March 6, 1999
Expanded Spring Preview
By Sports Information Assistant Pete LaFleur
Official college baseball games during the fall semester have become somewhat of a rarity. Observers drawing any large amount of excitement over those games is even more of a rarity, as teams typically are developing cohesiveness and experimenting with different lineups during what amount to fall exhibition games.
But the fall of 1998 provided an exception to that conventional thinking for the Notre Dame baseball program, which welcomed 10 recruited newcomers to a group of returners from the previous years squad that went 41-17 and came up just shy of earning an at-large spot to the NCAA Championship.
|Jeff Wagner and
Junior Brant Ust
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 All-America junior shortstop Brant Ust (Redmond, Wash.) and senior catcher Jeff Wagner (Louisville, Ky.) and countless contributions from the newcomers.
|Senior Jeff Wagner|
“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 nations winningest programs of the 1990s. “It was an important experience for us, because of how many freshmen we have. It gave them exposure to college baseball. And they all performed extremely well.”
In addition to the excitement brought about by the addition of the freshman class, the Irish are buoyed by the return of Wagner, a three-time all-BIG EAST Conference performer and Notre Dames career home run leader (41) who was a 50th-round draft selection of the Toronto Blue Jays in the spring of 98.
“With both Ust and Wagner in the middle of the lineup, you have two legitimate All-America players who are great leaders. And because of that, you arent asking your freshmen to carry the load,” says Mainieri.
Wagner’s draft selection 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’ll 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 and will do a great job leading us.”
|Sophomore Tim Kalita|
Notre Dame returns 10 of its top 11 pitchers from a ’98 staff that ranked 12th in the nation with a 4.02 ERA. The lone loss is ’97 BIG EAST pitcher of the year Brad Lidge, a first-round draft pick of the Houston Astros.
“We’re excited about this staff,” says fifth-year Notre Dame pitching coach Brian O’Connor. “We’ve added some solid freshmen, have two strong starters back and the best closer in the country. As long as we can pitch consistently, it should be a great year for us on the mound.”
Senior righthander Alex Shilliday (Dunwoody, Ga.) a second team all-BIG EAST performer in 98 and sophomore lefty Tim Kalita (Oak Park, Ill.) are locked into the crucial weekend starter roles while sophomore righthander Aaron Heilman (Logansport, Ind.) returns after saving nine games, posting a 7-3 record and leading the nation with a 1.61 ERA in 98.
|Sophomore Aaron Heilman|
Where the Irish use Heilman 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. Its a nice dilemma to have.
Shilliday will join Wagner as co-captains of the 1999 Irish squad while looking to lead the talented pitching staff. Known for a major-league changeup, countless quality performances to his credit, and the ability to rack up strikeouts when needed, Shilliday could be in for a banner final season with the Irish.
“Alex might have worn down a bit towards the end of last season but he has been a mainstay for us and really sets the tone for a weekend series,” says O’Connor of the player that ranks fifth in Irish history with 209 career strikeouts and ninth with 21 pitching victories. “Alex has begun to show the pinpoint control of his sophomore season and there’s no reason to think that he wont be one of the BIG EAST’s top pitchers again this season.”
|Freshman Matt Buchmeier|
Kalita’s strong finish to the 1998 season landed him in 26th place among the nations ERA leaders (2.78). Known for his ability to spot his fastball while throwing tough off-speed pitches, the lefthanded Kalita will be looking for more consistency to produce longer outings during 99.
“Tim is a fierce competitor who just has had some problems getting through the fifth and sixth innings during the past,” says O’Connor of Kalita, who went just 4-0 in 98 despite 11 starts. “Tim can come at you with an overpowering fastball and then has a great strikeout pitch with his curveball. It goes without saying that having a dominating lefthander on this years team could be a huge factor for us.”
|Senior Chris McKeown|
In addition to Heilman, the other top options for the starting roles include senior lefthander Chris McKeown (Arlington Heights, Ill.), junior righthander Scott Cavey (Omaha, Neb.) and sophomore righthander Danny Tamayo (Miami, Fla.), who is hoping to return from an elbow sprain that held him out for most of 98. Freshmen righthanders Drew Duff (Sevierville, Tenn.) and Matt Buchmeier (Greenwood, Ind.) also could fill starter roles.
