Feb. 18, 2010
2010 Baseball Season
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth in a 10-part series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2010 Notre Dame spring sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish baseball team, which has shown steady improvement in each of the past three seasons and appears poised for big things in 2010.
Over the past three seasons, Fighting Irish head coach Dave Schrage has seen his team's victory total increase from 28 in 2007 to 33 in 2008 to 36 last season, in which Notre Dame narrowly missed out on an NCAA bid. If the trend continues, the Irish should have their sights set on starting new streaks of 40-win seasons (Notre Dame won at least 40 games 16 straight years from 1989-2004), BIG EAST Tournament championships (five in a row from 2002-06), and NCAA Regional appearances (eight consecutive from 1999-2006). Yet none of these things are on the minds of the coaches or players of the 2010 Fighting Irish baseball team.
"I think our focus is totally changed," remarked fourth-year head coach Schrage, who needs 27 wins to reach 600 for his career and three to notch 100 at Notre Dame. "Our first practice back from the spring we told our guys, `I don't want to hear anything about winning the BIG EAST. I don't want to hear anything about going to Omaha. I don't want to hear anything about going to a Regional. I want the total focus to be on the process between now and our first game on February 19. And I don't want to hear about whom we're playing on February 19. I want us to focus on being the best team we can be from now until then, and then when we go out, we're going to play the best team we've ever played and we've got to be ready to play them, and that's it.'"
Notre Dame will need a new focus particularly on offense after losing all-BIG EAST, NCAA Gold Glove center fielder and first round MLB draft pick A.J. Pollock and all-BIG EAST short stop and 11th round MLB draft pick Jeremy Barnes and speedy left fielder Golden Tate to the NFL Draft. The trio accounted for 51% of the home runs (26-of-51) and 66% (38-of-58) of the stolen bases for the Irish last season while also ranking as the top three on the team in at bats, runs, and hits. The Irish also lost first baseman Evan Sharpley, who smacked 18 home runs over the past two seasons. In their absence, the onus is on the Irish hitters to be "complete" offensive players who can put pressure on opposing defenses.
"That's what we hammered home in the fall: we need to be a complete offensive team, to be able to do a lot of things to cause havoc for the opponent, and to be hard to play against," said Schrage. "We don't want to be a predictable team. I think that overall, our focus right now is manufacturing runs and being a complete offense, and that's what we've worked on.
"The thing everyone is going to say about our team right now is, `Well, they don't have any stars.' And my response is going to be that by the end of the season, we will. I think that we have enough experience returning that we will have guys who will emerge as leaders and stars from an offensive standpoint."
While the offense has to replace the bulk of the production from a year ago, the story is the opposite for the Irish pitchers, who enter their first season under pitching coach Dave Dangler. Notre Dame returns 92% of its innings (479.1 of 519.0) from last year and all but one victory. Lefty Sam Elam, an eighth-round pick of the New York Yankees in the 2009 MLB Draft, is the lone heavy loss, departing after striking out 38 in 31.1 innings last season, an average of 10.91 per nine innings (seventh in Irish single-season history). The connection between pitching and success in recent years with Irish baseball is evident, as a sub-4.00 ERA has led to at least 44 wins in 11 of the last 12 occurrences.
"I've been extremely happy with the development of our pitchers. As far as the sharpness on their breaking balls, it's a lot better. They've thrown more strikes up to this point, and they're maturing. I think the biggest thing is that (Coach Dangler) is building confidence in the staff. And I don't think, with the team concept that our guys have this year that they are too caught up with who's pitching on what day. They really have attitude of `When I pitch, I'm going to give you everything I've got, and I'm going to try to win today.'"
Schrage's fourth season puts him in a familiar situation, as in his first three seasons at Evansville from 2004-06; he posted increasing win totals of 24, 28, and 35. His fourth season with the Purple Aces: a 43-22 record, the Missouri Valley Conference regular season and tournament championships, and an appearance in the NCAA Charlottesville Regional in which Evansville went 3-2 and advanced to the final game (not to mention an MVC Coach of the Year honor for the Irish skipper). The Irish hope that the new mindset will lead to similar success in 2010.
"Our whole focus is consistency. We're going to worry about how we're playing and not who we're playing. That's kind of our theme for the year: we need to play hard every day. And that's it."
Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2010 Fighting Irish baseball squad:
The Irish will take the field in 2010 with an experienced catching staff, which includes juniors Cameron McConnell, Matt Scioscia, and Matt Katich and freshman Joe Hudson. McConnell and Scioscia gave the Irish considerable run production and controlled the running game a year ago, combining to drive in 52 runs and toss out 27 would-be base stealers. Moreover, the duo was extremely stingy with passed balls, yielding just four all season, the fewest for an Irish team since 1998 and tied for the seventh-fewest in all of Division I. Notre Dame looks for even more out of the two this season, with Hudson on track to make an impact as well.
"(McConnell) is going to get more rest this year, just because of the improvement of Scioscia and the fact that we have Joe Hudson
," said Schrage. "Scioscia has a good stick and Cam throws the ball really well, and with Joe we have a little bit of both. He throws the ball pretty well and has some pop in his bat. I think you will see Hudson play a little bit more because I think Cam played really well when he was rested."
The rest factor was evident at the end of last season, as McConnell (Bannockburn, Ill.) batted .404 with 15 RBI in 12 games after the four-day hiatus for final exams. In all, McConnell started 50 of Notre Dame's 59 games behind the plate, hitting .289 with three home runs and 37 driven in. His 37 RBI put him second among BIG EAST catchers, trailing only Tobias Streich of West Virginia (57), a 2009 fifth-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins. The Irish backstop had the propensity for clutch hits, as 14 of his RBI either tied the game or gave the Irish the lead. But most notably, McConnell had a superb year throwing out runners: he nabbed 26 base stealers, the most for a Notre Dame catcher since the Irish joined the BIG EAST in 1996 (catching stats not available for prior years) and tied for seventh in Division I. His caught-stealing percentage (36.1%, 26-of-72) was also the best for an Irish catcher since 2001, when Paul O'Toole threw out 40.7% (24-of-59).
"To me, he's got the best arm of any catcher in our conference. We want him to improve on his receiving. That's been the thing we've worked with him on the most. Cam also had a lot of clutch hits for us last year, so we want that to continue and for him to increase his power numbers a little bit as well."
Scioscia (Westlake Village, Calif.) made the most of his time at the plate a year ago, as he drove in 15 runs in just 68 at bats and put together a nine-game hitting streak (despite the fact that he pinch-hit in two of the games). He started 19 times (10 at designated hitter and nine at catcher) and will see time at both positions again this season as the Irish try to keep his bat in the lineup.
"Our line with Scioscia is that he could roll out of bed at two in the morning and hit a line drive. He's just a natural, pure hitter. It seems like every year about the time we hit conference play, Scioscia is our DH and he's driving the ball and doing a lot of good things. He's in great shape, and his throwing has gotten better. He could have a big year."
Hudson started all three games (two at catcher, one at DH) for the Blue in the 2009 Blue-Gold World Series, smacking a double in eight at bats. The Odessa, Fla. native brings gap-to-gap power and solid receiving skills to the squad and will look to earn starts right away.
Katich (New Castle, Pa.) has seen limited action in his Irish career, reaching via hit-by-pitch in one of his two career plate appearances, but provides depth for the position. He appeared in 15 games with the Stark County Terriers of the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League this past summer, collecting five hits in 33 at bats.
Notre Dame returns two everyday infielders in Greg Sherry (56 starts in 2009) and Mick Doyle (44 starts) in 2010 as well as two others (Casey Martin, David Casey) who split time at first base, but the immediate question is how the Irish will replace departed shortstop Jeremy Barnes, who drove in 70 last season (tied for eighth in school history) and 197 for his career (fifth). The Irish will attempt to counter Barnes' loss with the addition of a pair of talented freshmen in Adam Norton and Frank Desico and the versatility of the returning players.
For the third time in four seasons, an Irish player will make a position shift to settle in at shortstop. Doyle projects to see the most time at shortstop this season after having started only at third base (39 starts) and second base (16 starts) in his career. The switch has paid off at the plate both times, as Brett Lilley hit .372 with a .512 on base percentage after moving from third to shortstop in 2007 and Barnes had a career year offensively last season after sliding over from second base.
