Oct. 5, 2003
Note: the following interview with Notre Dame head baseball coach also is available in audio format on und.com, for SportsPass subscribers.
Q: We are here with Paul Mainieri, nearing the end of fall practice and we are going to be speaking about the Notre Dame freshmen and how they are progressing. Why don’t we start behind the plate with Sean Gaston, a catcher from Brownsburg, Indiana.
A: “We are so excited about Sean Gaston because this young guy is going to be one of the outstanding players in Notre Dame baseball history. He is about as good as there is going to college now at that position. It’s very difficult to find good quality catchers out there, even for professional baseball. So when you find quality catchers in high school, so many of them sign out of high school because of the premium even in pro ball. Sean decided to come to Notre Dame and he is a very good receiver, a very good thrower. What really has impressed me is how good he is with the bat. A lot of people had projected Sean, because he is a little slightly built, that he may be overmatched with the bat as he entered into college. I don’t think this is going to be true at all. He’s got a tremendous swing, uses the whole field. He’s not a guy that’s going to hit a lot of home runs but he’s going to hit a lot of balls in the gaps. He’s a very difficult guy to pitch to, batting lefthanded. He reminds me a lot of the catcher for the Cubs, Paul Bako, a lefthanded-hitting catcher with great defensive skills and a very good linedrive swing. He’s going to split the time with Javi Sanchez this year and then we would anticipate that he would move into a full-time role as a sophomore. In the meantime, he is going to make big contributions this year.”
Q: You have two freshmen who could see some time at first base in Chris Vasami and Mike Dury. They may be interchangeable in terms of build but two different players, Dury is a switch hitter and Vasami has shown you something with his defense.
A: “We are really happy with both of those guys. Chris Vasami came to us from Mamaroneck, New York, as a two-way player and he really has impressed on the mound. He has a nice little slider and has a bulldog mentality on the mound, he goes right after hitters and throws the ball up to 90 miles an hour. So he’s going to help us and get some innings. He’s also very nimble around the bag for a young man who weighs close to 250 pounds. He really has great agility over there and has made some highlight-reel plays around the base, diving for balls and picking balls in the dirt. He’s gotten off to a little bit of a slow start with the bat. We expected that he would come in and put up some power numbers right away but many freshmen come to college and face a higher quality of pitching and we have one of the best pitching staffs in the country. He’s been in a little bit of funk with his swing and I would assume that coach (David) Grewe and he are going to do a lot of hard work together and straighten that out and when he does he is going to swing the bat very consistently and provide some real sock for us.
“Mike Dury has really been a pleasant surprise. It’s hard to say that a guy who was the athlete of the year in the city of Indianapolis would be a surprise but Mike really has played this fall. He is a switch hitter, personally I think he is a better hitter lefthanded, he’s got a more natural swing which is OK because we have a need for lefthanded hitting on our team right now. He had one game where he hit three doubles, smoked three balls, and he’s hit a home run, righthanded actually. He handles himself OK around the bag at first base, needs a little work on ground balls. But he and Chris Vasami are going to be a good tandem for us as the future unfolds.”
Q: You have had a history in the past few years, you look at Steve Sollmann who was the Cincinnati tri-state area athlete of the year. Even someone who is kind of emerging for you right now, Matt Bransfield, was a tremendous high school quarterback who kept plugging away for you last year and now is sparking it. And now you have someone like Dury has come in and is doing well. Do you think there’s some correlation there between a kid who has been involved in a lot of sports and been successful and he’s ready to make that jump right away? Where that’s kind of an extra bonus that he has in his reserve in terms of his mental makeup?
A: “That’s a good point. We like to recruit good athletes, especially guys who have been in the fire in big-time programs or who have played football and so forth. Look at Matt Macri who was the quarterback of the state championship team. His career in a lot of way paralleled what Mike Dury did. Mike was the quarterback for the state championship football team and then he played center on the state championship basketball team and obviously was good enough to be recruited in baseball. Steve Sollmann had a similar career as you mentioned. I think we have five or six high school quarterbacks on our team which tells you something about the leadership of those kids and their athletic ability. So it’s no coincidence and no accident that we recruit so many kids who are good athletes in other sports.”
Q: Moving on to second base, you have a player Chris Fournier from Fairfield, Connecticut. Obviously, the backup to Steve Sollmann but certainly the future for Notre Dame at second base. He really has shown some ability with the bat in his senior year and here in the fall. You have sort of a different situation because when Sollmann came in you were moving him from the outfield to second base and now you’ve got a kid who has some experience as an infielder. You have to be excited to have a player like that backing up Sollmann.
