Feb. 19, 2009
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - As the 2009 season approaches, optimism abounds about the Notre Dame baseball program. With key returning veterans combining with a talented freshman class, head coach Dave Schrage feels that this team can make some noise on the national scene this year. After returning to the top 25 and posting a 33-21-1 record in 2008, Schrage and his Fighting Irish look for even more success in 2009 as they set their sights on the top of the BIG EAST Conference and a NCAA Regional.
"We have the needed ingredients to be an outstanding team this year," said Schrage, now in his third season leading the Irish. "This may be the deepest and the fastest team that I have coached at Notre Dame. We have speed, solid defense and the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark, and I think that makes us a very dangerous team."
Notre Dame had its sights set on not only a possible conference regular season title, but also a berth into the 2008 NCAA Tournament. The Irish stood 33-13-1 overall and 16-6 in the league on May 9, but few could have predicted what occurred over the next eight games.
"We were very close last season, but we did not get the job done," said Schrage. "I think our returning players have learned from that experience. We, as coaches, have also learned from that experience and how to possibly prepare differently."
Notre Dame dropped its final six games of the regular season and quickly exited the '08 BIG EAST Tournament as the late-season slide reached eight games. While the eight-game losing streak was the longest for the Irish since 1987, it does serve as slight motivation, but the main motivation for 2009 goes well beyond those eight games.
"I feel that this group has definitely put it behind them," said Schrage. "The real motivation for this club comes from the fact that we have not won a conference championship in two years. This senior class won a league title as freshmen and want to end their Notre Dame careers with the same feeling. We want to be that team in the BIG EAST once again."
The Irish return six position starters along with 10 pitchers who saw action in 2008. A breakdown of the 2009 Notre Dame baseball team, beginning on the mound:
"He is very durable and pitched every weekend in the BIG EAST for us last year," said Schrage. "Eric does have a ton of experience and we expect him to elevate his game even more this season. He is another year older, maturity wise, and will serve as one of the leaders of our pitching staff."
Maust (Alpharetta, Ga.) moved into the starting rotation on March 16 a year ago and did not miss a beat. He pitched at least six innings in seven of his 10 starts, including a span of five consecutive outings of at least seven innings. Maust went 6-3 on the season with a 4.52 ERA. He struck out 46 and walked just 23 in 69.2 innings of work. Maust excelled in BIG EAST games. He went 6-1 with a 2.98 ERA in seven league outings. Maust yielded only 39 hits in 48.1 innings of work - good for an opponent batting average of .223. He ranked seventh in ERA, sixth in opponents batting average, tied for second in wins and tied for fifth in fewest runs allowed in BIG EAST games only.
"We did lose some key components of our pitching staff from last year in starters David Phelps and Wade Korpi, as well as relievers Kyle Weiland and Tony Langford, but we really return a talented bunch of arms," said Schrage. "We did a really good job last year of slotting our freshman arms to get them that experience knowing that they were going to have to pitch for us more often this season."
The sophomore quintet of RHP Evan Danieli, RHP Brian Dupra, RHP Todd Miller, RHP Cole Johnson and RHP Ryan Sharpley (who will miss 2009 due to shoulder surgery) combined to make 16 starts for the Irish and posted a 9-8 record with a 4.50 ERA in 160.0 innings of work. They fanned 122 and walked 56.
"We had five freshman guys last year that all pitched at least 18 innings," said Schrage. "It's not like they come into this season without any experience. Those guys are now the bulk of our staff as sophomores."
Danieli (East Hanover, N.J.) moves into the weekend rotation as Notre Dame's No. 2 starter. He made nine appearances on the mound last spring, including one start. His nine appearances were tied for third-most by a rookie pitcher. Danieli went 0-0 with a 5.00 earned run average in 27.0 innings of work. He allowed 29 hits in 27.0 innings as his opponents batted .279 against him, but also struck out 20 and walked 16. Danieli surrendered just three extra-base hits the entire season (one double, two home runs) against 131 batters faced as opponents registered just a .275 slugging percentage. He tossed a career-high 4.1 innings, allowed two earned runs and fanned a career-best six against a ranked Michigan squad last season.