"As far as just being the steadiest guy for the job, I think we've seen that the last few years. We moved Lilley there, we moved Barnes there, and now we move Mick there because we want a guy there that's a leader and Mick is one of our captains. We needed someone to play shortstop and also be a dependable infielder, and he's probably our most dependable guy to make the routine play."
Doyle batted .327 last season (including .351 in conference play) with three home runs, 31 RBI, 10 doubles and nine sacrifice flies (an Irish single-season record and tops in the BIG EAST). Like McConnell, Doyle also ended 2009 on a high note, batting .455 (10-for-22) with five multi-hit games over Notre Dame's last six contests.
Sherry has continued to work extensively at second base after starting the final 23 games for the Irish at the position last season and has the edge to start there again in 2010. The junior from Mendham, N.J. boasts a .292 career average in 103 career games (98 starts), with 64 runs scored. He batted .273 a year ago, largely skewed after a season-ending 4-for-46 stretch (dropping his average from .338), but posted a 1.16 walk-to-strikeout ratio (29 walks, 25 strikeouts).
"He's been a really steady guy for us, and I think he came into his own more at second base this fall. He had never really played there, so he's kind of settling in at the position and getting a lot better at second base."
Doyle's move from third to shortstop makes room for highly-touted freshman Adam Norton to see significant action. The 2009 Prep Baseball Report Indiana Player of the Year finished his career at Andrean High School as one of the most prolific hitters in state history, holding state records for career hits (202), career RBI (183), season doubles (30), and career doubles (65). The 30 doubles came during a senior campaign in which Norton struck out just once and batted .550; take away a 1-for-12 stretch to begin the season, and he batted .608 (59-for-97). But Norton has also impressed the Irish coaches with his defensive ability.
"(Norton) reminds us of A.J. Pollock as a freshman with his athleticism. He has a great, great arm from third base and good hands, and he can make that play behind the bag better than any guy I've ever had. He can backhand the ball and throw it with a lot of authority. He'll be a guy who, as he grows in our program, will hit more and more home runs every year. He's going to be a big player in the program down the road."
At first base, the Irish will turn to the "two-headed monster" of Casey Martin (Chesterton, Ind.) and David Casey (Whitefish Bay, Wis.), who combined to make 45 starts in 2009. Together, the duo batted .316 with five home runs and 33 RBI. David Casey showed a flair for the dramatic with his three home runs, all of which came in a two-week period in April. His first career home run came in Cincinnati on April 11 and not only cleared the scoreboard in right field, but also crashed halfway up the façade of Fifth Third Arena, which sits some 30-40 feet behind the wall; his second career blast, a ninth-inning shot, gave the Irish a 7-6 lead at Louisville on April 24 (a game Louisville eventually won, 8-7); and his third deep fly (two days later) was a two-out, game-tying grand slam in the seventh inning that set the stage for Tate's two-out, game-winning bomb in the ninth. The Irish hope that both will clear the fence more often in 2010 and provide the power for the Irish lineup.
"The key to our whole offense this year is those two guys over there," claimed Schrage. "If they have good years for us, we're going to have a good offense. I think Casey Martin and David Casey are both capable of being our power guy. We as a coaching staff are waiting for one of those two to emerge and be a big threat. Casey is a really, really pure hitter, and I think he's ready to take the step from his sophomore to junior year and be a real force. Martin is a strong kid; he's very capable of hitting a lot of home runs as well."
Senior Ryne Intlekofer (Moorpark, Calif.) and freshman Frank Desico (Cleveland, Ohio) give the Irish viable options off the bench, as both will compete for starts in the middle infield. Intlekofer started a career-high 15 games last season (all at second base), batting .250 with 10 RBI and 11 runs scored. Desico can play either middle infield position and started all three games at second base for the Blue in the 2009 Blue-Gold World Series, going 2-for-9 with a double and an RBI. The versatility of the quintet of Doyle, Sherry, Norton, Intlekofer, and Desico gives Schrage numerous options on any given day; Doyle can also play second and third, Sherry started primarily at third base his first season and a half at Notre Dame, and Norton can slide over to shortstop if needed. Intlekofer could also see time in the outfield in 2010 in addition to second base.
