Feb. 22, 2008
The Notre Dame baseball team's 2008 season will be characterized by learning from the past but living for the future. While plenty of key players return from a 28-28 season in 2007, the Irish squad also could be sparked by the addition of nearly 20 promising newcomers that add talent, athleticism and depth.
"The experience from last year really has helped make the team into a unified group and serves as a motivating factor, because there is too much pride in our clubhouse," says second-year Notre Dame head coach Dave Schrage, who is set to enter his 21st season as a college head coach. " Many of the players have made significant improvements from last year."
Notre Dame returns 19 letterwinners and five other veterans from its 2007 team while welcoming a group of 19 newcomers. The recruiting class was ranked as high as fourth in the country by Collegiate Baseball (sixth by Baseball America).
The Irish veterans are led by five position players who have been regular starters in previous seasons: fifth-year catcher Sean Gaston (who missed the '07 season due to should surgery), senior shortstop Brett Lilley, senior leftfielder Ross Brezovsky, junior second baseman Jeremy Barnes and sophomore third baseman A.J. Pollock. Junior newcomer Casey Martin (a transfer from Indiana State) is the leading option among several first-base candidates - while freshman Golden Tate (center) and sophomore Billy Boockford (right) could join Brezovsky as the starting outfielders. Tate also is a promising wideout on the Irish football team while Boockford missed most of the '07 season due to a knee injury.
Several freshman position players will play key roles in the 2008 season, with those promising additions including the imposing first-base duo of Ty Adams and lefthanded-hitting David Casey, middle infielders Greg Sherry and Mick Doyle, and catchers Cameron McConnell, Matt Scioscia and Matt Katich.
Junior righthander David Phelps and senior lefty Wade Korpi headline a probable starting pitcher rotation that also could include four members of the freshman class (Brian Dupra, Ryan Sharpley, Evan Danieli and Cole Johnson). Sophomore RHP Eric Maust - who also doubles as a punter on the Irish football team - was a top middle-inning reliever and spot starter in 2007, while junior RHP Kyle Weiland is set to return to the closer role that he dominated in 2006.
Here's a look at the Irish, by position:
The lefthanded-hitting Lilley and righthanded batter Pollock are set to return to their spots atop the lineup card. One year ago, they nearly tied for the team batting title (each had 73 hits, but Pollock had one fewer at-bat) and each was named third team all-BIG EAST, making Notre Dame the only team in the league with both of its leftside infielders receiving all-conference honors.
Lilley (North Canton, Ohio) is a three-time all-BIG EAST performer and leading candidate for 2008 Academic All-America of the Year honors, after completing his undergraduate requirements as an accounting major in the fall of 2007 with a 3.74 cumulative GPA - highlighted by three straight semester of GPAs above 3.9 (4.0 in '06 spring/18 credits; 3.91 in '06 fall/21). Currently enrolled in Notre Dame's one-year accelerated masters in accountancy program, Lilley takes a .349 career batting average and .485 on-base percentage (2nd all-time at ND) into his final season (his other career stats include 214 hits, 74 RBI, 150 runs, 18 2B, 3 3B, 3 HR, 19 SB, 91 BB, 85 Ks, 28 sacrifice bunts and 438 fielding assists).
A regular throughout his Irish career batting in either the leadoff (72) or #2 spot (94), Lilley started all 176 games spanning the 2005-07 seasons (the 4th-lonest streak in ND history). His career plate-discipline ratio is nearing +100 (+84; 91 BB+78 HBP-85 K) and he has logged 149 career error-free games (including two different 21-game errorless streaks). Lilley also is one of two Irish players ever to have both a 5-hit and 5-run game during his career.
"Brett already has accomplished so much in his time at Notre Dame, but you truly have the sense that he has more in store for us this season," says Schrage of Lilley, whose junior season included receiving first team Academic All-America honors while leading the Irish in 12 different categories (among them .512 OB, 55 R and 27 HBP; he also hit .371 with 31 BB).
"Competitiveness never has been an issue with Brett and he is such a quick-thinking and elite all-around hitter. He hits for average, gets on base more than half the time, can bunt the ball wherever he wants to put it. Defensively, he has excelled at both third base and shortstop during his career at Notre Dame - with a quick release and strong arm to go along with his great range, soft hands and quickness on the bag. I think we will see an exciting season from Brett this season, and he certainly has put in the work to achieve great success."
The propensity for getting hit by pitches runs in the Lilley family, as his older sister Tricia (an Academic All-America shortstop at Purdue) shares the NCAA softball record for career HBPs (54) while Brett enters '08 ranked fourth in NCAA D-I baseball history with 78 HBPs (14 shy of the record).
The versatile Pollock (Hebron, Conn.) - who was an all-state shortstop at RHAM High School - returns as the starter at the third base, but he also has the all-around athleticism, strong arm and speed to be a starting outfielder in 2008 (in center or right field). Pollock's first season with the Irish included Freshman All-America and third team all-BIG EAST honors, as he became the fourth freshman ever to lead the team in batting (.372; fourth-best among all BIG EAST players).
