Jan. 17, 2004
By Pete LaFleur
The Notre Dame baseball team’s countdown to opening day has dipped under five weeks (less than three weeks to the preseason dinner featuring lifelong baseball fan John Grisham), with voluntary workouts underway at Eck Stadium. Leaders for the 2004 campaign will include the tri-captains: senior second baseman Steve Sollmann (Cincinnati, Ohio), senior catcher Javi Sanchez (Miami, Fla.) and junior righthander Chris Niesel (Plantation, Fla.).
Sollmann – who pulled off the rare double of All-America and Academic All-America honors in 2003 – becomes the fourth multiple-year captain (also ’03) in the 10-year Paul Mainieri era at Notre Dame, and just the 11th in the program’s 112-year history. Just seven previous ND players since the turn of the century have been multiple-year captains, six doing so since the World war II era and five since the late 1970s. Other recent multiple-year captains include third baseman Andrew Bushey (’01-’02), righthander Aaron Heilman (’00-’01), catcher Bob Lisanti (a three-year captain from ’94-’96, including Mainieri’s first season) and first baseman Joe Binkiewicz (’91-’92). Former shortstop and current Monogram Club board member Rick Pullano was the ’78 and ’79 team captain, as was catcher Tom Sheehan during the war years of 1944 and ’46. The early days of the program featured three two-year captains: catcher Michael Powers (1897, ’98) and first basemen Angus McDonald (1899, 1900) and Anton Stephen (1903, ’04).
Sanchez is the 15th catcher in the program’s history to serve as captain, joining Lisanti (’94, ’95, ’96) and Jeff Wagner (’99) as the third in the Mainieri era. Only one other catcher – Ed Lund (’90) – has captained the Irish in the last 24 seasons while Dan Voellinger (’80) joins the above as one of five since Jake Kline’s 42-year coaching career ended in 1975. The Kline era included eight catcher captains: Bob Roemer (’73), Ed Wojcik (’60), All-American Elmer Kohorst (’57), Sheehan (’44, ’46), Bernie Crimmins (’42), Frank Gaul (’36) and Lawrence O’Neil (’34). The pre-Kline days saw Joe Lordi (’30), Jerome Blievernich (’22) and Powers (1897, ’98) serve as catcher captains. Five others whose multiple positions included time behind the plate – Bushey (2001, ’02), Matt Nussbaum (2000), Cory Mee (1992), Richard “Red” Smith (1927) and Oscar Schmidt (1895, in program’s third season) – also have served as ND baseball captains.
Chris Niesel follows in the footsteps of fellow All-American Aaron Heilman as just the second non-senior pitcher ever to serve as a captain with the Notre Dame baseball program.
Niesel (coming off an All-America season in ’03) is just the fifth pitcher in the last 27 seasons (since Bob Stratta in 1976) to serve as an Irish baseball captain, with others including Craig Allen (’96), Alex Shilliday (’99), Heilman (’00, ’01) and J.P. Gagne (’03). He follows Sollmann as just the fourth junior in the last 10 seasons to serve as an ND baseball captain, with other juniors who recently have served as ND captains including Bushey, Heilman, shortstop Brant Ust (’99), Lisanti and Binkiewicz. Niesel and Heilman are believed to be the only junior pitchers ever to serve as captains for the Notre Dame baseball program.
Here’s a closer look at the 2004 captains and each of their inspiring stories:
Sollmann elected to return for his senior despite having the opportunity to begin his professional career as a member of the Oakland Athletics organization. The 1-2-3 players in the batting order of Notre Dame’s 2002 College World Series team each have been drafted by the A’s (outfielders Stave Stanley and Brian Stavisky signed with Oakland after the ’02 season), with Sollmann picked in the 32nd round of the ’03 draft.
The dilemma was not a new one for a player named Sollmann at Notre Dame. Steve’s older brother Scott, who starred as a speedy centerfielder for the Irish, signed after his junior season (’96) as a seventh-round pick of the Detroit Tigers. He played several pro seasons with a number of organizations, never rising above double-A, before becoming one of several former ND players who have gone on to law school (currently at Northern Kentucky University, near his native Cincinnati).