Dupra (Rochester, N.Y.) will open the 2009 season as the Irish closer despite spending most of last year as a mid-week starter.
"Simply, you have to fill the closer role with one of your best pitchers," said Schrage. "Kyle (Weiland) was one of our better arms last year and he filled the role. We feel like Brian is one of our top pitchers and owns a great mentality to close games."
He was named to the Cape League West Division All-Star squad and helped Harwich capture the league title. Dupra made the transition from starting at Notre Dame to a setup role look easy. He went 3-1 with a 3.40 ERA in 18 games (all out of the Harwich bullpen) and opponents batted just .247 against him. Dupra, who did not surrender a single home run all summer, struck out 33 and walked 17 in 39.2 innings of work. He tied for the team-lead in wins and appearances and ranked third on the club in innings pitched.
"He throws strikes, fields his position well and so few things seem to bother him - all of which are important to have in a close ball game. He gained some experience in that role in the Cape this past summer. He has gained velocity on his fast ball, but his biggest improvement has been his slider."
Dupra made 11 appearances on the mound last spring, including nine starts which ranked fourth-most on the staff and most by a rookie pitcher. He went 3-3 with a 5.44 ERA in 46.1 innings of work. Dupra did allow 60 hits in 46.1 innings as his opponents batted .316 against him, but also struck out 30 and walked just 10.
"Todd is a really steady pitcher," said Schrage. "He can throw all three pitches for strikes with great location. He is such a resource when you consider he can pitch in so many different roles, either starter, long reliever or short reliever."
Miller (Franklin, Tenn.) will once again fill the long relief and spot-start role for the Irish. He made nine appearances on the mound in the spring, all out of the Notre Dame bullpen. Miller went 0-1 with a 2.45 ERA in 18.1 innings of work. He allowed just 11 hits in 18.1 innings as his opponents batted only .177 against him. Miller struck out 13, walked four and surrendered an incredibly low one extra-base hit the entire season (home run) against 70 batters faced. He proved even tougher against right-handed hitters as they managed just a .111 batting average (4-for-36) and was literally unhittable with two outs as foes batted .000 (0-for-17).
Johnson (Hudson, Ohio) has ridden the momentum of an incredible summer and even more impressive fall into the leading candidate to take the No. 1 starter spot.
"Cole really took command of that top spot this fall," said Schrage. "He showed the coaches, and the rest of the team, that he was ready for that kind of role."
Johnson was nearly unhittable all fall and capped off the solid preseason with another quality performance in the 2008 Blue-Gold World Series. He did not render in the decision, but tossed 6.0 innings and was charged with one earned run on five hits (struck out four and did not issue a walk). Johnson spent the summer of 2008 with the Stark County Terriers of the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League and went a perfect 5-0 with a 2.87 ERA in eight games (seven starts). He struck out 40 and walked eight in 37.2 innings of work and opponents batted just .217 against him.
Johnson made 12 appearances on the mound in the spring for the Irish, including two starts. He went 2-2 with a 5.30 earned run average in 35.2 innings of work.
Sharpley (Marshall, Mich.) has been lost for the entire 2008 season after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery.
With the addition of freshman pitchers RHP Will Hudgins, LHP Dustin Ispas, LHP Ryan Richter, LHP Steve Sabatino and LHP Joe Spano and the return of senior RHP Jeremy Barnes, junior RHP Steven Mazur and junior LHP David Mills, Notre Dame has, without question, its deepest and most versatile bullpen in the Schrage era.
"We balanced our staff after being so right-handed dominated last year," said Schrage. "We go from having just one option from the left side (Mills) last year to having five solid southpaws. It just gives us so many more options than we have ever had before."
Barnes (Garland, Texas) and Mazur (Round Rock, Texas) will handle the immediate setup roles to the closer Dupra.
Barnes, a record-setting pitcher in talent-rich Texas in high school, returned to the mound this fall for the first time since his scholastic days. He tossed 1.2 scoreless innings of relief with three strikeouts in his only outing in the 2008 Blue-Gold World Series.
"It has also enabled us to balance out our bullpen with Mazur and Barnes," said Schrage. "Mazur was great for us last year and was phenomenal this summer as a closer, while Barnes was pretty darn tough this fall."