Pollock's many impressive numbers in 2007 included team-best batting average with runners in scoring position (.406), versus left-handed pitching (.509), in home games (.426) and in the first inning (.484). He was one of two players in BIG EAST to finish with 70-plus hits (73), 30-plus walks (32), double-digit stolen bases (11) and 10-plus sacrifice bunts (10) - and he finished first (10) or second (8) on the Irish squad in 18 different categories, including team-best totals in walks and stolen bases, plus second in slugging percentage (.474), on-base percentage (.464) and runs (39; his other stats included 3 HR, 2 3B, 5 2B, 28 RBI, 32 BB and only 14 Ks).
"A.J. would be a special player for us if he played only one position, but his ability to play several spots at a high level could take him to another level," says Schrage of Pollock, who in '07 became the fifth Notre Dame freshman ever to post a 5-hit game (vs. Western Michigan).
"Two areas where you may see upgrades in A.J. are with him using his speed better and driving the ball more. We already know what a clutch hitter he is, with that quick bat and line drive swing, and he also has great hands and fielding instincts that help make him more of a complete player."
Pollock - who is set to play for the Cape Cod League's Falmouth Commodores in the summer of '08 - gained plenty of experience playing in center field during the summer of '07 and then in Notre Dame's ensuing fall practice. He was named second team all-New England Collegiate Baseball League while playing for the wood-bat Vermont Mountaineers, with his summer stats as the Mountaineers centerfielder including a league-best 15 doubles, a team-leading .348 batting average (4th in league), 29 runs (5th in the NECBL), 13 stolen bases, 17 walks and only eight strikeouts.
Barnes (Garland, Texas), the returning starter at second base, is a talented utility player who already has played all four infield positions (and left field) during his Irish career. He rode the momentum of a successful 2007 summer season with the wood-bat Northwoods League's Wisconsin Woodchucks (second on team with .527 slugging percentage and seven HR; third with .286 batting average) by turning in a strong 2007 fall season with the Irish. Barnes now is focused on offensive consistency. As a freshman, he earned second team all-BIG EAST honors (as a DH) and became the first freshman in 20 years to lead the Irish in RBI (49).
"Jeremy was one of the players who really elevated his game last fall, defensively and at the plate," says Schrage of Barnes, whose .278 career batting average with the Irish (77 RBI, 3 HR, 8 3B, 19 2B, 49 BB, 17 SB) includes hitting at only a .258 clip in 2007 (with 28 RBI, 8 2B, 20 BB).
"We have started to see Jeremy become more relaxed and confident in our system and he is developing a good comfort level with Lilley, which naturally will improve their double-play efficiency. Jeremy can really sting line drive hits into the gaps and is a good base runner, in addition to being solid defensively. He is developing into a good leader for this team and we anticipate a great season from him in 2008."
Martin, a transfer from Indiana State, will also compete for playing time. Martin hit .252 with four home runs and 25 RBI in 2007 with the Sycamores. This past summer, Martin played for the Dubois County Bombers of the Central Illinois Collegiate League, where he made both all-star teams and ranked among the leaders in hitting, RBI and fielding. He batted .299 (third-best on team) with team-high 33 RBI and 10 doubles. Martin ranked in the top 10 of the league in batting average (t-6th), hits (3rd), RBI (3rd) and total bases (72; 3rd).
Indianapolis native Adams was a two-sport standout at Brebeuf Jesuit High School, where he utilized his tremendous athleticism and 6-foot-6, 235-pound frame to become an all-state first baseman in baseball and three-year starting center in basketball (a sport that also drew him D-I scholarship offers). The talented right-handed hitter departed Brebeuf as the school's career leader in batting average (.457), home runs (28), RBI (119) and walks (80, in 110 games played), with his senior season also producing the BJHS single-season batting record (.521; his 10 HR tied another school mark).
"Ty will add a lot to our offense, as a big kid who can hit for average and power and runs well for his size," says Schrage. "He is a solid defensive player at first base but we may even try him some in left field, with that spot set to become open in 2009 after the graduation of Brezovsky. Ty is a very driven player and a strong contact hitter - he should add power to our lineup."
Casey casts a similarly big shadow (6-4, 235) from the left-handed-hitting batter's box and also could be used later in his career as a left-handed situational pitcher. He was an ABCA all-Midwest Region performer as a senior at Whitefish Bay (Wis.) High School, which also produced former Notre Dame infield standout Craig Counsell in the late 1980s.
"David should combine with Ty to help add a great power element to our offense this season. He has the potential to put up some big power numbers and could benefit from shortening his swing as he tackles college pitching," says Schrage of Casey, who hit .420 during his senior season at Whitefish Bay High School.