“I couldn’t be any happier with my decision to come back for my senior season – I’m more excited about this team than any I’ve played on,” says the younger Sollmann.
“I did talk to my brother about my situation and he had some good advice. I just let it all play out. Right now, I’m living off-campus with some of my teammates and I can’t imagine what it would be like to not experience this final season with the Notre Dame baseball. I know that I made the right choice.”
A comparative look at the careers of the Sollmann brothers yields some strikingly similar numbers. Both appeared in 181 games and started 179 during their first three seasons with the Irish, with Scott motoring around for 187 runs (8th in ND history) while Steve owns 172 career runs (11th). Scott ranks fourth in the ND record book with a .372 career batting average, with Steve not far behind in fifth at .370. The lefthanded-hitting Scott was known more for bunt hits, stealing bases (set ND record with 101, later bested by Stanley) and legging out triples (ND record 24) while his .522 career on-base pct. remains second in Irish baseball history (Steve’s .433 on-base is 16 points shy of the ND top 10). The younger Sollmann brother – already fifth on the ND stolen base list (67) – holds the brotherly edge in slugging pct. (.498-.484), home runs (11-3) and doubles (33-15, plus 11 triples), in addition to being a bigger run producer than his big brother (123 RBI, to 84).
One thing that is evidently clear: the Sollmann’s are the best brother combination ever to play for the Irish baseball program (and one of the best in any ND sport). Their combined career stats include a .371 batting avg., 494 hits (255 for Steve, good for 8th in ND history, and 239 for Scott, in 362 combined games), 359 runs scored, 207 RBI, 168 stolen bases, 48 doubles, 35 triples and 14 home runs.
And when asked who is the best athlete in the family, Steve typically provides the most diplomatic answer – “Definitely my sister,” in reference to Stacey Sollmann, a former soccer player at West Virginia.
Steve Sollmann ranks fifth in the Irish record book with a .370 career batting average, just behind the .372 posted by his brother Scott during his Notre Dame career (’94-’96).
The current Sollmann brother joined Gagne as co-MVPs of the 2003 squad, when he made the move into Stanley’s vacated leadoff spot and became the sixth ND player ever to receive three-plus all-BIG EAST Conference honors (2nd team in ’03). His 38 stolen bases in ’03 ranked seventh in the nation and he finished ’03 as the BIG EAST overall leader in hits (98; 4th in ND history), runs (67) and total bases (136), also ranking second among BIG EAST players in triples (5) and seventh in batting (.384; 27th in ND history). He also finished second on the ’03 Irish in doubles (16), slugging (.533), on-base (.438) and walks (25, with just 23 strikeouts), and third in home runs (4) and RBI (40).
Sollmann – who joined 1964 shortstop Rich Gonski as the program’s only middle infielders to be named All-America – totaled just eight errors (.974 fielding pct.) as a key member of the ’03 defense that set the ND record for season fielding (.970; 21st in nation), adding a team-best .550 leadoff on-base pct. and grounding into just two double plays. His season-ending 13-game hitting streak included a 10-for-17 showing at the NCAA Fullerton Regional.
Sollmann’s postseason honors included second team Academic All-America (as selected by the College Sports Information Director’s of America), with Sollmann carrying a 3.38 cumulative GPA into his final semester after posting a 3.75 in the 2003 fall term (he is on pace to graduate with a degree in marketing). He also earned second team All-America honors, joining Gagne and Dan Peltier (’89) as the only Irish baseball players to earn All-America and Academic All-America honors (42 all-time ND student-athletes have done so).
To say that Sollmann has made a name for himself as a clutch hitter would be an understatement. In 18 career NCAA Tournament games, he has hit a combined .487 (38-for-78) with 21 runs scored, 17 RBI, 5 extra-base hits (HR, 3 3B, 2B), 8-of-10 stolen bases and 7 walks. Only 1994 graduate Matt Haas (.514, 19-for-37) has hit at a better clip in the NCAAs, among Irish players with 20-plus NCAA at-bats. Sollmann’s NCAA highlights include a national player-of-the-week performance in the 2002 NCAA South Bend Regional, with a 6-for-7 game (7 RBI, 6 runs, 2 triples, home run) versus South Alabama that set or tied several Notre Dame and NCAA Tournament records.
