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Freshmen Making the Grade

May 13, 1999

By Pete LaFleur

As the Notre Dame baseball program nears the end of its regular season, the Irish can look back on a campaign full of exciting finishes and clutch performances from a variety of players. Most notably, several members of the junior class have turned in the best seasons of their career while the 12-member freshman class has made a strong impact on the 1999 team’s success.

Three of those players-centerfielder Steve Stanley, catcher Paul O’Toole and third baseman Andrew Bushey-have been full-time starters at challenging positions. Other rookies, such as Matt Strickroth, Ed Golom and Ed Meyer, have answered the call in recent weeks with several timely hits.

While the freshman pitchers have struggled to match the success of their offensive counterparts, recent history shows that Irish pitchers have taken longer to adjust to Division I baseball. Eventual 1998 first-round draft pick Brad Lidge tossed just 12 innings with a 5.40 ERA as a rookie in 1996. And two of the 1999 team’s top pitchers-starter Scott Cavey and closer John Corbin-have become major contributors after uneventful freshman seasons.

But when the discussion turns to the current Irish freshman class, the trio of Ohio natives-Stanley, O’Toole and Bushey-form a strong foundation for the future of Notre Dame baseball.

As the Irish leadoff hitter, Stanley has set the tone for Notre Dame’s aggressive style of play in 1999.

Steve Stanley

“Our ability to steal bases has made a major difference this season,” said fifth-year Irish head coach Paul Mainieri, whose squad has boosted its stolen base total from 61 in 1998 to 76 in ’99 while dropping its sacrifice bunt total from 31 to 16. “Last year we most often bunted the runner over. It makes a big difference when you can advance the runner without sacrificing any outs.”

Stanley’s season had a bumpy start, when he failed to collect a hit in the team’s first five games.

“I’ve never gone 0-for-17 in my life-I think 0-for-8 had been my biggest slump,” says Stanley. “It was a very tough time. I was not hitting the ball well and had a lot of strikeouts. But it was part of a learning experience.”

The turning point for Stanley came in the eight-game spring trip to San Antonio, even though he managed his first hit the previous week in New Orleans. His slump resumed with the first game in Texas, when Stanley went 0-for-5 and popped up with a runner on second in the late innings of a 6-5 loss to Penn State. “After we lost that game, I knew I had let the team down and I told my dad that I didn’t know if I belonged at this level.”

But Stanley’s father Mike, a former college football coach and Steve’s youth baseball coach for five years, set his son straight. “My dad was just so true with me-he didn’t sugarcoat it. He just told me, ‘I can’t believe you’re second-guessing yourself. Just go out and play. If it doesn’t happen in one game, it doesn’t happen.’ My dad’s confidence in me helped me find confidence in myself.”

Stanley ended up batting 11-for-22 in the final six games of the Texas trip, earning a spot on the Irish Baseball Classic all-tournament team. He has collected hits in 36 of the last 42 games (highlighted by a 12-game hitting streak) while rising to fourth on the team batting charts with a .347 overall average.

Stanley’s entire season has provided several lessons. “I’ve focused on hitting the ball hard and on the ground. That’s why you don’t see me hitting as many extra-base hits as you would expect,” says Stanley, who has just four doubles and one triple. “That type of approach has helped remind me what kind of player I am. If I get a single and steal a base, it’s the same as a double.

“I’ve also learned that you can’t just steal bases-it has to be an art,” he adds. “I could get away with more in high school.”

Stanley’s offense-not to mention his range and diving catches-wrecks havoc on the opposition. The combination of his often unstoppable bunting and speed on the bases have helped make Stanley a top contender for BIG EAST rookie of the year.

Mike Stanley played a major part in the development of his son’s bunting ability. The younger Stanley began perfecting his craft at the tender age of 10 but eventually felt ashamed of the near-automatic trip to first base.

“I could bunt down the third-base line most of the time. It started to feel like it wasn’t a hit and I felt like I was cheating,” recalls Stanley, whose bunting with the Irish has included several classics that have landed between the pitcher and second baseman. “My last two years in high school, I tried to hit for power more. I wanted to get ‘real’ hits.”

