Feb. 28, 2001
When the Tampa Bay Devil Rays take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Thursday at Florida Power Park, there will be several highly-touted pro prospects in the visitors dugout-as three Irish players were ranked among the top 50 in Baseball America’s annual list of the nation’s top pro prospects in college baseball.
Tenth-ranked Notre Dame-which also will serve as the host team for this weekend’s Devil Rays College Invitational (March 2-4, at FPP)-has emerged as the highest-ranked college baseball team in the northern half of the United States, with the Irish prospects for 2001 receiving an unexpected boost when ace pitcher Aaron Heilman returned for his senior season instead of signing with the Minnesota Twins as the 31st overall selection in last year’s Major League draft.
Heilman was ranked by BA as the seventh-best prospect in college baseball for 2001 (fourth among pitchers) while Irish sophomore rightfielder Brian Stavisky was 17th on that preseason list and junior Paul O’Toole was 46th (second among full-time catchers). O’Toole is the only player among that threesome likely to play Thursday against the Rays, as Heilman is the probable starter for Friday’s game versus Florida Atlantic (1:00 p.m.) while Stavisky will not play due to a hamstring injury suffered in Alamo Invitational action last weekend in San Antonio (he is doubtful for the three tournament games).
Notre Dame’s 33-man roster includes four Florida natives, led by junior DH Ken Meyer (Fort Myers/Saint Viator HS) and senior righthander Danny Tamayo (Miami/Ransom Everglades HS), the likely starter in Saturday’s game versus South Florida (5:00 p.m.). Freshman third baseman Javier Sanchez is one of the squad’s top reserve infielders and prepped at Christopher Columbus High School-which also is the alma mater of seventh-year Irish head coach Paul Mainieri (the son of hall of famer Demie Mainieri, who won 1,018 games and a national title during his 30-year career at Miami Dade North Community College).
“This four-game stretch poses a tremendous challenge to our team and we are looking to build on our solid start the past two weeks,” said Mainieri, whose squad sports a 5-1 record and is in the midst of spending 13 days on the road during a 17-day stretch (Feb. 16-March 4).
“We appreciate the Devil Rays arranging for this exhibition and helping to organize what should be an exciting college baseball tournament. Fans who come to the games will not be disappointed by the competitiveness and level of play and you could see several of these kids in the big leagues some day.”
The fourth team in the weekend tournament is Western Michigan, which will face the Irish on Sunday at 11:00 a.m. Two games are scheduled on Fri.-Sun., with the Irish playing the early game on each day.
Heilman and Stavisky are considered leading contenders for national player-of-the-year honors in 2001, with Stavisky living up to his preseason hype by earning national player of the week after batting 9-for-13 in the opening weekend (he reached base on 10 straight plate appearances).
Heilman-off to a 2-0 start, with a 1.50 ERA and 14 Ks in 12 innings-has the best career winning percentage at Notre Dame in 77 years (.811, 30-7), with a 2.75 career ERA and 328 Ks in 292 innings pitched. Cited by BA for owning the “best true slider” in college baseball, Heilman also was rated by the magazine for being one of three college pitchers with the “best overall command” of his pitches (he throws four quality pitches for strikes).
Tamayo-who has completed a comeback from March of 1999 “Tommy John” reconstructive elbow surgery-was named the BIG EAST Conference pitcher of the week after posting a career-best 10 strikeouts in a six-inning shutout stint versus Sam Houston State on Feb. 25 (with three hits and one walk allowed).
Florida Atlantic figures to pose the biggest challenge to the 10th-ranked Irish this weekend, despite losing all but one of its everyday starters from a 2000 Owls team that went 43-19 and advanced to the NCAAs. FAU’s top returner is preseason All-America righthander Petersen Benjamin, who posted a 12-1 record in 2000 and is 2-1 with a 1.53 ERA and 32 KS this season (he is the likely starter on Friday vs. the Irish).
The last time Notre Dame played an exhibition game versus a Major League club was March 10, 1993, when the Irish dropped a 10-1 game to the Anaheim Angels at Diablo Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.
Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli is a 1959 Notre Dame graduate and a 23-year resident of the Tampa area. He was presented with an honorary varsity monogram by the Notre Dame National Monogram Club in 1999, in recognition of his contributions to his alma mater and his involvement and leadership with various projects and foundations in the Tampa community.
All four Notre Dame games this week (including the Devil Rays exhibition) will be broadcast live on South Bend-based WJVA radio (1580 AM) and via the internet at www.und.com. Real-time statistics also may be made available via the Notre Dame and FAU websites (www.fausports.com).