Despite such gaudy numbers, Sollmann remains somewhat of an unsung hero. Many fans vividly remember the ninth-inning comeback that beat Rice at the 2002 College World Series, with the clearest images including Stanley chugging around the bases for a one-out triple and Stavisky delivering the game-ending home run two batters later. … But it was Sollmann who was wedged in between those batters, reaching out on a first-pitch offering from ace lefthanded closer Justin Crowder. The low linedrive skipped past the second-base bag and Stanley raced home for the tying run (3-3).
“That moment is a microcosm of Steve Sollmann’s great career here at Notre Dame,” says Mainieri, now in his 22nd season as a college head coach. “He does so many of the little things that the casual fan may not truly appreciate. I don’t think I’ve ever coached a player who hits to the opposite field as well as Steve. And that makes him a tougher two-strike hitter and a tougher out- he does not have a weakness that a pitcher can exploit.
“Steve has that compact, level swing that allows him to hit a lot of pitchers. He’s also s a great bunter, can drive the ball out of the park and is a tremendous baserunner. A lot of what makes a great base-stealer is attitude and Steve is a smart and fearless player who gets a great jump. Defensively, he has developed into one of the best second basemen in the nation. When you combine all that with his invaluable leadership skills and love for the program – you have a very special player.”
Sollmann did receive one prestigious honor at Notre Dame’s 2003 All-Sports Banquet, when he was presented with the Francis Patrick O’Connor Award. The award, given to one male and one female student-athlete, recognizes those who most embody qualities such as team spirit, inspiration and courage.
Prior to their college success, the Sollmann brothers ranked as two of the top all-around athletes ever to come out of the talent-laden Cincinnati area. In fact, Steve received the Buddy LaRosa Male Athlete of the Year award for the Cincinnati tri-state area, in recognition for his three-sport exploits with St. Xavier High School: school football career records for rushing yards (nearly 4,000) and touchdowns (60, besting Scott’s 58); averaging 10 points per game while shooting 42% from three-point range as the point guard for the ’99-’00 basketball team that beat Cleveland Bedford in the state-title team (current Irish player Jordan Cornette also was part of that St. Xavier team); and batting .427 as an all-state performer for the nation’s 12th-rated baseball team. He also received the Cincinnati area’s “That’s My Boy Award” in recognition of all-around student-athlete excellence.
Steve Sollmann’s emergence as a top-rated defensive second baseman is all the more noteworthy when considering he was an all-state centerfielder as a prep.
Many Notre Dame fans are surprised when they learn that Sollmann actually was (like his brother) a centerfielder during his prep baseball days. His arrival at Notre Dame overlapped with the third season for Stanley, who went on to start every game of his ND career in center field. Mainieri had a history of converting middle infielders into outfielders (most notably Randall Brooks, Allen Greene and Alec Porzel) but he opted for the reverse approach with Sollmann, in a move rarely seen on the big-league level (with players such as former L.A. Dodger Bill Russell and Chad Myers with the Cubs).
“That first year I did not know what I was doing for the first 20 games or so but then I got used to it pretty quick,” recalls Sollmann, who was an all-star in the wood-bat Cape Cod League during the summer of ’01, as a member of the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox.
“Alec Porzel helped me a lot with advice and support, he showed a lot of confidence in me. It’s a position with a lot of repetition and you have to pay attention all the time. It’s funny because I’ve almost have forgotten that I used to play center field but whenever I go home people say things like, ‘Wait, so you’re playing second base now at Notre Dame?’ It’s become a big part of my identity as a player.”
Sollmann was rated by Baseball America (Oct. ’03) as the No. 134 overall college prospect for the 2004 Major League draft. He is the 26th senior on that list and third among senior middle infielders, behind UC Davis shortstop Ryan Coultas (93) and Mississippi second baseman Matt Tolbert (114). The 5-11, 190 pounder joined just three other position players – Stanford outfielder Sam Fuld, USC catcher Jeff Clement and Arizona State first baseman/outfielder Jeff Larish – who were named first- or second-team preseason All-Americans by BA, the National College Baseball Writers and Collegiate Baseball magazine. Sollmann and Florida outfielder Ben Harrison were the only seniors among the 45 total players named to the BA preseason All-America team.