“McKeown has thrown some great games for us during his career and now, as a senior leader, he will be looking to have even more of those efforts this season,” says O’Connor. Cavey also is due for a breakthrough year, if he keeps throwing strikes and competing hard on the mound.
|Freshman Drew Duff|
Duff, a fierce competitor who is known for throwing four quality pitches, could be moved to the closer role if needed due to his tough breaking ball and mental toughness. Buchmeier has possibly the greatest potential of any of the first-year pitchers, due to his quick arm and an outstanding curveball and changeup.
Solidly-built junior righthander John Corbin (Hollywood, Fla.) could develop into a top set-up man for the 1999 Irish staff. The 6-2, 195-pounder suffered a freak knee injury midway through his sophomore season, with a 4.82 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 19 career innings of work.
Three lefthanders also will be available primarily out of the bullpen in 1999: junior Mark Lapinskas (Naperville, Ill.) and sophomores Mike Carlin (Manhattan, Kan.) and Mike Naumann (Tucson, Ariz.).
Lapinskas logged just 14.2 innings of work during his first two seasons but has shown moments of promise during his Irish career. The lanky 6-4, 210-pound Carlin made six appearances as a freshman, with a 1.76 ERA, seven strikeouts and a win in his only decision.
|Junior Steve Szczepanski|
Naumann also made short relief appearances in 98, with a 4.50 ERA and five strikeouts in 14 innings of work.
Junior righthander Steve Szczepanski (Lombard, Ill.) will be looking to build on a strong summer showing in the talented Alaska League, after seeing his first two seasons with the Irish affected by injury and inconsistency (he was 2-3 with a 5.91 ERA in 32 innings as a sophomore).
In addition to Duff and Buchmeier, two other freshman righthanders, round out the deep 1999 Irish pitching staff. Jason Rodda (Lakeland, Fla.)who posted a combined record of 45-3 in his high school and summer-league games during the past four yearsthrows four quality pitches and could develop into a key factor as he adjusts to the college game. Keith Arnold (St. Paul, Minn.), who joined the team after 1998 fall walk-on tryouts, could develop into a middle reliever for the Irish in the upcoming season.
|Freshman Jason Rodda|
For the second straight year, Wagner is the only returning starter who will be opening at the same position from the previous season, with Ust, sophomore Alec Porzel and junior Jeff Felker each set to tackle new starting positions.
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 Felker (Ellicott City, Md.) will return to first base after playing right field in 98.
|Sophomore Alec Porzel|
Porzel (Lisle, Ill.), a high school shortstop, will make the move from left field to second base, with freshman Andrew Bushey (Boardman, Ohio) 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.
|Freshman Andrew Bushey|
Ust’s sophomore season included All-America honors and a summer in which he was the third-leading hitter for the United States national team. His .493 conference batting average in 98 was best by a BIG EAST player in the 90s while Usts 18 overall home runs also led the conference. Ust heads into 99 with the third-highest career batting average in Notre Dame history (.373) and the added 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 nations best players,” says Mainieri. “Brant achieved so much during his first two years of college baseball, it’ll be exciting to see what he has in store for us this year.”
|Freshman Paul O’Toole|
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 natural lefthanded swing to 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 (compared to a .319 with four home runs as a freshman).
Freshmen Paul O’Toole (Lakewood, Ohio) will share time behind the plate with Wagner (who also will play at first base) and could see time in the outfield or at DH. O’Toole, a solid contact hitter and quality baserunner, could play a crucial role for as he tackles the challenge of being a Division I catcher.
Two other freshmen leftfielder Matt Strickroth (Mission Viejo, Calif.) and centerfielder Steve Stanley (Upper Arlington, Ohio) secured starting spots in the fall.
|Freshman Matt Strickroth|
The 6-5, 230-pound Strickroth could help the Irish post the team home run record for a third straight season while the speedy, 5-7 Stanley likely will remind Notre Dame fans of another recent diminutive lefthander, Scott Sollmann, who patrolled center field for the Irish from 1994-96 while becoming the program’s career stolen bases leader.
“Players like Bushey, O’Toole, Strickroth and Stanley will add a new dimension to our offense and some excitement in the all-around way that they play the game,” said Mainieri.
“There has been a great chemistry between our veteran’s and the newcomers, which certainly is how you like to begin any season.”
|Freshman Steve Stanley|
Two switch hitters junior Jeff Perconte (Arlington Heights, Ohio) and sophomore Ben Cooke (Bay Village, Ohio) will provide veteran options in right field and speed on the basepaths. Perconte hit .250 with 17 RBI and seven stolen bases in a lackluster sophomore season while Cooke was primarily a backup as a freshman, batting .261 with two steals.