Sharpley (Marshall, Mich.) - the elder brother of freshman pitcher Ryan Sharpley - has split his time and focus at Notre Dame between the baseball and football teams, most recently sharing the starting quarterback duties in the fall of 2007. The left-handed power hitter packs plenty of talent into his 6-2, 215-pound frame, but he has been limited to playing in only 25 career games with the Irish baseball team (6 hits, 6 RBI, 9 starts).
Mendiola (Miami, Fla.) swung a hot bat coming off the bench throughout the 2007 season, when he used his quick, powerful stroke to go 6-for-14 (.429) as a pinch-hitter - well above the rest of the team's reserves (who wit a combined 8-for-47/.170 as pinch-hitters). The Miami native is a .309 career hitter in limited action with the Irish.
Newcomers Greg Sherry and Mick Doyle have emerged as two of the team's top middle infielders - and each could see time at third base as well, particularly if Pollock is shifted at times into the outfield.
Sherry (Mendham, N.J.) was named an alternate for the 2006 USA Baseball Junior National Team and was rated one of the nation's top prep shortstops in 2007, when he hit .425 (10 2B, 21 SB) as an all-state performer at Delbarton High School.
"Greg is a scrappy and sure handed defensive player, with active feet, good range, slick play on both sides of the bag, quick transfer and a strong arm," says Schrage. "He brings a high-motor style of play to our team and can make positive impacts on several levels. Offensively, Greg is a tough out, with good bat speed and the ability to spray the ball from gap-to-gap. He's a great all-around addition to this team."
Doyle (LaGrange Park, Ill.) could prove to be a diamond in the rough, after turning in a strong 2007 fall season that included helping lead the Gold to victory in the Blue-Gold intrasquad series (3-for-9, RBI, 2 R, sac. bunt).
"Mick is a slick fielder with soft hands and excellent footwork. He also is very versatile and hard-nosed player, with gap-to-gap power. We love to get top players from the Chicago area and Mick could be a great pick-up for this season and beyond," says Schrage of Doyle, who hit .362 as a senior while collecting all-area honors at Benet Academy.
Sophomore Ryne Intlekofer (Moorpark, Calif.) gained starting experience at second base in the 2007 season, when he appeared in 19 games and made seven starts while contributing to several Irish wins. The tough-minded competitor made some key strides in his all-around game during the 2007 fall season, adding to his pre-existing skills that include a quick back, solid defensive play and unending hustle.
Petzold (St. Clair Shores, Mich.) brings strong defensive ability to the middle infield and has worked hard on improving his offense, helping round out his skill set that also includes good base running ability with keen all-around instincts for the game. Harford's (Chicago, Ill.) primary position has been at third base, where he started for the victorious Gold team in the 2007 Blue-Gold fall intrasquad series. The Chicago native had a pair of hits and factored into a pair of runs, while helping the Gold win that annual team tournament.
The return of Gaston and the addition of the promising freshman trio should make the catching position quite strong.
The left-handed-hitting Gaston (Brownsburg, Ind.) endured a lengthy rehabilitation process before returning to action (primarily as an offensive player) during the 2007 fall season. The fifth-year veteran is on pace to be Notre Dame's opening-day starting catcher and will be looking to close with the best year of his career, after batting .307 in his first three seasons with the Irish (69 RBI, 2 HR, 16 2B, in 128 GP/100 GS). A candidate for Academic All-America honors, Gaston graduated in May of 2007 with a 3.40 cumulative GPA (as a double major in political science and history) and currently is enrolled in graduate coursework at Notre Dame. The battle-tested Gaston also was a Cope Cod League all-star during the summers of 2005 and '06, as a member of the Cotuit Kettleers in the nation's premier wood-bat league.
"Sean provides invaluable leadership behind the plate and is a great learning resource for our group of young catchers," says Schrage. "It's always a bonus when one of your leaders is a catcher, because that dependability and focus helps improve the entire team's defense and also helps improve the pitching staff's confidence and comfort level.
"It's evident from watching Sean that he receives and blocks the ball extremely well. He also has worked on improving his footwork and throwing accuracy, so I think fans will see a different type of catching situation from us this season. Offensively, Sean will play an important role as well. He is a clutch contact hitter who can drive either gap - and we anticipate using him in one of the key middle of the lineup positions."
The most recent Irish players who have returned for a fifth year as graduate students are infielder J.J. Brock ('94-'98) and catcher Bob Lisanti ('92-'96). Both of those players went on to sign professionally as free agents (after their final season with the Irish) and each remains active in the game of baseball - Brock as an assistant coach (currently at Georgetown) and Lisanti as a sports agent in his hometown of Chicago. McConnell (Bannockburn, Ill.) is a promising talent behind the plate, after being touted among the top-20 prep prospects in Illinois (#2 among catchers) during his senior season at Deerfield High School. His top season batting average came as a sophomore (.435), but he later tied the team home run record (seven) in his final year at DHS, before helping lead the Top Tier club team that advanced to the 2007 Connie Mack World Series.