Sophomore middle infielder Tommy Chase (Cohasset, Mass.) and junior first baseman/outfielder Ty Adams (Indianapolis, Ind.) are both recovering from injuries; Chase will likely miss the season after undergoing offseason knee surgery, while Adams is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery but can provide some power off the bench when healthy.
Seniors Herman Petzold (Saint Clair Shores, Mich.) and Will Harford (Chicago, Ill.) have seen limited action in their respective careers, but Petzold was touted by Schrage as possibly Notre Dame's "best flat-out defensive infielder" and could see time as a defensive replacement in the middle infield, while Harford can catch in an emergency situation and provides leadership and character in the clubhouse.
The Fighting Irish must replace two starters in the outfield this spring after the departure of Pollock and Tate, but return an experienced group up to the task. The senior trio of Ryan Connolly, Brayden Ashdown, and David Mills begin the campaign as the primary outfield starters, while senior Matt Grosso, who made great strides in the fall, and sophomore Alex Robinson will also challenge for time.
"With Connolly, Ashdown, and Mills, it gives you three guys with good speed that can run a little bit. Connolly had a really good fall out there, and (Ashdown) is a natural center fielder; that's where he played in high school. It's easiest to play him there. Depth-wise, Alex Robinson is probably our best defensive outfielder in center field, and Grosso is the most improved hitter in our program right now."
After seeing time at first base and designated hitter last season, Connolly (Binghamton, N.Y.) is ready to move back to the outfield in 2010. The captain and spark plug for the Irish offense batted .348 (16-for-46) with four home runs, 14 RBI and 15 runs scored after being inserted into the starting lineup for good on May 8 versus USF; the Irish went 9-4 in those games and 17-5 (.773) overall when Connolly started last year. He was plunked 10 times on the season and recorded a .490 on-base percentage, a mark that would have ranked fourth in the BIG EAST had he had enough plate appearances to qualify. This knack for getting on base makes Connolly a possible leadoff candidate for the Irish.
"Ryan brings so much energy to our team, and he's a natural leadoff hitter," said Schrage. "He'll get hit and sprint down to first base and give our team some lift and energy right off the bat."
Ashdown (Tucson, Ariz.) struggled as a freshman but has blossomed over the past two seasons, batting .323 with a pair of home runs, 17 RBI, and 26 runs scored in 61 appearances (24 starts). He delivered a two-out, walk-off single to beat UConn on May 3 last season, a win that began a 7-1 stretch for the Irish.
"Brayden was probably our nicest surprise, along with Ryan Connolly, at the end of last season. He has our best throwing arm in the outfield and has deceptive power at the plate. I'm looking for a big year out of him."
Mills (Battle Creek, Mich.) has been a model of consistency in the two-hole of the Notre Dame lineup over his career, as he has compiled a .335 average to go along with 54 RBI, 57 runs, and 16 stolen bases (20 attempts). A 2008 first-team All-BIG EAST selection, Mills has struck out just 35 times in 319 career at bats and posted a 1.41 walk-to-strikeout ratio last season (24 walks, 17 strikeouts), good for third in the BIG EAST. He also has 27 career sacrifice bunts to his name (including a school-record 19 in 2008) and will be called on often to bunt this season, as the Irish will need to move runners after losing the top two base stealing threats in Pollock and Tate (who swiped a combined 34 bases in 39 tries last season).
"He's a guy that's just been really steady all through his career here. Two years ago he did a really good job as far as bunting and moving runners over, and that's something that he needs to get back to doing a little bit more. He's gotten bigger and a little bit stronger, and I think he's going to be able to drive the ball more than he has in the past as well."
Grosso (Marlborough, Conn.) collected seven hits in 44 at bats for the Irish last season, but after two multi-hit games in his first three starts, he suffered through an 0-for-17 slump and had just three plate appearances after April 1. However, Grosso improved significantly this fall and will benefit from regular playing time in 2010, likely at designated hitter.
"He played a little bit last year, but because of the way he got an at bat here and an at bat there, he was too aggressive at the plate and was trying too hard. He's definitely a guy who is a really pure hitter and has probably the best hitting mechanics on our team. He just has to relax a little bit and take every at bat and have some fun with it. With that approach, he really had a nice fall."
