December 2, 1998
NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Official college baseball games in the fall have become a rarity. Getting excited over those games is even more of a rarity, as teams typically are still developing cohesiveness and experimenting with different lineups.
But the fall of 1998 provided an exception for the Notre Dame baseball program, which welcomed 10 recruited newcomers to a group of returners from the previous year’s squad that went 41-17 and came up just shy of earning an at-large spot in the NCAA Championship.
The Irish posted a 9-5 victory over Michigan State on Sept. 12, 1998, at Oldsmobile Park in Grand Rapids, Mich., with the highlights including back-to-back home runs from junior shortstop Brant Ust and senior catcher Jeff Wagner and countless contributions from the newcomers.
“We’re glad we played that game,” says fifth-year Irish head coach Paul Mainieri, whose 1999 squad will look to post the program’s 11th straight season with 40-plus wins while remaining one of the nation’s winningest programs of the 1990s. “It was important because of how many freshmen we have, to give them exposure to college baseball. And they all performed extremely well.”
The Irish also are buoyed by the return of three-time all-BIG EAST Conference performer and Notre Dame career home run leader Wagner, a 50th-round draft selection of the Toronto Blue Jays last spring. “With both Ust and Wagner in the middle of the lineup, you have two legitimate All-America players who are great leaders and you aren’t asking your freshmen to carry the load.”
Wagner’s draft pick followed a subpar season by his own standards, in which he hit .330 with 14 home runs and 49 RBI.
“Staying an extra year in college is better in the long run for Jeff,” says Mainieri. “He’;l complete his degree, get another year of college baseball and is not going to worry about pro ball. He’s just going to have fun.”
The Irish infield lost three starters to graduation, including first team all-BIG EAST shortstop J.J. Brock. Ust, the 1998 BIG EAST player of the year, is slated to slide over from third base to shortstop while his classmate Jeff Felker will return to first base after playing mostly right field in ’98. Sophomore Alec Porzel, a high school shortstop, will make the move from left field to second base with freshman Andy Bushey rounding out the infield as the top candidate at third base.
“Great infield defense helped us tremendously last season, so it was our goal this fall to determine the best three defensive players and play them at second base, shortstop and third base,” says Mainieri.
Ust’s sophomore season included All-America honors before playing in the summer with the United States national team. His .493 conference batting average in ’98 was best by a BIG EAST player during the ’90s while his 18 overall home runs led the team. Ust heads into his junior season with the third-highest career batting average in Notre Dame history (.373) and the benefits of his summer experience.
“Playing for Team USA was a tremendous opportunity for Brant and he showed that Notre Dame has one of the nation’s best players,” says Mainieri.
Porzel hit just .265 as a freshman but his seven home runs tied for fifth on the team while many of his 39 RBI came in clutch situations. Bushey’s throwback style of play at the hot corner allowed Ust to move to shortstop while adding Bushey’s solid bat to the lineup. The lanky, lefthanded-hitting Felker is slated to return to first base, after a subpar sophomore season in which he hit .283 with three home runs and 35 RBI.
Freshmen Paul O’Toole will share time behind the plate with Wagner (who also will play at first base) and could see time in the outfield or at designated hitter. Two other newcomers – leftfielder Matt Strickroth and centerfielder Steve Stanley – secured starting spots in the fall. The 6-5, 225-pound Strickroth could help the Irish post the team home run record for a third straight season. The speedy, 5-7 Stanley could remind Notre Dame fans of another recent diminutive lefthander, Scott Sollmann, who patrolled center field for the Irish from 1994-96 while becoming program’s career stolen bases leader. Two switch hitters – junior Jeff Perconte and sophomore Ben Cooke – will provide veteran options in right field and speed on the basepaths.
The Irish have several strong options at designated hitter, including Perconte, Cooke and O’Toole, plus junior utility player and South Bend native Matt Nussbaum, switch-hitting freshman J.P. Drevline and solid first-year players Ed Golom and Ken Meyer.
“This is clearly going to be our most athletic and solid lineup in the last five years,” says Mainieri. “Most coaches would be a little nervous knowing that so much of that lineup will be freshmen, but I’m not.”
Notre Dame returns 11 of its top 12 pitchers from a ’98 staff that ranked 13th in the nation with a 4.02 ERA. The lone loss is BIG EAST pitcher of the year Brad Lidge, a first-round draft pick of the Houston Astros.
“We’re excited about our this staff,” says fifth-year Notre Dame pitching coach Brian O’Connor. “We’ve added three solid freshmen, have two strong starters back and the best closer in the country.”
Senior righthander Alex Shilliday – a second team All-BIG EAST performer in ’98 – and sophomore lefty Tim Kalita are locked into the crucial weekend starter roles while sophomore righthander Aaron Heilman returns after saving nine games and leading the nation with a 1.61 ERA in ’98. Where the Irish use the Logansport, Ind., native in 1999 remains to be seen.
“The great thing about Aaron is that he is happy at any role,” says O’Connor. “We tried him as a starter in the fall and he showed he can throw three pitches to be effective in that role. It’s a nice dilemma to have.”
Others competing for starting roles include senior lefthander Chris McKeown, junior righthander Scott Cavey and sophomore righthander Danny Tamayo, who is hoping to return from an elbow sprain that held him out for most of ’98. Freshmen righthanders Drew Duff and Matt Buchmeier also could fill starter roles.
“The only thing I’m sad about right now is that the season is not starting tomorrow,” says Mainieri. “We had such a good fall, I wish we could go right into the spring.”