"Cameron has strong all-around defensive skills and could be a key to us controlling the running game, due to his strong arm and good footwork around the plate. He also is an emerging offensive force and could provide some power to the lineup," says Schrage of McConnell, who hit the only home run in Notre Dame's 2007 Blue-Gold fall intrasquad series.
Scioscia (Westlake Village, Calif.) was born to be a catcher, as the son of a 15-year big leaguer (Mike Scioscia) who is considered by many to be one of the best defensive catchers ever to play the game. The younger Scioscia was named a Playstation high school All-American in 2007, after ranking third among his league's RBI leaders (31) and leading Crespi-Carmelite High School to the CIF state semifinals (he also hit .324, with 10 doubles and pair of home runs). He went on to be selected by the Anaheim Angels in the 2007 Major League draft, with many teams opting not to select him due to his strong commitment to Notre Dame. The 6-1, 235-pound newcomer - who also was a standout defensive end on the CCHS football team - could play some first base for the Irish and may be a top right-handed-hitting DH option as well.
"Matt is a promising power hitter and has a leadership presence to him, much like his father. He has good hands and is working on improving his arm strength," says Schrage. "Matt brings a lot of energy to the field and his transition to college baseball could be enhanced by his experience over the years of being around so many big-league players."
The 6-2, 210-pound Katich (New Castle, Pa.) is a well-rounded talent who was a .400 career hitter at Mohawk High School (76 RBI, 9 HR), where he earned all-section honors as a senior.
"Matt Katich is another youngster who really could help us behind the plate," says Schrage. "He is a big kid with a strong arm and he made some key improvements during the fall, in his throwing, receiving and footwork. Matt is a very hard worker and solid offensive player as well, helping to make us feel even better about the catching situation for 2008 and beyond."
Senior catcher Chris Soriano (Randolph, N.J.) joins Gaston and Brezovsky as the team's tri-captains for the 2008 season. A strong team leader, the third-year walk-on has exhibited a strong work ethic while effectively communicating and taking control of the Irish pitching staff. In addition to making steady progress in his blocking and throwing skills, Soriano also has made key offensive improvements with his bat speed and pitch recognition since joining the Irish.
Brezovsky (Naples, Fla.) completed a successful transition from second base to left field in 2007, when he benefited from playing alongside graduated centerfielder Danny Dressman. The veteran lefthander hitter could end up batting in the key #3 spot in the 2008 lineup, following a fall season in which he showed an improvement in his opposite-field hitting and ability to drive both gaps. A .273 career hitter with the Irish (95 RBI, 7 HR, 7 3B, 28 2B, 65 BB, 165 starts), Brezovsky will be looking to improve on his 2007 production (.263, 33 RBI, HR, 8 2B, 28 BB) in his final season with the Irish.
"Ross really has developed into a good leftfielder, with improved routes to the ball and a strong arm," says Schrage. "He also returned to campus a little bit stronger and we were very impressed with his offensive production throughout the fall. Ross is an energetic player and can be a very dangerous hitter when he is maximizing his smooth, compact swing by using the entire field and executing in various situations. We should see a great senior year from Ross and he has worked hard to make that happen."
Golden Tate (Hendersonville, Tenn.) showed flashes of his elite athletic ability during the 2007 Notre Dame football season, when he impacted several games with highlight-reel plays from the wide receiver position. The speedster saw his senior baseball season at Pope John Paul II HS end in late March, due to thumb injury (he had earned all-state honors as a junior) - but he shifted to the track and ended up qualifying for the state meet with qualifying times of 10.93 in the 100- and 22.33 in the 200-meter dash (he also consistently runs a 6.4 in the 60-meters). A left-handed batter and thrower, Tate has been playing baseball since the age of six and was selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2007 Major League draft (42nd round), even though all the big-league clubs knew he was firm in his two-sport commitment to Notre Dame.
"Many of the talent evaluators who have seen Golden play baseball say that he could develop into a Kenny Lofton or Juan Pierre type of player. He has 'plus' tools in his outfield defense and all-around speed, with raw but developing batting ability and good hand-eye co-ordination," says Schrage of Tate, who was rated the nation's #11 prep prospect in football (his senior season included 1,413 rushing yards/23 TDs, 28 receptions, three interceptions and a kickoff return for a TD - in addition to serving as the Knights' punter, with a season-long boot of 62 yards).
"We hope that Golden can be in the center-field mix this season. He certainly has the defensive skills and brings great speed to the base paths. He also could develop into an effective hitter, with good bat control to execute bunts and slap hits while also having the hand strength to drive doubles in the gap."