Grosso and Robinson (Dallas, Texas) open the season as the primary outfield backups, with Robinson also giving the Irish an option as a defensive replacement and pinch runner. The switch-hitter went 1-for-9 with a sacrifice bunt in 12 games of action last season.
Seniors Billy Boockford (Glen Ellyn, Ill.) and Bill Warrender (Collegeville, Pa.) round out the contingent of six Irish senior outfielders (seven if you throw Intlekofer into the mix). Boockford brings a wealth of experience, having appeared in 79 games (59 starts) in his three-year career; he batted .275 with 10 doubles, 26 RBI, and 10 sacrifice bunts in 2008. His 14 total sacrifices (also four sacrifice flies) that season rank as the ninth-most in ND single-season history. Warrender started all three games for the Blue squad in the 2009 Blue-Gold World Series, collecting a hit, a stolen base, and an RBI in eight at bats; he has three career regular-season at bats for the Irish.
The Irish add freshman outfielder Charlie Markson (Whitefish Bay, Wis.) as well, while his high school teammate David Casey could also see time in the corner outfield spots this year. Markson possesses great athleticism and defensive instincts, but will need to work on his hitting to play on a consistent basis (although he did go 2-for-7 with a pair of walks and two runs scored in the Blue-Gold World Series).
Arguably the biggest strength of the Irish team this spring is the pitching staff, which returns the entire weekend rotation and 57 of 59 starts from a year ago. 2009 second-team All-BIG EAST selection and junior Cole Johnson returns to head up the weekend rotation once again, while junior Brian Dupra and 2008 All-BIG EAST pick Eric Maust are also back. With the emergence of sophomore lefty Steve Sabatino, Notre Dame has four viable weekend starters.
"The thing is, when you get to the conference tournament at the end of the year, you need four starters. If you can have four solid guys, you have a chance to go deep in the tournament. And we've talked a lot as a staff about the possibility of going right-left-right. We had some pretty good success with that a couple years ago, when we were able to go with (David) Phelps and follow him up with lefty (Wade) Korpi, two different types of guys. That's definitely a consideration."
Johnson went 7-3 with a 4.47 ERA a year ago, allowing just 87 hits in 94.2 innings while holding the opposition to a .249 clip. Beginning at the end of March, the Hudson, Ohio product completed an amazing run in which he tossed at least 9.0 innings in three consecutive starts, even working into the tenth inning (9.2 IP) on April 9 at Cincinnati. (No Notre Dame pitcher had pitched more than 9.0 innings in a game since Aaron Heilman worked 10.0 innings on April 15, 2000 against West Virginia.) He worked at least 6.0 innings in all but three of his 14 starts and his .700 winning percentage was the best of any pitcher in the Schrage era (minimum eight decisions).
"I think when you have a guy like Cole, who is an all-conference guy coming back, the question is, `Now how does he get better?' How he gets better is to make three pitches really good instead of two. And that's what Cole has done. He's added a few things to his pitches as far as with his fastball, and he's improved his breaking ball and improved his changeup, which he needed to do."
Despite allowing 176 hits in 128.1 career innings, Dupra (Rochester, N.Y.) has still posted a winning record (9-8) and an impressive 3.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio (78 strikeouts, 26 walks) in two seasons. His career average of 1.82 walks per nine innings ranks fourth in ND history. In addition, Dupra has led the Irish in complete games each of the past two seasons. The last Notre Dame pitcher to lead the team in complete games three consecutive seasons was (you guessed it) Aaron Heilman from 1999-2001.
"Dupra has improved his slider a lot, and that to me will be a big plus for him," noted Schrage.
Maust (Alpharetta, Ga.) notched one of two complete-game shutouts for the Irish last season, blanking West Virginia 3-0 on five hits on April 19, a day after the Mountaineers scored 19 runs and 706 days after West Virginia's last shutout loss. The senior boasts an impressive 14-6 career record with 58 walks and 104 strikeouts in 199.2 career frames.
"If we're going to get to the tournament, it will be great to have a veteran guy like Maust to pitch in our rotation. Psychologically, it makes a big difference, because you know what you're getting and the team knows what they're getting."