A: “You hate to say that the Connecticut state player of the year is a surprise to you … I knew he was a good hitter. I didn’t realize he was as good a hitter as he has shown. He is going to be in the mix. … This kid has a beautiful swing. He reminds me of Paul Molitor when he hits, with the same kind of swing. It’s a quiet swing and it’s a pretty swing and you don’t often say that about righthanded hitters. His swing looks a little bit like Jeff Wagner’s. Irish fans will remember Jeff, our all-time home run leader. Of course Jeff was a much bigger person with more power but Chris has a beautiful swing and has hit all the pitchers on our staff. He seems to be very fearless and has a lot of confidence in himself so he’s going to be in the mix for some at-bats as a DH or maybe even in the outfield. He was a shortstop in high school and we have moved him to second. He has good hands but does still have a lot of work to do on things like his double-play pivot, is range and throwing. But he’s a hard-working kid and nobody hustles as much as he does. My anticipation is that he is going to continue to improve and hopefully next year will be ready to play in the infield on a regular basis.”
Q: Last season you ended up doing some platooning at times at certain positions and the only everyday player you lost was Kris Billmaier. Assuming that everyone improves and comes back healthy and with the infusion of these freshmen, it’s going to be hard filling out that travel list and the lineup card. You have to be excited about the depth that these newcomers are creating for you, along with the return of Steve Sollmann for his senior year.
A: “That’s a great point. This is unique for us. We have more depth from a position player standpoint than we’ve ever had and it was kind of by accident. We had anticipated that we were going to lose Matt Macri and Steve Sollmann to the draft. We always have taken pride in not over-recruiting. We try to recruit to our needs and have just enough depth that allows for good healthy competition. This year we probably have a couple players too many but it is a good problem to have once in a while. We do have a lot of options. Our competition in the games this fall is at least equal to the games that we face in the BIG EAST Conference. We have had more one-run games this fall than we’ve ever had so it’s been great competition and it’s healthy for the players because they know that can’t let up and need to develop consistency. At the end of the first week of fall practice, I told the players that every position player had done something good this week. So how would they separate themselves from the pack? It comes down to consistency and how many things you do well and how well you deal with adversity. And the battle for these starting jobs is still pretty furious.
Q: Certainly one of the most intriguing areas is in the entire outfield. You have a lot of players back with experience out there and you’ve added a young man in Danny Dressman We were talking about targeting a team’s needs and you wanted to have a dependable player in center field and some of the returning players are options there. But tell us about Dressman, a kid from the west coast, some may not know much about him out of San Jose. He excited you in the recruiting process and it has just continued this fall.
A: “This is a kid that came in under the radar screen and he’s a real sleeper for us. I am excited about Danny Dressman as any freshman that we have because of the need and what we have. Last year after experimenting with a lot of different guys and Kris Billmaier did a pretty fantastic job for us in center field but certainly he was no Steve Stanley. He was a steady, experienced outfielder who if he got to the ball he was going to catch it and didn’t hurt us. What we were lacking was the highlight-reel catch that we had become so accustomed to with Steve for the previous four years. It was unbelievable at our summer camp this young man showed up and I had to rub my eyes because I saw a kid that reminded me so much of Steve Stanley in his mannerisms and his build and the fact that he’s a lefthanded thrower and lefthanded hitter. I hoped that he had some of the similar abilities and he has shown that. He has a swing that is very similar to Steve’s and as speed maybe just a notch below Steve’s. He goes and catches the ball in the outfield. I’m not trying to put him in the same category just yet. … When Danny shows that same kind of passion, courageousness and ‘clutchness’ in the games than he may be anointed as our starting centerfielder. In the meantime, he’s in the mix competing for a staring job.
Q: Granted, you lost some important guys on the mound … but you still had huge chunk returning on the mound and yet you’ve added some tremendous freshman arms. If you could speak about them.
A: “When people think about Notre Dame baseball they think of our pitching staff … and yet, this has been the biggest concern that I have had going into this year is with our pitching staff because the guys that we lost, you can’t underestimate their importance. Particularly a guy like J.P. Gagne who was so valuable to our team the last two years. But we feel that brought in some real quality in our arms and the fact that we’ve got Grant Johnson coming back from an injury. It’s almost seems as though he’s a new player for us too. If Grant can step in and regain his old form, you feel like you’ve replaced Ryan Kalita. But that still leaves four other senior pitchers that we have to replace. But the key is going to be our bullpen, no question. We recruited five freshmen pitchers that we are really excited about.
“Jeff Manship was a really highly-touted guy coming out of Texas. He was not drafted until 50th round which was only because of the signability issues. He really had the ability to be a late first-round pick put his strong commitment to come to Notre Dame dropped him all the way to the 50th round so that teams wouldn’t feel that they wasted a pick on him. He is going to be tremendous. Because he pitched so much last spring and summer, we’ve decided to shut him down this fall and let him rest so that he can be at full strength when we begin workouts for the spring season. … He pitched with the Junior National Team in Curacao and struck out 15 batters in a seven-inning stint. So he’s a really dominating kind of guy.