Boockford (Glen Ellyn, Ill.) was a top corner-outfield prospect in 2007 before seeing most of his freshman season wiped out due to a knee injury (he hit .292 in 10 early games during that '07 season). A record-setting hitter (.565) as a senior at Glenbard West High School, Boockford could emerge this season as Notre Dame's top option in right field. "Billy has the strong arm that you look for in right field and is a tremendous athlete," says Schrage. "He is a good base runner for his size [6-1, 195] and can hit for average and power. Billy really swung the bat well in the fall and will be a key part of our lineup."
Fellow sophomore Brayden Ashdown (Tucson, Ariz.) gained valuable experience in 2007, as a platoon starter in right field. An athletic and quick player with good defensive skills, Ashdown has a long lean frame and a compact, line drive swing. "Brayden is another player who made some key improvements in the fall. He is stronger and has become more consistent at the plate, which should help him provide some quality depth to our outfield group," says Schrage.
Matt Grosso (Marlborough, Conn.) is another second-year outfielder but a first-year player with the Irish, after spending the 2006-07 academic year at the University of Connecticut and the University of Maine. Grosso likely will not be able to play in the 2008 season (due to the NCAA double-transfer rule) but he then still would have three years of eligibility remaining and could start competing with the Irish in the '09 season. The left-handed hitter was a teammate of Pollock's throughout their youth baseball days, including a 2004 season that saw each play lead roles on the RHAM High School state championship team. Grosso - who did not play as a freshman, due to a shoulder injury - was RHAM's MVP as a junior (.493, 25 RBI, 3 HR, 10 2B) and then captained the team as a senior (.421, 25 RBI, 13 SB), earning all-conference honors each season. He finished as RHAM's career hits leader (104) and had an impressive debut at Notre Dame's Blue-Gold Series (fall '07), collecting the most hits (5-for-10) of any player while helping the Gold claim the series win.
"Matt Grosso is a future leftfielder or left-handed DH for us and we think he can be a consistent producer in our offense," says Schrage. "He is a pure hitter with a natural swing, the type of kid who will just go out and get four or five hits every weekend for you. Matt's eager to get back to playing and we certainly are excited to add him to our lineup."
Warrender (Collegeville, Pa.) had attempted to walk-on as a wideout with the Irish football team in the fall of 2006 before shifting his focus to baseball in his second year at Notre Dame. A talented all-around athlete with good speed and a strong throwing arm, Warrender could see some playing time with the Irish if he continues to make strides at the plate (he hit .369 as a 2006 all-league outfielder at LaSalle Collegiate High School).
Local product Wiand was a three-sport athlete at South Bend's Riley High School, where he quarterbacked the football team for three seasons and was a three-year all-conference outfielder in baseball. Wiand's many talents include strong defensive skills, speed on the bases - he set a RHS record with 29 stolen bases in '07 and posted a team-best 4.38 during Notre Dame's preseason 40-meter dash testing - and even an impressive musical career, recently serving as the principal cello player for the South Bend Youth Symphony.
Junior Ryan Connolly (Binghamton, N.Y.) - who platooned as a starting corner outfielder during the 2007 season - likely will have to focus on more of a DH role in 2008, due to a chronic shoulder condition that caused him to miss all of his freshman season in '06. A tremendous athlete and on of the team's quickest runners, the hard-working Connelly brings a feisty spirit to the field and ranked fifth on the 2007 team with seven doubles (in 34 games/24 starts, with a .185 batting avg.).
Other top candidates for DH duty in 2008 include right-handed batters Adams, Boockford and Scioscia, plus the left-handed duo of Casey and Evan Sharpley.
The battle-tested duo of Phelps and Korpi will provide the veteran leadership for a 2008 Notre Dame pitching rotation that could include plenty of young, but talented, arms.
Phelps (Hazelwood, Mo.) bounced back from a rocky freshman season (7.09 ERA; 26.2 innings) to turn in one of the best seasons ever by a Notre Dame pitcher. The first team all-BIG EAST performer's breakthrough season in 2007 saw him join current big-leaguer Aaron Heilman as the only Notre Dame pitchers ever to post 100-plus strikeouts and register an ERA under 2.00 in the same season. Phelps finished 14th among the national ERA leaders (1.88) while totaling the sixth-most strikeouts in a season (102) ever by an Irish pitcher, with his other season stats including an 8-5 record and .236 opponent batting average in 110.1 innings.
His stellar 2007 season also included five complete games, three outings with double-digit strikeouts and a team-best 7.1 innings per start. Phelps was one of only six pitchers in the nation who entered the '07 postseason with an ERA under 2.00, eight or more wins and 90-plus strikeouts - and his top moments included early wins over #12 TCU and #7 Nebraska, plus a complete-game victory in a 1-0 showdown with USF ace Danny Otero.
"Any time you can return your ace, that's a great starting point for your pitching staff. David takes that bulldog mentality to the mound in every one of his appearances and remains one of the hardest throwers on the team, with that explosive, low-90s fastball that he can spot on either side of the plate," says Schrage. "He also refined his delivery even more during our fall season and has developed a tough changeup, to go along with his breaking ball. The sky is the limit for Dave this season and we feel fortunate to have him leading the staff."