Mazur exploded onto the scene with an incredible summer season with the Hays Larks of the Jayhawk League in 2008. He was named to the All-Jayhawk League first team and was voted league most outstanding pitcher. Mazur went a perfect 5-0 with three saves and a 0.99 ERA in 24 appearances. He struck out 69, walked only 19, allowed just 27 hits in 45.1 innings of work and opponents batted only .170 against him. Mazur averaged 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings (ranked fifth-best in team history) and his 0.99 ERA ranked tied for fifth-best in team history. He was ranked by Baseball America as the fifth-best MLB prospect out of the Jayhawk League.
Mazur made 20 appearances on the mound in the spring, all out of the Irish bullpen. His 20 relief appearances were the second-most on the staff. Mazur went 1-0 with a 4.18 earned run average in 23.2 innings of work and allowed 18 hits as his opponents batted just .212 against him. He struck out 25 and walked only six.
"When you consider Dupra, Mazur and Barnes from the right side and all those lefties, we have the chance to be really, really good out of the bullpen."
The most experienced of those lefties is Mills. He made 11 appearances out of the Irish bullpen a year ago, mostly in situational settings (lefties hit .273 against him, while righties batted .667). Mills tossed only 4.1 innings in those appearances. He went 1-0 with a 6.23 ERA and struck out five with two walks.
Hudgins, Ispas, Richter, Sabatino and Spano also give Notre Dame versatile options out of the bullpen. Ispas, Sabatino and Spano will also compete for starts during the mid-week.
Hudgins (Richmond, Va.), who throws with a 3/4 arm slot, will bring a much needed new dimension. His deception and movement will make him a mainstay in the Irish bullpen for years to come. Hudgins tossed 2.1 innings of relief and struck out three in one appearance in the 2008 Blue-Gold World Series.
Ispas (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.) owns a live fast ball that touches the low-90s combined with a great slider that allows him to compete for a starting spot in the rotation. If his start in game three of the 2008 Blue-Gold World Series in which he struck out four (walked none) in 4.0 scoreless and hitless innings was any indication, Ispas will give Notre Dame a reliable option during its midweek games.
Richter (South Bend, Ind.) gives the Irish another southpaw to matchup against their opponents' top left-handed hitters. He mixes a mid-to-upper 80s fast ball with an array of off-speed pitches.
Sabatino and Spano, along with Ispas, will all compete for the majority of mid-week starts. The trio will also give Notre Dame three talented options out of the bullpen if needed.
Sabatino (Lockport, Ill.) looked like a veteran coming out of the bullpen this fall in the Blue-Gold World Series. The southpaw tossed 2.0 scoreless innings of relief for the victorious Blue. Sabatino can touch the low-90s with his fast ball and keeps hitters off-balance with an improving breaking ball.
Spano (Verona, N.J.) joins the Irish program in the mold of recently graduated Wade Korpi. He can throw three pitches for strikes, including a top-notch breaking ball. Spano was lights out in his only appearance of the 2008 Blue-Gold World Series. He tossed 6.1 scoreless innings, allowed just two hits and picked up the only victory for the Gold.
"The depth of our pitching staff is exciting, but the question mark is the experience of it. Obviously we could have some growing pains early, but our pitching will get better and better as the year goes on. We have depth, options and numerous different looks." A look that Notre Dame might have in 2009 that it hasn't possessed since the 2007 season, is senior LHP Sam Elam.
Elam (Mesquite, Texas) has struggled with command issues over the last two years, but has made major progress this fall and through the early parts of spring practice. He simply has the kind of stuff that can dominate on any given day and MLB scouts are aware (he was drafted in the 24th round of the `08 draft despite throwing one inning last season).
"Sam is a senior now and, honestly, you never know with the game of baseball," said Schrage. "It is his senior year. He has worked very hard and made such great progress. Sam has been lights out in a number of his bullpen sessions."
Junior RHP Andrew Scheid, sophomore LHP Joe Spizzirri and sophomore LHP David Casey will also compete for innings this season. Scheid could fill one of the mid-week starter roles, while Spizzirri and Casey give the Irish another pair of situational lefties.