Stanley was thrown for a jolt during the summer prior to his senior year, when his father insisted that he rediscover the value of bunting. So, on a dirt diamond somewhere in Memphis, Tenn., Stanley practiced bunting the ball 150 times in succession. The lesson has stayed with him.

“My dad humbled me quite a bit that day. I thought I was doing OK, but he really set me straight,” says Stanley. “I look back on that day-in the middle of nowhere-as the time when I turned the corner as a hitter. I realized how confident and effective I could be at the plate if I used the right approach.”

Bushey’s season has included the misfortune of missing 24 starts due to a midseason knee injury. He returned to action on April 22, only to suffer the agony of a second minor injury. In retrospect, the challenges he faced while not playing were greater than those he has faced between the lines.

“I had never missed any baseball games because of injuries and, at first, I was real down,” recalls Bushey, who credits assistant coach Cory Mee and athletic trainer Mike Bean with helping him through the down time. “Cory talked to me a lot and told me to help the other third basemen. That helped me feel like I was still contributing to the team.”

“The injury also made me appreciate playing so much more. Because of that, I was really down the second time,” he adds. “But Mike Bean really helped me through things. I put all of my trust into Mike and he did a great job helping me with my rehab.”

Like Stanley, Bushey struggled early in the season, mostly in the RBI department. But he was prepared for any result, thanks to advice from one of team’s veteran leaders.

“The week before we went to Florida International for our first series of the season, I got some great advise from Brant Ust,” says Bushey, who has become known for his throwback style of defense and opposite-field linedrives to left-center field.

“Brant told me, ‘Bushey, you could go 0-for-12 or 12-for-12 this week, but it won’t matter. Don’t let this weekend make your season.’ That made me realize how long the college season is and it gave me a good mindset going into the first game.”

Bushey passes much of the credit for the success of the freshman class to the veteran players. “All the credit goes to the older guys, because they had a lot to do with our growth in the fall and the winter. We followed their example and they’re the reason we’ve had such a great season,” he says.

O’Toole has been a mainstay behind the plate, where he has started 43 games while catching over 80 percent of the team’s innings. Such a daily grind goes unnoticed by the intense O’Toole until he steps away from the diamond.

Paul O’Toole

“I won’t notice how I’m feeling until I get back to my dorm,” says O’Toole, who admittingly enjoyed the recent six-day break for finals. “When I’m on the field, I take it very seriously-I actually would be happy catching every game.” O’Toole concedes that he still must focus on harnessing his emotion during certain situations. “I’m still immature as far as college baseball goes,” he says. “The coaches have helped me handle myself better. I’m an aggressive player but there’s times to keep that in check, in the best interest of the team.”

The 1999 season has provided an abundance of experience behind the plate for O’Toole, who caught most of his 25-game season as a high school senior. Amazingly, O’Toole had logged only 70 or so total games at catcher during his entire prep career-including summer-league ball.

“I played all over the place in high school-second base, outfield, every position but pitcher,” says the athletically-gifted O’Toole, who also serves as Stanley’s backup with the Irish in center field. “I’ve caught almost as many innings this season as I had in my previous four years of competitive baseball, so its been a great learning experience.”

O’Toole credits most of his improvement to the guidance of Mee, who played behind the plate during his career as a Notre Dame utility player. “Coach Mee has helped me big time. He is a great instructor but also gives us a binder that is filled with different articles about baseball and the philosophy of catching,” says O’Toole.

“One of the best things about Cory is that he will ask the catchers what we want to work on during a practice and that’s what we will focus on. He’s one of the main reasons I came here because you could see it in his eye how much he loves baseball.”

Some of O’Toole’s most unique contributions are at the plate, where he is hitting .310 with 13 doubles, three triples, four home runs, 45 runs and nine stolen bases while batting in the No. 2 hole when facing righthander pitchers.

“You won’t find many catchers-much less freshman catchers-who are batting second,” says Mainieri. “And you won’t find many who can run like Paul. He adds another dimension to our offense and we don’t miss a beat when the catcher comes up to bat.”