Phelps - who again will be an Academic All-America candidate in 2008 (with a 3.24 cumulative GPA, as a political science major - was slated to pitch during the summer of '07 along three of his classmates, on the Cape Cod League's Falmouth Commodores, but he ultimately opted to rest his arm during the summer (after making a pair of starts with Falmouth).
Korpi (Lake Worth, Fla.) appears on the way to solidifying the Irish rotation. As he enters his fourth year with the Irish, the finesse lefthander will be looking to rediscover the dominating form of his sophomore season, when he compiled a 2.00 ERA, 7-2 record and three 11-K games, as Notre Dame's top midweek starter and eventual MVP of the '06 BIG EAST Tournament. He enters 2008 with a 3.61 career ERA as a member of the Irish staff (12-10, 169 Ks, 184.1 IP, 87 BB, 184 H).
"Wade showed great improvement during the fall season and was flashing his trademark control with all of his pitches. He can lead with his fastball, curve or changeup - which sets him apart from most pitchers, " says Schrage, in reference to one of several Academic All-America candidates on the '08 Irish team (Korpi carries a 3.30 cumulative GPA, as an anthropology major).
"We put a big premium on controlling the running game and that is a strength of Wade's. He is a very polished pitcher and a crafty veteran. We expect him to be one of the top leaders of the staff this season."
Four members of the promising freshman class -Dupra, Ryan Sharpley, Danieli and Johnson - each could develop into starters on the 2008 staff. Three of those pitchers were highly rated prospects and would have been selected much higher in the 2007 Major League draft, if not for their strong commitment to play for Notre Dame. Danieli ultimately was a 33rd-round pick of the Minnesota Twins, Sharpley a 34th-rounder by the Chicago White Sox, and Dupra a 36th-round selection of the Texas Rangers. Danieli had been slotted as high as #40 among prep prospects, by Perfect Game, which listed Sharpley as the #141 high school prospect. Dupra impressively was ratted as high as 116th among all draft-eligible players (including collegians), per Baseball America (which also had Danieli at #157 on that list).
Each of the three freshman pitchers who were drafted will have the chance to shine in the elite Cape Cod wood-bat league, during the summer of 2008 (Dupra with the Harwich Mariners; Sharpley with the Hyannis Mets and Danieli with the Falmouth Commodores).
Dupra (Rochester, N.Y.) saw his stock - and velocity - rise during senior season at Greece Athena High School, as he pushed his heavy fastball into the low-90s while continuing to show pinpoint command of all three of his pitches (including a quality slider and changeup). Named the 2007 Gatorade player of the year for the state of New York, Dupra fashioned a dominating season with a 0.21 ERA, 9-1 record and an eye-popping 11.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio (93/8), plus 27 more innings pitched (65.1) than hits allowed (38) and pair of saves.
More recently, Dupra delivered the game-2 win (3-1) for the Gold team that eventually won the annual Blue-Gold intrasquad series in the fall of '07. In the process, he became the first Notre Dame freshman since 2001 to win a BGS start (5.2 IP, UER, 3 H, 2 BB, 3 Ks, 7 groundouts).
"Brian has made impressive all-around progress over the past year and shows tremendous pitching aptitude, as a poised competitor and true student of the game," says Schrage. "He has a very projectable 6-3, 200-pound frame and throws with excellent control from a 3/4 power arm slot. His clean arm action and fluid mechanics make it even tougher for hitters to figure him out. Brian is ready to pitch at the college level right now and we will be counting on him to be a key member of the starting rotation."
Ryan Sharpley (Marshall, Mich.) will have the chance to play once again alongside his brother Evan, following an impressive all-conference senior season at Marshall High School that included a 0.90 ERA, 7-4 record and 101 Ks in 70 innings (35 BB, 38 H). "Ryan has become more efficient with more leverage on his low-90s fastball and tight slider. He has a classic pitchers body [6-4, 185] and is a strong all-around athlete, with tremendous upside and the ability to DH for us if needed," says Schrage.
The 6-7, 230-pound Danieli (East Hanover, N.J.) received numerous 2007 All-America honors, after helping lead the nation's top-ranked team (Seton Hall Prep) to its third straight state title. His impressive senior season included a 0.45 ERA, 11-0 record, three times as many strikeouts (81) as walks (27), and twice as many innings (62) as hits allowed (28). Danieli was an All-American as a junior, when he went 5-1 with a 1.10 ERA and 59 Ks in 39 innings.
"Evan is a tremendous physical specimen," says Schrage. "He can be very tough to hit when getting good repetition on his pitching motion, with a heavy, over-the-top fastball in the low-90s, a tight, late-breaking curveball - that can be a legit 'out-pitch' - and a developing changeup and slider.
