Oct. 11, 2000

by Pete LaFleur

Experience is a tricky thing in competitive sport. Achieving a high level of success often requires a certain amount of experience, yet the process of attaining that experience often can be a painful one.

Such is the case for the Notre Dame baseball program, which took part in a whirlwind NCAA Regional Tournament last spring at Mississippi State. The Irish won a pair of elimination games-including one delayed by a nearby tornado-before dropping a 9-8 title game versus the host Bulldogs to cap a 46-18 season.

“That experience really served to whet the team’s whistle. It gave them a taste of how close they are to getting to the College World Series and making a very strong statement that Notre Dame baseball is here to stay,” said seventh-year Irish head coach Paul Mainieri.

At the end of the 2000 season, the Irish knew they likely would be returning eight regular position players and six regular pitchers. What they didn’t anticipate was returning to school in the fall with three-time All-America pitcher Aaron Heilman still on the roster.

Heilman-whose career includes a 28-7 record, 14 saves, a 2.80 ERA and 314 strikeouts in 280 innings-was the 31st selection of the 2000 Major League Draft but never signed with the Minnesota Twins.

Heilman’s return shifts the rotation, with his classmate Danny Tamayo likely filling the No. 2 spot while surging junior Matt Buchmeier is slotted into the third. Sophomore J.P. Gagne could assume a swingman role, as a No. 4 starter and top middle reliever.

Tamayo-known for his devastating changeup and ability to set up hitters-returned to form last spring after reconstructive elbow surgery, with his 2000 season including a 3-1 record, 3.62 ERA and a three-hit complete game to beat Mississippi State in the NCAAs.

Buchmeier’s sophomore season (4-2, 3.88), was followed by a dominating 2000 summer as a member of the Hays (Kan.) Larks in the Jayhawk League. Gagne made a huge impact as a freshman starter and top reliever in 2000 (7-1, 4.46).

Notre Dame’s chief area of concern is the bullpen, which no longer includes graduated all-time saves leader John Corbin (who also set the season record in 2000 with 11 saves, for 20 in his career).

Top closer contenders include hard-throwing junior Drew Duff (4-2, 5.05 ERA in 2000) and freshman Aaron Edwards, a poised newcomer who may have the best curveball on the staff. Top veteran relievers include senior lefthander Mike Naumann (2-1, 2.48 ERA in 2000) and sophomore Matt Laird (5-2, 3.83).

The probable position players include seven veterans and a pair of freshmen in second baseman Steve Sollmann and first baseman Joe Thaman-a formidable right side of the infield due to their all-around athleticism (Sollmann is the brother of former Irish baseball and football player Scott Sollmann).

Senior shortstop Alec Porzel is the veteran leader and has posted team-best RBI totals each of the past two seasons (58 in 2000, plus a .342 average and nine home runs).

Three lefthanded-hitting juniors embark on their third season as everyday starters. Speedy centerfielder Steve Stanley (.362, 29 stolen bases) again should bat second (in front of Porzel) while hard-nosed catcher Paul O’Toole (.302, eight home runs, 39 RBI) is the emotional leader of the defense. Andrew Bushey (.275, 30 RBI) is one of the top defensive third basemen in the BIG EAST Conference and could boost his offense while also backing up O’Toole at catcher.

Another junior, Ken Meyer (.326, 3 HR, 20 RBI), provided a spark as a leadoff designated hitter in 2000 and also could see time this season at first base.

Aside from Heilman, the team’s most visible player is sophomore rightfielder Brian Stavisky, a 6-3, 230-pound lefthander who earned Freshman All-America honors after batting .298 with a team-best 14 home run and 45 RBI. Stavisky-who is slated to move into the cleanup role-had a standout performance in the nation’s premier summer baseball league, as he joined Stanley and O’Toole as starters in the Cape Cod League All-Star game and earned MVP honors after hitting two home runs in that wooden-bat game.

Sophomore Kris Billmaier (.354, 4 HR, 19 RBI) and junior Matt Bok (.259, 14 RBI) are top contenders to start in left field while junior DH Matt Strickroth, senior utility player Ben Cooke and freshman infielder Javier Sanchez will give the Irish solid depth.

“The bar is set very high and I’m not afraid to say that,” said Mainieri, whose first six Irish squads have extended the program’s string of 40-win seasons to 12.

“We have talent but more importantly we have tremendous competitors with a lot of pride. When you have tough kids with pride like that, you don’t put limits on what they can accomplish.”