"Sean provided invaluable leadership behind the plate and was a great learning resource for the three younger guys last year," said Schrage. "Cameron has strong all-around defensive skills and could be a key to controlling the running game. Matt (Scioscia) has a tremendous amount of power and might add some serious pop to the middle of our lineup. Matt (Katich) possesses a strong arm and really made significant improvements this past summer and fall in his throwing, receiving and footwork."
Scioscia and McConnell will split the majority of time behind the plate. Scioscia probably has a small edge offensively, while McConnell is slightly better defensively, but each got the majority of the time at catcher this fall.
They both also gained valuable playing experience last season. Scioscia appeared in 16 games, started five (all at designated hitter), and batted .308 with a home run and four RBI, while McConnell saw action in 15 games, including 10 starts at catcher. McConnell hit .200 with three RBI and the Irish went 8-2 in his starts.
"They are two different type players," said Schrage. "Matt comes from a baseball family and is very knowledgeable about handling pitchers and calling a game. Cameron is unbelievably athletic back there. I haven't seen any of the new catchers in our league, but I have trouble imagining anyone with a better throwing arm in this conference. He just has a rifle."
Katich saw very limited playing time in 2008, but did get some experience in the fall and could see some action in the spring as he continues to make the adjustment from high school to college.
"We have a lot of interchangeable parts," said Schrage. "We have a whole bunch of guys that can play, will play, but it is just a matter of exactly where each guy will settle not only into the lineup, but also in the field."
Obviously, Notre Dame will have to replace Brett Lilley, who started every game at shortstop the last three seasons, but the Irish have a more-than-capable and experienced replacement in Barnes.
"The play in the hole to his right and turning the double play are obviously the biggest differences," said Schrage. "You are not required as often to make that type play at second and then the feed for the DP now comes from either side. He practiced there last year so the move was far from foreign to him."
Barnes has started 162 games at second base the last three seasons and moved back to his natural position this fall.
"Jeremy is more relaxed in our system first of all," said Schrage. "He was our most consistent guy there in the fall. Jeremy had a good year both offensively and defensively last year, but I'd be shocked if he did not have an outstanding senior season."
Barnes had a great junior season in 2008. He batted .307 with eight home runs and a team-high 50 RBI. The eight home runs were the most by an Irish second baseman since Alec Porzel smacked 13 in 1999 and tied Louisville's Justin McClanahan for most homers by a BIG EAST second baseman. He also ranked second behind Jedd Gyorko of WVU in RBI by a league second baseman. Barnes also led the Irish in doubles (tied), slugging percentage and games played (tied).
"Greg really had a solid season for us last season," said Schrage. "He is such a feisty competitor. He has gotten stronger and continued to improve defensively this fall."
Sherry (Mendham, N.J.) made 42 starts overall and 41 at the hot corner. He batted .315 (fourth-best on the squad) with two home runs and 14 RBI. Sherry's versatility also allows him to play both middle infield positions.
"Evan was so productive for us," said Schrage. "He is capable of hitting 15 or more home runs and really provides a major presence in the middle of our lineup."
Sharpley (Marshall, Mich.) finally has his full attention on baseball after concluding his football career this past fall. He had a breakthrough season in 2008. Sharpley led the Irish in home runs with 13, which ranked tied for 13th-best in single-season school history. He also added 11 doubles and 40 RBI.
Junior 1B Casey Martin also returns and will challenge Sharpley for playing time, especially against left-handed pitching. Martin and Sharpley split time at the position in `08.
"Casey is another great option for us at first or designated hitter," said Schrage. "He might be the best defensive first baseman in the league. He also can hit for power."
Martin, who saw action in 50 games last year and batted .281 with three home runs and 18 RBI, is one of the top defensive first baseman in the BIG EAST. He did not commit an error in 272 fielding chances, which tied for the second-most fielding chances by any BIG EAST player without an error. It also was the second-most fielding chances without an error by a Notre Dame player in single-season history.
"Ryne and Tommy, as well as Sherry and Doyle, could all see time at both second and third," said Schrage. "Their versatility as a group is such a huge, huge positive for us heading into the season."