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 (Arlington Heights, Ill.) and solid first-year players Ed Golom (Lockport, Ill.) and Ken Meyer (Ft. Myers, Fla.). Nussbaum also has begun training as a reserve catcher, a role that he will share with freshman walk-on Ryan Newell (Wilmington, Del.).
|Sophomore Ben Cooke|
“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 we’re very confident in the players that we have.”
Weeks after his team had played the exciting game with Michigan State, Mainieri echoed the sentiment of the Irish baseball program. “The only thing Im sad about is that the seasons not starting tomorrow,” said Mainieri on that mid-October day. “We had such a good fall, I wish we could go right into the spring.”
Four months later, the much-anticipated season has rolled around, as Notre Dame looks to close out the 1900’s with its 11th straight 40-win season and return to the NCAAs for the fifth time in the 1990’s.
Alex Shilliday Sr.
Aaron Heilman So.
Scott Cavey Jr.
John Corbin Jr.
Danny Tamayo So.
Steve Szczepanski Jr.
Mike Carlin So.
Matt Buchmeier Fr.
Drew Duff Fr.
Jason Rodda Fr.
Keith Arnold Fr.
Tim Kalita Jr.
Chris McKeown Sr.
Mark Lapinskas Jr.
Mike Naumann So.
Jeff Wagner Sr. R/R
Paul OToole Fr. L/R
J.P. Drevline Fr. S/R
Matt Nussbaum Jr. R/R
Ryan Newell Fr. R/R
Jeff Felker Jr. L/R
Jeff Wagner Sr. R/R
Ken Meyer Fr. R/R
Matt Strickroth Fr. R/R
Alec Porzel So. R/R
Ben Cooke So. S/R
Jeff Perconte Jr. S/R
Brant Ust Jr. R/R
Jeff Perconte Jr. S/R
Ben Cooke So. S/R
Andrew Bushey Fr. L/R
Ed Golom Fr. R/R
Matt Strickroth Fr. R/R
Steve Stanley Fr. L/L
Jeff Perconte Jr. S/R
Ben Cooke So. S/R
Top ReturneesBrant Ust (Jr., SS, 6-1/200, Redmond, Wash.) Third team All-American (1998) BIG EAST Player of the Year (1998) 98 stats: .373, 18 HR, 58 RBI, 11-16 SBJeff Wagner (Sr., C, 6-3/235, Louisville, Ky.) Three-time, first-team all-BIG EAST as DH Notre Dame career home run leader (41) 98 stats: .330, 14 HR, 49 RBI, 15 doublesAlex Shilliday (Sr., RHP, 6-1/200, Dunwoody, Ga.) Second team all-BIG EAST (1998) 98 stats: 9-5, 3.54 ERA, 93 Ks/25 BB, 96.2 IPAaron Heilman (So., RHP, 6-4/210, Logansport, Ind.) Third team All-American (1998) Led nation in ERA for 1998 season (1.61) 98 stats: 7-3, 9 saves, 1.61, 78 Ks/19 BB, 67 IPTim Kalita (Jr., LHP, 6-5, 190, Oak Park, Ill.) Finished 26th in nation for 1998 ERA (2.78) 98 stats: 4-0, 2.78 ERA, 71 Ks/37 BB, 74.1 IP
Top Players Lost J.J. Brock (Sr., SS, 6-0/170, Colorado Springs, Colo.) First team all-BIG EAST (1998) Second-year team captain 98 stats: .341, 13 HR, 54 RBI Signed as free agent by Arizona DiamondbacksBrad Lidge (Jr., RHP, 6-3/200, Englewood, Colo.) BIG EAST Conference Pitcher of the Year (1998) 98 stats: 8-2, 4.15 ERA, 93 Ks/39 BB, 85.1 IP First-round draft pick of Houston Astros
Top Newcomers Steve Stanley (Fr., CF, 5-7/150, Upper Arlington, Ohio) Worthington Christian High School 98 stats: .489, 46-47 SB; career: 124-129 SB Drew Duff (RHP, 5-11/170, Sevierville, Tenn.) Sevier County HS 98 stats: 3-4, 2 saves, 1.73, 52 Ks/8 BB, 22 IP