complete game that eliminated Seton Hall from the BIG EAST Tournament (4-3). Noted for a big-league changeup and a smart approach on the mound, Shilliday kept rolling during the summer of '97, winning all nine of his decisions with the Peninsula (Alaska) Oilers. And after the BIG EAST saw eight of its pitchers drafted in the first 30 rounds last season, the Irish righthander may emerge as one of the league's top hurlers in 1998.
Lidge (Englewood, Colo.) -- who struggled with consistency in '97 before missing his final four starts with a tender elbow - has faced high expectations at Notre Dame. As Baseball America's 18th-rated college pitching prospect, Lidge and the Irish are looking forward to a breakthrough season for the hard-throwing righthander, who combines a fastball that can touch 95 miles per hour with a major-league curve and tough changeup.
"Shilliday and Lidge can be one of the best starting tandems in the BIG EAST and it means so much when you can count on that strong start in a weekend series," says Mainieri. "It's kind of ironic that Alex is one of the more unheralded pitchers in the BIG EAST while Brad hasn't had the opportunities to measure up to his expectations. They both should have excellent seasons."
McKeown (Arlington Heights, Ill.) bounced back from some hard-luck losses to allow just three earned runs over his final 37 innings in '97, including a complete game that knocked West Virginia from the BIG EAST Tournament (8-1). Kalita (Oak Park, Ill.) has developed into a second quality lefthanded starter, with improved consistency and more break on his curve.
Three other veteran righthanders -- senior Dan Stavisky (Mt. Pleasant, Pa.) and sophomores Steve Szczepanski (Lombard, Ill.) and Scott Cavey (Omaha, Neb.) -- could emerge as starters. Stavisky is looking to rebound from a rocky junior season and return to the form that saw him go 12-2 over his first two seasons while Szczepanski (hand) and the 6-5 Cavey (elbow) both had promising freshman seasons cut short due to injury.
Freshmen Danny Tamayo (Miami, Fla.) and Aaron Heilman (Logansport, Ind.) also could see starting duty after strong falls, with Tamayo a solid DH candidate.
Two sophomores - lefty Mark Lapinskas (Naperville, Ill.) and righthander Tom O'Hagan (Crystal Lake, Ill.) - could provide a boost after making contributions in '97. Lapinskas is coming off an all-star summer with the Ithaca (N.Y.) Lakers (6-1, 2.32) and likely will see more innings than the 13 he logged in '97. O'Hagan, noted for his tough slider, was the surprise of the staff last season, posting a 2.95 ERA while saving three games and picking up a relief win.
Senior lefthander Pat Davis (San Antonio, Texas) has made some key contributions during his career and again will take on a middle relief role. Rounding out the Irish staff are sophomore righthander John Corbin (Hollywood Hills, Fla.) and four freshmen: lefthander Mike Naumann (Tucson, Ariz.) and righthanders Anthony Berticelli (Granger, Ind.), Mike Carlin (Manhattan, Kan.) and James Cesak (Hickory Hills, Ill.)
"We had five pitchers miss major chunks of the '97 but we have many great arms coming back. This could be an awesome staff if the key guys stay healthy," says Mainieri.
"Overall, we have a group of players that are the type you love to coach -- they are very hungry for success and eager to build on the great things we accomplished last season."
In addition to serving as one of the top programs in the nation, the Notre Dame baseball team also has excelled in the classroom.
Sophomore Jeff Felker (left) and junior Allen Greene will be relied on for clutch RBI in the middle of the lineup while each will be trying out a new full-time outfield position.