Intlekofer (Moorpark, Calif.) played in 19 games in 2008 and hit .286 with five RBI. He had an outstanding fall and appears ready to become an everyday player. Intlekofer hit .444 (4-for-9) for the victorious Blue in the 2008 Blue-Gold World Series.
Chase (Cohasset, Mass.) is a top-of-the-order type hitter and scrappy infielder along the lines of Lilley. He also has the versatility to play anywhere in the infield. Chase paced the Gold squad with a team-best .375 batting average in the 2008 Blue-Gold World Series.
Sophomore INF Mick Doyle is also definitely in the mix for a starting nod at third base or either of the two middle infield spots.
Doyle played in 24 games a year ago and batted .313 with six RBI. He did miss the 2008 Blue-Gold World Series with an injury, but is fully recovered and ready for the spring campaign.
Casey (Whitefish Bay, Wisc.), who could see time at first base, either corner outfield spot or designated hitter, possesses the most power of the bunch. He batted .333 with a double, run scored and a team-best tying three RBI for the victorious Blue in the Blue-Gold World Series.
"David was probably our most improved hitter in the fall," said Schrage. "He is on the brink of being that guy that challenges Evan or Casey at first base. He will get more at-bats this season and could even develop into our designated hitter."
Harford (Chicago, Ill.) is another versatile option for the Irish. He can not only play any of the four infield positions, but could also catch in an emergency situation.
Mendiola (Miami, Fla.) provides leadership to the younger players and could see playing time at either corner infield spots, while Petzold (Saint Clair Shores, Mich.) is classic utility player. Both have played minimally over their careers, but each proved this fall that they can contribute.
"A.J. is as special a talent as I've been around," said Schrage. "He not only possesses all the tools to be a great player at this level and the major league level, but he also might be our hardest worker. He comes to the park everyday and wants to get better."
Pollock (Hebron, Conn.) is the class not only of BIG EAST outfielders, but of outfielders nation wide. He has already been named to the Wallace Award Watch List, named second team preseason All-American by Collegiate Baseball, third team by Ping!Baseball, third team by RecruitingCloser.com and listed as the 39th overall prospect and 16th collegiate prospect for the 2009 MLB Draft by Baseball America. Pollock was also ranked as the seventh-best prospect from the Cape Cod League by Baseball America following his Most Valuable Player season this past summer.
Pollock finished last season for Notre Dame with a .352 batting average, 15 doubles, three triples, four home runs, 42 RBI and 28 stolen bases. A two-time BIG EAST Player of the Week selection, Pollock led the Irish in batting, hits (76), doubles (tied), total bases (109), sacrifice flies (7), stolen bases, at bats (216), games played (tied, 55) and games started (tied, 55).
Mills (Battle Creek, Mich.) was a first team all-BIG EAST selection at designated hitter in `08. He was one of four sophomores on the squad and will likely move to right field this year. Mills did play and start five games in the outfield a year ago. He batted .349 with two doubles, six triples, two home runs and 26 RBI. Mills was a perfect 9-for-9 in stolen bases. He also set single-season school records in both sacrifice bunts (19) and total sacrifices (23). Mills ranked third in hitting (.407) in conference games only.
"Calling David a pleasant surprise last season would be an understatement," said Schrage. "He became one of the better hitters in this conference and his challenge will be to replicate that type of success now that other teams are aware of his ability."
Tate (Hendersonville, Tenn.) joins the Irish baseball team this spring after a record-setting football season. He led the Irish in receptions (58), receiving yards (1,080), receiving touchdowns (10) and total touchdowns (11). Tate became the fifth Irish wideout (sixth time) to ever eclipse 1,000 yards in a single season.
"Golden simply has athleticism that isn't common on the baseball diamond," said Schrage. "He is the fastest player in this league and has the ability to easily steal 25 bases this year."
Tate played in 18 games and started nine last season. He batted .262 with three doubles, three stolen bases and four RBI, but expects to get significantly more playing time this spring in left field while possibly leadoff.
Boockford (Glen Elyn, Ill.) appeared in 49 games and started 44 for the Irish last spring, predominantly at right field. He batted .275 with a home run and 26 RBI. Boockford probably owns one the two strongest arms of any Notre Dame outfielder.