"When you watch Evan on the mound, it's obvious he is a good athlete. His great pitch arsenal is even tougher due to his loose and downward angle to the plate. Evan made some key strides in his situational pitching during our fall season and we are excited to see how he fares in the upcoming season."
Two-sport talent Maust (Alpharetta, Ga.) was effective out of the bullpen and as a midweek starter during the 2007 season, ranking third on the staff in ERA (3.65) while winning both of his decisions and saving another game (32 Ks, 7 BB, 58 H, 44.1 IP, 15 GP/3 GS). A tremendous athlete who also played center field and was a football quarterback/punter during his prep days at Blessed Trinity High School, Maust turned in one of the top control seasons ever by a Notre Dame pitcher (in '07) - as he averaged only 1.42 walks per 9.0 innings (7th-best in the ND record book), posted a 4.57 K-to-walk ratio (9th in ND history) and did not allow a home run (spanning 203 batters faced).
"Eric is a very impressive young man who has met the challenge of playing football and baseball at a school with such a great reputation as Notre Dame," says Schrage of Maust, who earned a couple starts as the Irish punter during the 2007 football season. "Eric controls the running game and fields his position with such a high level of athleticism. He also has a great feel for his delivery and aggressively attacks opposing hitters, helping to maximize the good location on his high-80s fastball and a tough changeup."
Johnson (Hudson, Ohio) joined the Irish as an invited walk-on and proceeded to log a series of impressive outings during the 2007 fall season - as he even was rewarded with a start in the three-game Blue-Gold Series. The talented two-way player was the starting catcher at Hudson High School during his final two seasons and thus totaled only 75 career innings, with career nine-inning averages of 11 strikeouts and only three walks (he was the staff ace and an all-conference performer as a senior).
"Cole is a very competitive and confident pitcher who has made a quick transition to our staff's philosophy of 'willing' outs and challenging hitters," says Schrage. "He has a prototypical pitchers body [6-3, 200] while combining deceptive quickness and movement on a high-80s, boring fastball and a tight slider. It's great to see a young player seize his opportunity and run with it.:
Weiland (Albuquerque, N.M.) is slotted to be the team's closer and bullpen leader in 2008, as he looks to reprise the role he played as a freshman (when he set an ND record with 16 saves, good for third in the nation during that '06 season). Considered one of the top pro prospects in the BIG EAST, the lanky 6-3, 180-pound right-hander was poised to build off his impressive freshman year (2.37 ERA, 48 Ks, 20 BB, 39 H in 49.1 IP) before a freak shoulder injury put him on the shelf for the start of the '07 season. He was eased back into action and even was tried as a starter. Weiland's final '07 stats included a 5.66 ERA, 5-3 record, two saves, 37 Ks, 27 BB and 49 H in 41.1 IP.
"We all are excited for Kyle this season, because he is fully healthy and he also is back to focus on what he does best - and that's being a dominating closer," says Schrage of Weiland, whose standout freshman season included earned Freshman All-America and second team all-BIG EAST honors.
"It's such a joy to watch Kyle pitch, effortlessly delivering his hard, biting breaking ball and low-90s fastball. When he is on the top of his game and coming right at hitters - with that deadly arm-whip action - he is tough to hit and that can devastate a team trying to rally in the late innings."
Weiland's 3.87 career ERA with the Irish is skewed significantly by his six starts in the 2007 season. When looking solely at his production as a reliever, Weiland has compiled a 2.35 ERA in 37 appearances out of the bullpen (plus a lowly .218 opp. batting avg.) and has averaged nearly a strikeout per inning (59 Ks, 61.1 IP). He has converted 18-of-20 save attempts, leaving him only two shy of tying the Irish career mark shared by John Corbin ('97-'00) and Ryan Doherty.
Notre Dame fans who frequented the Cape Cod League in the summer of '07 had plenty of Irish pitchers to cheer for at Falmouth Commodore games, with Weiland logging a solid showing in the nation's elite wood-bat league (2.38, 1-2, SV, 14 GP/1 GS, 22.2 IP, 27 Ks, 16 H, 13 BB, 27 Ks).
Two other members of that Falmouth staff, lefthander Sam Elam (Poteet, Texas) and right-hander Brett Graffy, also are juniors on the 2008 Irish squad and each could be vital members of the relief corps, in addition to drawing spot starts.
Elam - whose stats with Falmouth included 17 Ks in 14 IP - joins Weiland as one of the nation's top pitching prospects, but the 6-foot-3, 220-pound flamethrower likely will have to master his control issues and pitch with more consistency. His first two seasons with the Irish included record-setting low hit totals allowed (23 H in 44 IP; 4.7 H/9 IP, .155 opp. batting avg.) but plenty of free bases surrendered (31 BB, 10 hit batters, 5 wild pitches).