Sollmann – who was among the larger group who signed with Notre Dame in the fall of ’99 – unexpectedly came face-to-face with his future teammate Sanchez (a 2000 spring signee) during the summer after their senior years. Sanchez had elected to head north that summer, playing with the Youngstown Astro Falcons in a top Ohio summer league. One of the team’s key series came versus a Midland Redskins team led by a sharp-hitting centerfielder from the Cincinnati area. When that player reached second base, Sanchez was set to make his introduction.
“It caught me by surprise, but Javi just came over and said, ‘Hi, Steve, I’m Javi. I just signed with Notre Dame and we’re going to be teammates with the Fighting Irish.’ It was a classic Javi moment,” recalls Sollmann.
Javi Sanchez’s wild ride through college baseball includes an 0-for-13 freshman season, assuming the starting shortstop role for the ’02 CWS team (after early injuries sidelined two other players) and tackling a new position behind the plate during the past two seasons.
Nearly four years later, the former summer-league rivals have become best of friends, playing alongside each other on the 2002 College World Series team while helping position Notre Dame among the nation’s elite baseball programs. They also are part of six-member senior class who each posted a semester GPA of 3.0-plus during the 2003 fall term, with Sanchez’s 3.0 cumulative GPA including a 3.40 in the fall of ’03 and 3.20 in the fall of ’02 (as a business management major).
Sanchez counts himself among the biggest Steve Sollmann fans. “Steve’s numbers speak for themselves and when he goes up to the plate, you can relax because you know he will get it done,” Sanchez says. “He makes the rest of us more confident and his presence just makes it easier to win the close games.”
The ups and downs of Sanchez’s career could provide valuable lessons for the younger members of the 2004 Irish squad, with many talented players likely having to wait their turn until future seasons. His is a classic story of perseverance and character, of a player who truly has answered the clich? of “helping the team any way I can.”
“Javi has been a leader for this program from day one and always has given it his best for the sake of the team,” says Sollmann. “That’s a tribute to the way he was brought up. I’d go to war with him.”
Notre Dame’s 2001 season typically is viewed as the breakthrough moment for Notre Dame baseball. Led by the dominating senior pitching duo of Heilman and Danny Tamayo, alongside with Porzel and juniors such as Stanley and Bushey among the top position players, the Irish earned a No. 1 national ranking and were a few bad bounces away from what would have been a dream matchup with USC in the NCAA Super Regionals (Heilman likely would have opposed current Chicago Cubs ace Mark Prior in that series).
Sanchez was lost amidst all that excitement in 2001, appearing in just nine games and failing to register a hit in 13 at-bats. He returned in the fall of ’01 and appeared destined for another reserve role, with the nation’s top-ranked freshman class on the scene. A few months later, injuries to a pair of those highly-touted freshmen (Matt Macri and Matt Edwards) thrust Sanchez into a high-pressure position as the starting shortstop.
He responded by batting .281 and ranking third on the team with 50 runs scored, while his 46 error-free games included eight in nine NCAA Tournament games (he also helped turn 41 of the team-record 66 double plays). Sanchez more than did his part as a clutch performer – with the bat and the glove – for the 2002 squad that made the program’s first return to the College World Series in 45 years.
In most cases, the feel-good story for a player like Sanchez would have ended with that ’02 season. Macri and Edwards both were set to come back in ’03 and would be the starters on the left side of the infield. Another talented group of freshmen was due to arrive, looking to take their shot at the starting lineup. But Mainieri and assistant coach David Grewe, who was embarking on his first season with the Irish, added a wrinkle to 2003 lineup card when they proposed moving Sanchez behind the plate (after losing Bushey and starting catcher Paul O’Toole to graduation). Despite Sanchez having no previous experience at the catcher’s position, it proved to be a perfect match.
Javi Sanchez has made a quick transition into a top-level catcher, under the guidance of Irish assistant coach David Grewe.
“On the first day of fall ball during my junior season, coach Grewe pulled me aside and said he and I were going to work together and do everything it takes to make me into the best catcher I could be,” recalls Sanchez. “He told me not to make any assumptions that I can’t do things. He showed a lot of confidence in me and taught me the tools of catching. And I believed in everything he taught me.”
During his year-and-a-half behind the plate, Sanchez has seen his skills as a catcher continue to climb.
“Javi made a very strong commitment from day one, but he truly started from scratch,” says Grewe. “It’s a challenge to handle our great pitching staff and Javi also had to learn different throwing mechanics while also developing his blocking. It’s a process that takes time, but you really saw Javi coming into his own as a catcher at the end of last season. He really can control a game now.”
Sanchez was one of Notre Dame’s top offensive players during the 2003 postseason, earning MVP honors at the BIG EAST Tournament before being named to the NCAA Fullerton Regional all-tournament team. He set a BIG EAST Tournament record by batting .727 (8-for-11) to go along with four walks, four sacrifice bunts (one a squeeze and another with two strikes), six RBI, five runs scored and 35 of 36 innings behind the plate. One week later, he hit 6-for-15 in the NCAAs to complete his lateseason surge.
The late push landed Sanchez to fifth on the 2003 team batting charts (.303), totaling more walks (20) than strikeouts (15, averaging 12.5 ABs per K) and grounding into just one double play. He also finished fifth on the team in batting with runners in scoring position (.317) and leadoff on-base pct. (.400), in addition to collecting 21 multiple-hit games (third-most on the team) while batting mostly in the 5-hole.
Irish fans may see a jump in Sanchez’s offensive production in 2004, following the lead of former Irish star Mike Amrhein. As a junior, Amrhein played several infield and outfield positions but was not considered a top pro prospect – with the dubious distinction of being selected in the 99th round of the MLB draft. Amrhein took up the new position of catcher prior to his senior season and saw big jumps in his batting average (.323 in ’96, ‘394 in ’97), RBI (49 to 71) and draft stock (10th-round pick by Chicago Cubs, as one of highest-drafted seniors in ND history). Amrhein – who went on to play six pro seasons, reaching triple-A, and now is a member of Mee’s coaching staff at the University of Toledo – remarked during that ’97 season that his catching experience had a direct correlation to his offensive improvement … and those associated with the current Irish squad make the same connection.
Javi Sanchez hopes to follow the model of former Irish star Mike Amrhein, whose shift to catcher helped produce a big boost in his senior-year offense and draft status.
“When you become a catcher, you learn how to set up hitters and become familiar with positive and negative counts,” says Grewe, whose college playing career at Dayton including serving as a catcher for the Flyers. “Javi now goes go into an at-bat with a better understanding of how pitchers are trying to set him up. The defensive insights carry over to the offensive side and have made him a more consistent hitter. And if he keeps making progress with the bat, it could help him greatly as a pro prospect.”
Sanchez – whose skills behind the plate include good size (6-3, 205), arm strength and soft hands – agrees with the assessment. “Since I’ve started catching, I’ve been able to settle in as a hitter and see the pitch coming out of the hand, recognizing the curveball easier,” says Sanchez, who also had a solid 2003 summer season while batting mostly in the 3rd-5th spots for the Madison (Wis.) Mallards of the Northwest League.
“I also can get more familiar with certain umpires and how they call the game – and that helps tremendously on the offensive side.”
The arrival of highly-regarded freshman catcher Sean Gaston should provide Sanchez with some rest for his legs (plus a lesser mental strain) in 2004, after logging 86% of the innings behind the plate in ’03 (92% during the second half, 71 of 72 in the postseason). As a result, Sanchez likely will make some starts as a righthanded DH or in left field – in addition to the rare combination of being the team’s starting catcher and top utility infielder.
Throughout his wild ride in college baseball, Sanchez has remained grounded in a strong sense of team goals and individual determination.
“I’m excited to have Sean Gaston in the mix behind the dish. He’s going to be a great player for the Irish and I’m just looking forward to doing whatever this team needs me to do,” says Sanchez, echoing his attitude from previous seasons.
“I didn’t lose heart after that first season because my parents raised me with qualities to be competitive and a winner. That allowed me to keep my head up and I really bought into our coaches system, in terms of wanting to play the game for the right reasons.”
Sanchez’s experience on the baseball team at Miami’s Christopher Columbia High School (where Mainieri also played as a prep) prepared him for the challenges that awaited on the college level.
“What I’ve gone through here is just like my high school career,” says Sanchez, who played as a junior on the nation’s No. 4-ranked team (four seniors off that squad were drafted) before earning third team all-county honors as the team MVP during his senior season.
“I did not start until my junior year and always hit in the 8 or 9 spot. Most of the guys on the team here at Notre Dame were star players – all-state or even All-American – throughout their high school career. I just had to take a different path.”
As the Irish head into the 2004 season, Mainieri knows he can count on stellar leadership from Sanchez, both on and off the court.
“It’s a great compliment to Javi that he understands how hard work is the best investment you can make. He never has let a day slip by and truly has got the most out of his ability,” says Mainieri of Sanchez, whose first three seasons with the Irish included a .283 batting average, 55 RBI, 92 runs scored, 6 home runs, 4 triples, 20 doubles, nearly a 1-to-1 walk-to-K ratio (45/50), 13 sac. bunts and 7-of-9 stolen bases.
“Javi salvaged the last two seasons for us, by filling in at shortstop and then catcher, and this season you might even see him hitting in the 2-spot because he is such a great bunter and unselfish player. He takes what pitcher gives him and also is an outstanding baserunner, despite not having great speed. The kid just does what it takes to win – he’s a coaches dream.”
Mainieri shares the spotlight with Sanchez during the weekly Notre Dame Baseball television show, as Sanchez serves as the host for a regular segment in which he and another Irish player discuss specific fundamentals of the game.
Sanchez draws inspiration from former Irish player, such as two-time captain Bushey. “Andrew always believed in me and was very supportive,” says Sanchez. “He just did so much for this program as a player and as a leader, and he made the move to catcher like I’ve done. So if people say that I remind them of Andrew Bushey, that’s a great privilege because of what a great success and competitor he was.
It’s no surprise that Bushey was a key member of the most accomplished senior class in Notre Dame baseball history.
“Teams that go to the College World Series have great senior leadership and I wouldn’t bet against players like Sollmann and Sanchez to lead us back to Omaha,” says Mainieri.
Chris Niesel’s first two seasons with the Irish alerady have included plenty of team and individual accomplishments.
The 6-foot, 205-pound Niesel joins Sanchez, sophomore outfielder Brennan Grogan and freshman lefthander Matt Whittington to give the Irish a Florida native in each class – with the sunshine state matching Indiana and Illinois as those with the greatest representation on the 2004 roster. One of five pitchers in the nation to earn first team high school All-America honors from Baseball America in 2001 (the other four opted to go pro), Niesel looked past many warm-weather locales and decided to be part of the promising collection of talent that was taking shape at Notre Dame. Two years into his personal version of Northern exposure, Niesel already can boast a College World Series ring, a BIG EAST pitcher-of-the-year trophy, All-America honors and several primetime performances.
“If I knew then what I know now, I could not have selected a better school than Notre Dame,” says Niesel. “I just love being part of this team and helping make Notre Dame baseball such a well-respected program. There’s colder weather than I’m used to and of course the academics are tough – but those are just challenges and I’m the type who likes to face up to challenges.”
Niesel met the challenge of winning games with great success during a recent three-year span, posting a combined 31-2 record that included his senior season at Aquinas High School (3-0), two seasons with the Irish (4-0 in ’02, 9-1 in ’03), the 2002 summer season with the Falmouth Commodores in the prestigious Cape Cod League (3-1) and a pair of wins in the Blue-Gold fall intrasquad series (’01 and ’02).
His career numbers with the Irish (13-1 record, 2.95 ERA, 149 Ks, 37 BB, 154 H in 170.2 IP) are impressive in their own right but Niesel’s postseason damage is even better, with a 2.05 ERA, 27 Ks, 11 walks and 29 hits allowed in 34.1 innings (spanning five starts and one relief appearance). His signature game was the 3-1 Super Regional win at Florida State, sending the Irish on to the CWS (8 IP, 6 H, 4, 3 BB, 5 Ks).
