May 5, 2004
Notre Dame senior second baseman Steve Sollmann has gained medical clearance for a return to action and could play in this weekend’s series at Connecticut. His return is contingent on an evaluation of his performance during individual workouts and practice sessions this week, prior to the team’s departure for Storrs on Saturday (the series is an unusual Sunday-Monday format, to accommodate a change in UConn’s finals schedule).
Sollmann – who will be outfitted with a special facemask attached to his batting helmet – suffered a fractured jaw after an April 3 in-game collision with a teammate and underwent surgery on April 5, in his hometown of Cincinnati. The 2003 All-American/Academic All-American has been in uniform for recent games and traveled with the team on its previous road trip, to Seton Hall and Pittsburgh.
Fellow senior Zach Sisko has done a commendable job as the primary stand-in for Sollmann during the past month, with Sisko’s .306 batting average during that 21-game span ranking fifth among the Notre Dame regulars. The Irish were 20-3 at the time of Sollmann’s injury (counting the April 3 opener vs. Villanova, in which Sollmann was injured) but own just a 15-6 record with their veteran leader out of the lineup. The Irish boasted a .972 team fielding percentage (with 25 errors in 23 games) at the time of Sollmann’s injury but have totaled 37 errors (8 at second base) during Sollmann’s absence, with a .955 fielding pct. in those 21 games.
Sollmann ranks fourth on the Notre Dame career hits list (279), plus fourth in fielding assists (561), fifth in stolen bases (72) sixth in runs scored (195), seventh in triples (13), and ninth in batting average (.362) and at-bats (774) spanning 202 games played (200 starts). The Irish also will hope for the continuation of clutch postseason batting from Sollmann, who hit a combined .487 (38-for-78) during the 2001-03 NCAA Tournaments to rank as one of the program’s leading all-time postseason performers.
At the time of his injury, the team tri-captain had overcome an early-season slump by batting 10-for-21 in a six-game stretch that raised his season batting average to .294. He has not made an error in 110 fielding chances this season, with the converted prep centerfielder also closing the 2003 season by making just two errors in the final 15 games. Sollmann totaled just eight errors during both the 2002 and ’03 seasons and has averaged 8.8 games per error during the last three seasons (after making 21 Es as a freshman).
The absence of Sollmann is one of several injuries to key players during the 2004 season, making Notre Dame’s 35-9 record and #8 national ranking all the more noteworthy (just 11 of the 286 other Division I teams currently own single-digit losses). Seven top players already have combined to miss 156 games this season due to injury, with that total not including the limited contributions of righthanded pitcher Grant Johnson as he has made his return from 2003 shoulder surgery (Johnson’s previous ’04 outings have been limited by pitch counts, with just 26.2 total innings, but he now is slated to be the game-one starter on Sunday at UConn).
In addition to the 21 games missed by Sollmann, two top righthanded pitchers – junior John Axford and freshman Jeff Manship – have missed all of 2004 due to season-ending elbow surgery. Another top pitcher, freshman Derik Olvey, has been sidelined for the last 31 games with a sore forearm while freshman catcher Sean Gaston (8 games, mononucleosis) and sophomore shortstop Greg Lopez (3 games, sore back) have been out of the lineup in recent games. Lopez’s all-around play had been hampered even prior to sitting out the three games leading into the finals break while sophomore outfielder Cody Rizzo has been affected nearly all season by a wrist injury suffered in the third week of action (he officially missed five games before returning to the lineup).
Axford had opened his sophomore season in 2003 with a 9-0 record and was projected by Baseball America as the No. 44 college prospect for the 2004 Major League draft while BA rated Manship (a two-time All-American and U.S. Junior National Team member) as the No. 3 prospect among 2004 college freshmen. Olvey was a 13th-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the ’03 draft and was rated by BA as the No. 22 freshman prospect, with BA also forecasting Rizzo as a 2004 first team all-BIG EAST performer (the wrist injury has limited Rizzo to a .302 season batting avg., with just 16 RBI, two home runs and four doubles).
Sollmann’s injury and return parallel events from the 2002 season, which concluded with Notre Dame making its first College World Series appearance in 45 years. Early in the ’02 season, current junior first baseman Matt Edwards suffered a broken leg after colliding with a teammate while chasing a windblown popup (he was playing shortstop at the time). Edwards did not return until 2003 but another Irish player – leftfielder Brian Stavisky – made a facemasked return that sparked the run to the CWS.
Stavisky was hit in the face by a pitch in a game at West Virginia on March 28 of the ’02 season and missed nine games before returning with a facemask-style batting helmet that became his trademark for the rest of that historic season. The lefthanded power-hitter continued to wear the facemask (even after it no longer was required) but the helmet cracked at the CWS and was unable to be used in ND’s second game vs. Rice (when Stavisky, minus the facemask, stroked a dramatic game-ending home run).