"Sam is in control of his own destiny and has the physical gifts to be a dominating pitcher, on the college level and beyond," says Schrage. "He has a high release point and a lively mid-90s fastball, plus an improving breaking ball. Sam continues to work on synchronizing his delivery Elam - whose career stats with the Irish also include a 3.89 ERA in 24 appearances (0-2, SV, 7 starts) - allowed only 4.26 hits per 9.0 innings during the 2007 season, shattering a Notre Dame record that had stood for nearly 45 years (he also had 25 walks in 31.1 IP and finished with a 4.55 ERA). On April 18, 2007, Elam played a lead role in a giving the Eck Stadium fans a rare sight - after combining with Purdue's Matt Bischofff to allow no hits through the first seven-plus innings. Elam left that scoreless game after nine full innings (1 H, 6 BB; ND won, 1-0 in the 10th), becoming the first Irish pitcher since 2002 to log a 1-hit, 9-inning appearance.
The athletic and quick-armed Graffy (Homer Glen, Ill.) could be one of the staff's top long relievers, with his 26 career appearances (22 in relief) spanning 64.2 innings, plus a 5-2 record, 4.87 ERA and 37 Ks. A consistent low-ball pitcher who brings a clever and aggressive approach to the mound, Graffy has averaged 12.5 groundouts per 9.0 innings during his career with the Irish.
"Brett has shown the ability to command all four of his pitches, and he knows he can have a better year than in 2007 [5.68, 3-2]," says Schrage of Graffy, who went on to compile a 0.89 ERA and struck out 24 batters in 20.2 innings with the Falmouth Commodores in the summer of '07.
"We did not have Brett available in the fall, due to illness, but he should come back to be a key mid-reliever. He can be very effective with that tight slider and boring fastball, and can set up hitters by throwing all his pitches for strikes in any count."
The strong-armed Tony Langford (Ft. Worth, Texas) - who throws from a deceptive 3/4 slot, with good mechanics and the ability to keep the ball low - is poised to play a key late-relief role for the Irish pitching staff, after logging only nine appearances and 11.1 innings during the 2007 season (when he was returning from "Tommy John" reconstructive shoulder surgery that held him out of the entire '06 season). A two-way player and clutch hitter in previous seasons, Langford likely will focus on pitching in 2008 - due in large part to the infusion of the 12 new position players (plus the healthy returns of Gaston and Boockford). Langford's first two seasons with the Irish included a 3.14 ERA, 5-1 record, two saves and 25 strikeouts in 28.2 innings.
"Tony had several solid outings in the fall and was pushing his fastball into the lower-90s while improving the consistency with his slider and changeup. He is rejuvenated, healthy and will provide a lot of spirit and energy to our bullpen," says Schrage of Langford, who will have the option of returning for a final year of eligibility in 2009.
Mazur (Round Rock, Texas) will be looking to build off his encouraging '07 fall season and a summer-ball experience with the Hays (Kan.) Larks team that was runner-up at the 2007 National Baseball Congress World Series. A strike thrower with a mid-80s fastball and sharp slider, Mazur could benefit from recent adjustments that have allowed him to become more of a "north-south" pitcher, with a shorter arm circle and better leverage on his release.
The 6-foot-6 Scheid (Highlands Ranch, Colo.), who made seven appearances as a freshman (9 Ks, 10 IP), was a highly rated prep prospect that made progress on his arm speed and leverage during fall practice. Scheid will be hoping to maximize his high arm slot in his second season with the Irish while gaining more consistency with his mid-80s fastball and hard breaking ball.
Mills (Battlecreek, Mich.) - a two-way player who also can serve as a lefthanded-hitting corner outfielder and pinch runner - has good deception while attacking the zone with a solid slider, tough breaking ball and low-80s, two-seam fastball. He logged seven relief appearances in 2007 while also playing in four games as position player.
Miller (Franklin, Tenn.), who signed with the Irish in the spring of 2007, is a "highly competitive pitcher who can fill the zone with strikes," according to Schrage, who will look for Miller to utilize his moving fastball and sharp curve to be an effective force out of the bullpen. Miller totaled three times as many strikeouts (198) as walks (66) during his career at Montgomery Bell Academy, where he also compiled a 2.89 career ERA and was a Mid-Tennessee all-region selection as a senior.
Gingerich (Granger, Ind.) logged 182 innings while pitching three seasons (2004-06) at nearby Bethel College, in Mishawaka, Ind., before transferring to Notre Dame to complete his studies as a civil engineering major. The crafty right-hander has shown good command with all three of his pitches and enjoyed his best season at Bethel as a junior, in 2006 (4.41, 5-3, 39 Ks).
Spizzirri (San Juan Capistrano, Calif.) earned a walk-on spot with the Irish and will serve as a left-handed situational pitcher, with a strong breaking ball and developing fastball. A standout baseball player and football quarterback at JSerra High School, Spizzirri has experience on both the mound and at first base.