While the majority of playing time in the Irish outfield will probably go those four players, Notre Dame also returns junior OF/DH Matt Grosso, senior OF Ryan Connolly, junior OF Brayden Ashdown, junior OF Bill Warrender and sophomore OF Ty Adams.
Grosso (Marlborough, Conn.) can play any of the three outfield positions, but will likely open the season as the starter at designated hitter. He did not play last year as he sat out due to the NCAA double-transfer rule (attended UConn in fall of 2006 before transferring to Maine, but did not play with the Bears in `07). Grosso is a pure-hitter with a natural, fluid swing. He reunites with former high school teammate Pollock.
Connolly (Binghamton, N.Y.), along with Barnes, serve as the Notre Dame co-captains. After suffering through an injury-plagued first three years, he appears healthy and able to contribute in the outfield and even behind the plate if necessary.
"Brayden is a guy that many people who look at our roster might forget about, but he helped us last year and will do the same this season," said Schrage. "He is an above-average defender and might have one of the better throwing arms in the conference."
Ashdown (Tucson, Ariz.) is one of the team's top defensive outfielders and, along with Boockford, owns the best outfield arm. He batted .393 with a home run and four RBI in 22 games in 2008. Ashdown picked up his first two starts of the season in the series against West Virginia (filled in for injured Billy Boockford) and went 2-for-5 with a double, RBI and two runs scored on Apr. 18 and 2-for-4 with two runs scored on Apr. 19.
Warrender (Collegeville, Pa.) and Adams (Indianapolis, Ind.) are two stellar athletes that can play either corner outfielder spot. While neither saw extensive playing time last season, the duo each made tremendous progress this fall and give Notre Dame two quality options off the bench.
Freshman OF Alex Robinson is expected to immediately impact the lineup and battle for playing time.
Robinson (Dallas, Texas) projects into a leadoff role similar to Lilley. He is a great contact hitter from both sides of the plate with potential of gap-to-gap power. Robinson, who has great moxie on the bases, started all three games in center field for the Gold during the 2008 Blue-Gold World Series and batted .300 with a sacrifice bunt and two RBI.
Freshman OF Leighton Cooper (Fort Washington, Md.) definitely needs to add strength to make necessary adjustments to college pitching, but could help the Irish immediately in pinch-running situations.
"This has to be our toughest non-conference schedule since I've been here," said Schrage. "We set it up with the idea in mind that we have a lot of sophomore and juniors and wanted to see where we are at."
The Irish will face Ohio State, Purdue and Illinois in the BIG EAST/Big Ten Challenge on Feb. 20-22.
"I love the concept of the BIG EAST/Big Ten challenge," said Schrage. "We are all in the same boat, with the exception of Louisville and USF. We are all coming out of the indoors. It is a great way to get exposure for the BIG EAST."
Notre Dame then travels to the Phoenix Classic (hosted by Dayton) to play Gonzaga, the host Flyers and Creighton.
The Irish close the pre-conference portion of the season with their annual journey to Texas. Notre Dame opens the spring trip at the Rice Classic. The Irish will play top-ranked Rice and 2008 NCAA participants Oral Roberts and Washington State.
Notre Dame then plays a doubleheader against Grambling before ending the trip at the Irish Classic in San Antonio against Illinois State, Texas-Pan American and Trinity.
"We'll find out our weaknesses," said Schrage. "As a coach, you want to test your players and get them some confidence, but you also want to know where you are at as a team entering that first conference weekend."
Notre Dame's five BIG EAST home series will include games versus Seton Hall, Villanova, West Virginia, Connecticut and USF while the midweek games at Alumni Field again will feature some of Notre Dame's traditional non-conference rivals, most notably Central Michigan and Ball State, as well as Michigan State.
The BIG EAST Tournament again will be played under the eight-team format from May 19-23, at Bright House Networks Field in Tampa, Fla. The format will mirror the College World Series with two four-team brackets playing double-elimination games on the first four days. The bracket winners then will meet in a single title game on May 23.
The NCAA tournament regionals are set for May 29-31 and the super-regionals on June 5-7 (both at campus sites) while the College World Series will be June 13-24 at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb.