Feb. 15, 2004

The Notre Dame baseball team is nearing its final preseason workouts before embarking on the promising 2004 season. In just three days, the Irish will be checking into their team hotel in Marina del Rey and then will enjoy a full outdoor practice on Thursday, Feb. 19, before opening the season versus San Diego State at the USC Classic on Friday the 20th (2:00 p.m. PST).

Here’s a third and final installment of practice report comments from the Notre Dame coaching staff. Irish baseball fans who are checking in to und.com for the first time in recent weeks are invited to enjoy a variety of preseason offerings already posted on the site, including previous practice reports and several features on current players and former ND baseball greats (just click on the “News” button on the baseball page at und.com or click on the “Countdown To Opening Day” headline for daily links to releases dating back to Jan. 1).


Head Coach Paul Mainieri

“I feel like a light switch went on with the team during the last few days and I feel very confident. We feel very ready and know who we’re going to play with, we know what we’ve got.

“We have settled on a starting pitcher rotation for the USC Classic. Junior righthander Chris Niesel will get the ball for the opener vs. San Diego State, followed by sophomore lefthander Tom Thornton vs. USC and freshman righthander Derik Olvey vs. Louisville.

“We likely will face a righthander versus San Diego State and we anticipate having the following lineup for opening day: senior Steve Sollmann at second base and in the leadoff spot; freshman Danny Dressman as the centerfielder and 2-hole hitter; junior Matt Edwards at first base and in the 3-hole; senior catcher Javi Sanchez as out cleanup batter; sophomore Cody Rizzo in right field and in the 5-hole; sophomore Steve Andres as out lefthanded DH, batting 6th; junior Matt Macri now at third base and in the 7-spot; and sophomore Greg Lopez at shortstop and the 8-hole. The final spot will be our leftfielder and likely will be on of three sophomores, Brennan Grogan, Craig Cooper or Matt Bransfield.

“The hitters timing is getting better and we’re very pleased with the way the pitchers have been throwing. Almost every guy went out and threw his best outing of the winter workouts during this last week of practice.

“We’ve also done a lot of situational work with the infielders, with coaches hitting fungos and pitchers on the mound. Having an outstanding defensive team goes right in line with your pitching, in terms of holding the opponent down.

“Cody Rizzo was swinging very well this week, as was Matt Edwards, and Danny Dress man had a good winter since coming back from the break.

“The outfield still has some uncertainties and I’d prefer to have three clear starters. Rizzo clearly is one of the three, in large part because he took advantage of his opportunities last year and elevated himself. Even when he’s not hitting, he is making great defensive players or getting hit by a pitch to get on base or running the bases aggressively.

“Last season we had other freshman outfielders in Cooper, Grogan and (Alex) Nettey who did not perform enough on a consistent basis. And now you add Bransfield and Dressman to the mix, so there is a bit of a logjam. Bransfield will need to provide the long ball and Cooper needs to make consistent contact. Grogan has come on as of late and needs continue getting better hitting to the opposite field and in his general baserunning and defense. We will use different players in left field until one separates himself.

“These last few days have included various team meetings, going over the itinerary, team rules, what we do in the dugouts during games – so we can be as ready as we can be. After the games, our next practices will focus more on things we need to work on, as revealed in the games.

“The players are anxious. We have a long trip, actually connecting through Atlanta, and will get in late on Wednesday night with an early practice the next day. But the team is so anxious they’ll be ready to go.

“We will be facing three great ballclubs next weekend. USC has such a rich tradition and it will be an honor to play in their ballpark, named after the legendary Rod Dedeaux. San Diego State has a lot of talent and of course they are coached by a future Major League hall of famer in Tony Gwynn.

“Lelo Prado, the coach at Louisville, used to be the coach of the U.S. National Team several years ago and I used to coach against him when I was at St. Thomas and he was at Tampa. His brother-in-law is Tino Martinez, who played at Tampa.

“One thing I’ve learned over the years is that it’s good to go out a day early for your first trip and have a practice outside the day before the first game. It can make an enormous difference because your instincts come back and you see the ball better and have better judgment making plays on the ball.

“Notre Dame puts a great emphasis on the scholastic pursuits of its student-athletes and we are only able to miss six class days all season. But we feel it’s imperative to spend one of those days for this practice day prior to the first game. It’s that important.

“Since we added the indoor facility at Eck Stadium a few years ago, to go along with the Loftus Center, it has made a huge difference in the preparation of our pitchers. They are able to throw strikes more consistently during the preseason and a lot of that has to do with being able to throw off clay mounds while wearing their normal cleats. We will not extend any of the pitchers this weekend. It’s always been our approach to limit their pitch counts early in the season.

“You find yourself being thankful for small treasures. We place great value on this day of outdoor practice but San Diego State already will have played 14 official games, plus an alumni game and intrasquad scrimmages. But we’re excited to see this team get out there and perform.”

Assistant Coach David Grewe

“We have been progressing great and the team is very sharp at this point. The infield and outfield workouts have been exceptional and we are 100 percent ready to head for California on Wednesday and have a great simulated scrimmage on Thursday before starting the season the next day.

“The hitters have done a phenomenal job and guys have really stepped it up this past week. There has been a lot of intensity and it will carry over to next weekend.

“I have a lot of experience as a player and coach in the Midwest and there always is a challenge you face in that first week outside. The whole key is to play within ourselves and do what we are good at doing. One of the big things is to go out and play good defense, because we are a very good defensive team. We need the pitchers to serve up a log of ground balls and our guys to make the plays.

“Many people don’t realize that we were in position to win both of those games at Arizona State in the first week last season. It all comes down to making the routine plays, being ready on every play and being mentally tough to bounce back from a mistake and make the next play. We will need to play good defense behind some young pitchers.

“Good defense is all about every guy being an excellent player and a good teammate is one who picks up the other guy when he makes a mistake. We are a good defensive team because we have good players at each position. In the infield alone, we have high school shortstops at three positions and one of the nation’s best defensive second basemen.

“We are looking to start Javi Sanchez as the cleanup hitter because he is such a clutch player, an experienced leader and true ‘gamer.’ He can get the big hits with guys on base and will have a great hitter in front of him, in Matt Edwards. When Javi stays simple as a hitter, he is a clutch performer. He is a situational cleanup hitter and we don’t expect him to provide the power of a player like Edwards.

“In the last month, Danny Dressman has shown a great approach and ability by coming to practice and performing at a high level. As coaches, we make our decisions on how the payers compete and Danny has competed extremely hard. He has the ability to put the barrel of the bat on the ball and hit linedrives while doing so many other situational things. No one attribute stands out with him but he is competitive at the plate and will battle you. It will be a challenge bating in the 2-hole but he has some great veterans around him and will follow their lead. He just has top take responsibility and know that he’s in the lineup to have good at-bats and hit linedrives. That’s what we expect from him and it will be fun to see how he does.

“The outfield is an ongoing evaluation and we won’t know who will be in certain roles until their game performance determines that. They all will be given a shot, in the outfield and some at DH, and we’ll go and see how it happens.

“The practice day outside will be absolutely crucial. We will have infield and outfield, batting practice and then a scrimmage and then will have the pregame on Friday before the first game. It makes a big difference having that day of practice.

Assistant Coach Terry Rooney

“We expect to use quite a few pitchers this weekend. Our number-one priority is to win games while using our pitching staff wisely. We also want to get guys some innings. We have a lot of young and inexperienced pitchers but we are very pleased with where the staff is at this point. The starting pitchers have raised their pitch counts and the relievers have bounced back to pitch two or three times in a week. One of our goals every week will be to throw as many strikes as possible and not give away too many free passes.

“Chris Niesel had a very productive preseason since the break and is back to his great form of last season. He commands the strike zone with all of his pitches and you always know what you’re going to get when Chris is on the mound. He has great command and that bulldog mentality.

“Tom Thornton and Derik Olvey have continued to make strides since the end of fall ball. They have great command of their pitches and have turned in several good outings the past few weeks.

“We have a lot of confidence in Tom and he has a lot of confidence in himself, coming off a great summer and a strong preseason leading up to his sophomore season. He threw a lot of innings last year but has an elevated role in 2004 and it’s well-deserved. He’s able to throw three pitches for strikes and is a very smart pitcher with a good feel for the game.

“Derik is a very advanced pitcher for a freshman – he’s mature beyond his years. And the main reason for that is his great command of his pitches. We want our starters to make pitch-to-pitch adjustments and Derik can do that. He played for a tremendous summer program the Bama Bombers, and faced a high level of competition with that team. This weekend, Derik will be able to see two games and get a feel for the pace of the college game. He will help keep the charts and will get to see all the things we’ve talked about. He will see the reality of it and will see what he needs to do to be successful.

“We have considered using (senior lefthander) Joe Thaman as a starter but one of the biggest roles on the staff is what I call the ‘go-to’ or ‘jam’ pitcher. It’s a guy who can come in between the 6th and 9th inning and he’s the most critical piece in the pitching puzzle. He can keep you in it by throwing strikes, getting ground balls and controlling the running game. And we feel that can do a great job in that role for us. He has never pitched an inning of an official college game but he has a lot of experience in the college game and has the composure to deal with a lot of situations.

“(Sophomore righthander) Grant Johnson is coming along great in the final stages of his rehab. He is where we expected him to be at this point and we would like to use him out of the bullpen this weekend. We’re not sure what game he will pitch but we want to get him some innings. We look forward to his continued development and just want to take it slow with him.

“We have a freshman pitcher on the team who also plays football and I know there is some curiosity out there about Jeff Samardzija. He is on the travel squad for this first weekend, after a tremendous last four weeks of practice. Jeff is a great athlete and is able to make adjustments and learn quickly. He is like a sponge and really has grasped our pitching philosophy, It’s been a while since he pitched but we want to put him in some game situations. He has some good ability with his offspeed pitches and his velocity is coming along. He’s the type of pitcher that just will keep getting better and better.

“I’ve been very impressed with how coach Mainieri has the indoor workouts down to such a science. He’s able to maximize everything we do. From a pitching standpoint, we’ve been able to practice with umpires and the pitchers have been able to get a good idea of the strike zone. One of the real positives of these indoor workouts is that we can spread them out and spend more time working with the guys on an individual basis. We feel it’s imperative to get feedback from the players and instill as much confidence in them as we can.”