Sabatino (Lockport, Ill.) will look to build on a solid freshman season in which he went undefeated (3-0) in five starts (seven appearances), allowing 29 hits in 32.2 innings with a 3.86 ERA. He showed flashes of brilliance (nine strikeouts in his debut against Grambling) but was hampered by control problems, as he walked at least three batters in five of his appearances. Sabatino made great strides in the fall, however, benefiting from the tutelage of Dangler.
"Steve Sabatino was our most improved pitcher in the fall. Through Coach Dangler, he worked on his slider a bunch, and that's a nice little other pitch for him that he didn't have last year."
The quartet of sophomore Ryan Richter, junior Ryan Sharpley, freshman Patrick Veerkamp, and senior Billy Boockford figures to share the long relief and midweek starting duties. Richter comes off a successful season in which he was named a Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American, while Sharpley returns from a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the 2009 campaign.
Richter notched a 5-2 record his rookie season to go along with a 3.86 ERA. The southpaw out of South Bend St. Joseph's High School excelled both out of the bullpen and in BIG EAST play; in relief, he went 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA in 21.1 innings (opponents batted just .178), while in conference action, Richter picked up a victory and allowed just one hit to the 23 batters he faced (1.42 ERA, .059 opponents' average).
The Irish missed the right arm of Ryan Sharpley (Marshall, Mich.) last season after he showed the ability to dominate in 2008, allowing just 20 hits in 32.2 innings (5.51 per nine innings, ninth in ND history) while going 4-2 with a 3.02 ERA. The junior will likely be a bit limited at the beginning of the year, but expects to be fully healthy towards the middle of the season.
"I'm extremely excited about his progress. It's a tough injury to come back from, and he's making progress every time he throws. He has continued to climb that ladder to get back to where he was two years ago. He's still not 100%, but he's definitely headed in the right direction."
Veerkamp, a righthander from Fort Wayne, Ind., brings a high-80s fastball and a power breaking ball to the Irish staff. He allowed three runs on one hit in his only outing (2.0 innings) of the Blue-Gold World Series.
"Veerkamp is another guy in that mix to pitch on Wednesday if we need him. And he'll need to throw some innings this year because we're going to need him next year to step in and play a little bit more of a role. He's a guy who, when we recruited him, we thought would be in our rotation definitely by his junior year."
Boockford has made just one appearance out of the bullpen for Notre Dame (a scoreless inning last season) in his career, but saw action in the fall and could see innings in the spring as well.
For the second consecutive season, the Irish will go with the "closer by committee" tactic, using senior Steven Mazur, sophomore Will Hudgins, junior Todd Miller, sophomore Joe Spano, and senior David Mills at the end of games. Last season, four of the five (Mazur, Hudgins, Miller, Mills) registered at least one save.
Mazur (Round Rock, Texas) did not give up an earned run in 10 of his 18 outings last season, but was hurt by the big inning, giving up three or more runs in a game five times and finishing with a 10.07 ERA. He did record a 4.18 ERA in 2008 and has been stingy with free passes (15 in 48.0 career innings) while striking out a batter per inning over three years.
Hudgins (Richmond, Va.) throws from a low three-quarters arm slot and gives opponents a different look from the right side. The sophomore went 2-0 with a 3.65 ERA in 10 relief outings a year ago, ending the season with a streak of 7.1 scoreless innings that included a win and a save.
"Will Hudgins and Mazur have probably benefited the most from having a new pitching coach. It's helped them immensely from a confidence standpoint and from a mechanical standpoint as well."
The Irish saves leader in 2009 was Miller (Franklin, Tenn.), as the righthander went 5-for-6 in save opportunities. In his first four saves, Miller was untouchable, pitching a total of 9.1 innings with one walk, ten strikeouts, and no runs allowed. For his career, Miller has a 4.42 ERA in 28 games (all but one in relief), with 34 strikeouts to just 12 walks in 55.0 innings. With enough innings, Miller will also find himself on the Irish career list for fewest walks per nine innings, as his current average of 1.96 would be ninth.
Following a rough beginning to his career, Spano (Verona, N.J.) settled down nicely and serves as one of two lefthanded options for the Irish in the late innings, along with Mills. The sophomore did not yield an earned run in his final seven appearances of last season, spanning 4.2 innings. Spano finished with a 1-1 record and a 4.19 ERA in 13 games (two starts).
After pitching sparingly his first two seasons, Mills saw action in 15 games out of the bullpen a year ago, notching a 4.55 ERA and a 2-1 record in 27.2 innings. He walked just four batters all season and one in his final 19.0 innings. Mills will look to improve his numbers in the BIG EAST this season, as in 2009 he went 0-1 with a 6.48 ERA versus conference foes compared to 2-0 and 1.64 against non-conference opponents.
Sophomore Dustin Ispas (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.) gives the Irish yet another lefty out of the bullpen; last season, he started four games (seven appearances) and struck out 14 in 19.0 innings. Ispas turned in a terrific performance against Grambling in his first career start on March 10, yielding just an unearned run on two hits in 6.0 innings, but was denied the victory due to a blown save (the Irish eventually won, 3-2). He will be brought along slowly to begin the season after an offseason injury, but gives the Irish another dynamic when healthy.
Infielder Adam Norton and junior lefty Joe Spizzirri (San Juan Capistrano, Calif.) will also compete for innings this season. Norton brings a high-80s fastball from the right side with a solid changeup and put together two scoreless outings for the Gold in the Blue-Gold World Series. Spizzirri allowed just an unearned run in his only appearance in the Series and has yet to see action for the Irish during the spring, although some may recall Spizzirri working out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam as a freshman in the inaugural "Battle of the Bend" (exhibition game featuring the Irish versus the South Bend Silverhawks).
Junior Evan Danieli (East Hanover, N.J.) rounds out the Notre Dame pitching staff but will miss the 2010 season due to injury. The 6-7 righthander has a 5.64 career ERA in 30.1 innings for the Irish.
After opening the season in Mississippi against Mississippi Valley State, the Irish will participate in the BIG EAST/Big Ten Challenge for the second consecutive year, facing 2009 opponents Ohio State (L, 0-2) and Illinois (W, 14-7) as well as the Nittany Lions of Penn State. The Stetson Tournament (featuring host Stetson, Harvard, and 2009 NCAA Tournament participant Kansas State) and the Irish Baseball Classic in San Antonio (Bradley, Pacific, and 2009 NCAA participant Gonzaga) sandwich a two-game series at Texas-Pan American, from whom the Irish took a pair of games a year ago.
"Our preseason schedule will really prepare us this year; I think we have a nice mix. We've got some really good opponents to play to see how good we are early on in the season. That's what we want to find out," commented Schrage.
A three-game series with Michigan State kicks off the home portion of the schedule, marking the first time the Irish have faced a Big Ten opponent in a three-game set since 1987 (four-game series with Wisconsin).
In the BIG EAST, the slate includes four home and five away series: Notre Dame plays at USF, Georgetown, Seton Hall, West Virginia, and Villanova, while Rutgers, Cincinnati, St. John's, and Louisville will make their way to Eck Stadium in 2010. The showdown with the defending BIG EAST regular season and tournament champion Cardinals takes place in the last week of the regular season; the Irish defeated Louisville (who has not played at Notre Dame since 2006) three times in 2009, one of two teams to do so (Florida).
The midweek games include contests with Ball State, Illinois-Chicago, Oakland, Western Michigan, Chicago State, IPFW, Michigan (two games), Toledo, Valparaiso, Bowling Green, and Central Michigan. As Schrage notes, solid play in these games will go a long way towards a successful season.
"I think our Achilles' heel the last couple of years is that we've played up and down to the level of competition. We show we can play with the best teams, but we have to maintain that against the teams we should be winning against. We have to respect every team we play, whoever it is. And with that focus, hopefully we play a little more consistent baseball. As far as the NCAA looking at our whole body of work, the impression I get is that our good wins didn't mean as much as our bad losses, so those midweek games become very important."
The BIG EAST Tournament again will be played under an eight-team format at Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater, Fla., from May 26-30. The format will mirror the College World Series, as the winners of two four-team, double-elimination brackets (first four days) will meet in a single title game on May 30.
The 2010 NCAA Regionals are scheduled for June 4-7, with the Super Regionals set for June 11-14. The College World Series will take place June 19-30 at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb.
-- ND --