First-year Notre Dame pitching coach Terry Rooney had great expectations from Niesel heading into the 2003 fall and winter workouts but he entered the Christmas break feeling even more impressed about the Irish ace.
“What you saw from Chris this fall was a true leader of the pitching staff, in terms of how he handles himself in the daily process with a great work ethic,” says Rooney.
“I asked for a lot of input from Chris in the fall and really have relied on him to be a leader for the younger guys. One of the things that always strikes you is his bulldog mentality. He exudes confidence in a very positive way and you always know what you’re going to get from a guy like Chris. He’s consistently around the zone and is a very polished pitcher who will challenge you to beat his best stuff.”
The Niesel-Sanchez battery should continue to click in 2004, after an All-America 2003 season for Niesel that included a 2.65 ERA (third-best in the BIG EAST) to go along with the 9-1 record (2nd in BE), 87 strikeouts (3rd in BE) and the conferences fourth-lowest opponent batting avg. (.222).
“Javi and I have jelled and learned a lot about each other during the past year,” says Niesel. “I’m very confident on the mound when he’s behind the plate. He blocks the ball great and picks me up when I need it.”
Adds Sanchez, “Chris is a true competitor who leads by example. He always rises to the occasion and that’s a great thing to have in a leader. He has the aura around him that he’s always going to get it done and he’s the guy you want on the mound with the game on the line.
“From a catcher’s standpoint, Chris works ahead in the count, works fast and always is around the plate. That all makes it easier for me. When he’s going to miss, I know the spot and he always hits it. Last year, he went out in the first game of a weekend and it got us into our groove. Having Chris there really helped me with the transition to catcher.”
Niesel’s pinpoint control has manifested itself in a 4.03 career strikeout-to-walk ratio that is on pace to break the ND record set by ’93 graduate Alan Walania (4.00) while his low walk average (1.95 BB per 9 innings) ranks sixth in the ND record book (his 4.58 K/BB in ’03 is the 7th-best season ratio in ND history, while his 1.74 BB/9 IP in ’03 ranks 12th). He opened his career by becoming the first Notre Dame freshman to post double-digit Ks in his debut (vs. Southern Illinois), with another strong start the next week yielding 19 Ks and just one walk in his first two outings with the Irish. He already is the 10th Notre Dame pitcher with multiple double-digit K games in his career (also vs. Villanova in ’03) to go along with five 9-K efforts.
Chris Niesel’s last 13 starts with the Irish include a 9-0 record, 1.94 ERA and a 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (84/17).
Since suffering the only loss of his Notre Dame career – versus a potent Nebraska squad at Minnesota’s 2003 Metrodome Classic – Niesel has dominated in his last 13 outings, to the tune of a 1.94 ERA, a 9-0 record, a .218 opponent batting avg. and a 5-to-1 K-to-walk ratio (84/17). That stretch included a near-no-hitter vs. the hot-hitting 2003 West Virginia team (.330 team batting avg.), with a bunt single breaking up what would have been the first no-hitter by an Irish pitcher since 1988 (the hit came with one out left in that seven-inning opener, as Niesel ultimately faced just 23 batters, with one walk and nine Ks).
Niesel’s fastball topped out at 85 miles-per-hour when he attended the Notre Dame Baseball Camp in the summer of 1999, but he now can tough the low-90s to go along with a tough curveball and improving changeup. Rooney and Niesel also began working on a slider as a valuable fourth pitch that could be key to Niesel during the rest of his promising career (the Oct. ’03 Baseball America rankings placed him as the No. 39 college prospect, 16th among righthanded pitchers).
“It’s great honor to be selected as a captain and there were so many guys before me that were such great role models,” says Niesel.
“Guys like Andrew Bushey and J.P. Gagne really helped show me what college baseball is all about and I learned a lot from J.P. about being hard-nosed and competitive.”
The captains are set for the voyage … starting in 34 days in Los Angeles, versus coach Tony Gwynn and his San Diego State squad.