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Irish baseball to kick off season in Florida

Tom Dorwart | Friday, February 18, 2005

The weekend forecast for Orlando, the site of the opening four games of the 2005 season for Notre Dame, shows sunny skies and highs in the low 70s. That’s a far cry from the chilly, wintry weather in South Bend.

Notre Dame begins their 2005 campaign today at 1 p.m., taking on the Florida A&M Rattlers (0-10). A Saturday doubleheader follows, beginning with the Central Florida Golden Knights (5-1) at 1 p.m. and finishing with Florida A&M at 5 p.m. A 1 p.m. Sunday game against Central Florida completes a full weekend of competition.

“It’s quite possible that Florida A&M’s record is misleading since they’ve played an extremely tough schedule,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “Central Florida is an extremely tough team. They won 47 games last year, and we’re playing them in their ballpark, so we know we’ve got a couple of games that are going to be as challenging as any we play all year.”

While the Irish have been cooped up inside for the first couple weeks of practice, their weekend opponents have already played a combined 16 games, and the few outdoor practices the Irish held were on asphalt.

“The field conditions would not allow us to get out on the field,” said Mainieri, who is in his 11th season at the helm of Irish baseball and owns 781 career victories. “We went out to the parking lot and hit some pop ups to the infielders and outfielders. I’m not sure there are many Top 25 teams in the country that have had to do that.”

Mainieri sees advantages in practicing indoors and in matching up against opponents who already have game experience this season.

“Everybody thinks it’s a big disadvantage by not going outside, but I don’t look at it that way because if you look at Florida A&M, they’ve had a lot of bad things happen to them already. So maybe their confidence is a little bit down.

“We haven’t had anything bad happen to us, so our confidence should be sky-high.”

After a school record-setting 51 wins last season, the Irish return six of nine starters from the 2004 squad. Filling the void of four-year starter second baseman Steve Sollmann, All-American third baseman Matt Macri and heavy-hitting catcher Javi Sanchez presents challenges, but Mainieri believes his newcomers are ready.

“Those two everyday guys, [Brett] Lilley and [Ross] Brezovsky, they’ve got big shoes to fill in replacing Sollmann and Macri, but both those kids are going to be up to the task simply because they’re just such hard-nosed kids. They’re really fearless, and I’m really expecting a lot out of both of them,” Mainieri said.

Behind the plate will be sophomore Sean Gaston.

Veteran juniors Greg Lopez (shortstop), Cody Rizzo (right field), Craig Cooper (center field), Steve Andres (left field) and Matt Bransfield (DH) and senior first baseman Matt Edwards provide experience, depth and leadership for the Irish.

“I think when you look at the leadership of our team, you have to look clearly at the junior class. Those are going to be the guys that have to carry the big portion of the load for us,” Mainieri said.

Despite losing standout pitchers Grant Johnson and Chris Niesel to the draft, the Irish rotation remains as potent and as deep as ever.

Jeff Samardzija will throw the first pitch for the Irish on Friday. The 6-foot-5, hard-throwing Samardzija compiled the second-best ERA in the Big East last year at 2.95. Last year’s Big East wins leader junior Tom Thornton, a lefty, gets the nod in the early game Saturday, while another lefty, freshman Wade Korpi, makes his first career start for the Irish in the late game. To round out the weekend lineup, sophomore Jess Stewart takes the hill coming off a seven-win season last season.

Seven-foot-one right-hander Ryan Doherty leads a group of dominant bullpen pitchers. A 2004 All-American, Doherty completed 12 of 13 save chances. He is on track to break the Notre Dame career ERA record with his current 2.30 ERA.

In addition to the returnees from the 2004 lineup, senior John Axford and sophomore Jeff Manship will be back from injuries in a couple of weeks, creating an even stronger rotation. Each had season-ending, reconstructive elbow surgeries last season.

“They are going to continue their rehabilitation down in Florida with us. Hopefully they’re a week or two or three weeks away from being able to pitch – we don’t know for sure yet,” Mainieri said.

With the rest of the pitching rotation and lineup set, Mainieri knows his team is eager to set foot on the baseball field.

“I’m hoping that we’re going to come out sharply our first days outside,” Mainieri said. “And our team will be very enthusiastic and excited to play.”