“Derik Olvey is another guy that we are really excited about. There was a chance we might lose him to the draft. He was a 13th-round draft choice of the L.A. Dodgers but he decided to come to school and boy are we happy that he did. He’s a real competitor on that mound, he throws hard and has a good curveball. He’s really going to develop into something.”
Q: And it shows the wide reach of Notre Dame that you plucked a kid out of Alabama. In SEC country, there obviously are plenty of good baseball options there and yet he has decided to come to Notre Dame. Is that something that you take great pride in, you look at this freshman class and they are from all over the place.
A: “That’s the way it is at Notre Dame. We have about 25 states represented on our roster. Derik Olvey really liked that challenge and the thought of being one of the rare kids from Alabama to come to Notre Dame. He told me that if had signed with someone else he probably would have gone into pro ball.
“We signed a player out of Michigan, Dan Kapala, in a lot of ways he reminds you of Aaron Heilman. He has the same kind of delivery, same arm slot and a very similar body type. He was the man for his high school and took them to the state championship game. He is used to pitching in big games. What he needs to do is get a little bit better control and command and once he does he is going to be really something because he’s go electric stuff.”
Q: And Kapala really generated some interest from the pro scouts late in his senior year because of his projectability as a prospect, with the Mariners drafting him.
A: “He considered it right until the very end but ultimately the thought of going to college and having the experience of being in college at Notre Dame and being part of our baseball program, it outweighed option of going into pro ball. I think it was the right thing for him. He needs the development time and needs to get that education. I think in a couple of years this kid is going to be a top draft choice.
“And then Jess Stewart, again you should not say that any of these guys is a surprise. But I wasn’t sure how polished Jess Stewart was, I knew he was a big kid with a good arm and a decent curveball. But I think he is really going to help us right away. He’s got a great boring fastball that he throws in on righthanded hitters and tails down and in. A lot of our hitters come out of these fall games saying they hate facing Jess more than anybody because that fastball just starts out at the middle of the plate and runs in on their hands. And he throws hard, has a good curveball to go with it and has a decent changeup. He’s a kid that really is going to continue to blossom.”
Q: And he was part of those USA Baseball tryouts in Joplin, along with Manship and Vasami. And tell us about your spring signee Matt Whittington, son of one of your old friends Mike Whittington, a former Irish linebacker. Adding a quality lefthanded arm rounds out this staff for you.
A: “Matt is a youngster where control is going to have to be his forte. He’s not an overpowering guy, throws fastball, curveball, changeup. He’s going to have to have pinpoint control. Some days this fall, he has shown it and some days he hasn’t. As he continues to improve that control, his opportunity to pitch will come more often also.”
Q: And then finally there is the possibility with Jeff Samardzija the football player, a local kid from Valparaiso. If you could speak to the potentiality of him joining the team as well, sort of a bonus addition to an already deep team.
A: “We weren’t involved in the recruiting of Jeff into school, that was all done by the football program. In some cases through the years, baseball also has contributed. And yet Jeff has been one of the most determined football players that we’ve encountered in terms of wanting to play baseball. Once he already had already signed with the football program last February, he contacted us about wanting to play baseball. I went to talk to Tyrone Willingham about it and he is totally supportive of it and thinks he can really help us. Last year’s pitching coach Brian O’Connor saw Jeff pitch in a game and Brian came back really impressed. He thought Jeff had a real high ceiling as a pitcher. We are going to have to work out the specifics of that. Jeff obviously is a great athlete, in fact he was an all-state centerfielder. We are going to work out the details when we come back in January. We will have him in the workouts indoors and see where he’s at and how he compares with the rest of the pitchers. We may get him some work and then let him go back to spring football and then he would rejoin the team after spring football. Hopefully, he can help us down the line.”
Q: Some people may not realize that coach Willingham back in his undergraduate days did play football and baseball at Michigan State. So he understands the challenge that faces Jeff and obviously thinks that it’s an opportunity for him if it works within the framework. And coach Willingham even was out to watch some of the Irish baseball games this year. You have to be positive about being able to work in concert with the other coaches.
A: “They had a lot of experience with two-sport players out at Stanford. They had guys like Joe Borchard and Chad Hutchinson, two of their quarterbacks who ended up being high draft choices in baseball as well as other guys. So they are used to it. But I think that it’s wonderful that the coaches in the various sports would cooperate with each other to do what’s best for the kids. Jeff came here primarily to play football. If he can help baseball, that will be a little icing on the cake.”
Q: Thank you coach and we look forward to visiting with you in the future and talking about the rest of the team and best of luck in the Blue-Gold Series.