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BASEBALL: Pitching and fielding are costing Irish dearly

Joe Hettler | Thursday, April 7, 2005

A year ago, Notre Dame’s 12th loss was its last – a 7-6 defeat to Arizona in the NCAA tournament on June 6.This season, the Irish surpassed that loss total Wednesday with a one-sided, 14-5 manhandling from Ball State at Frank Eck Stadium.After being swept in a doubleheader for only the seventh time in their Big East history with two losses Monday to Rutgers, the Irish stumbled again in uncharacteristic fashion. They couldn’t get any key hits. They couldn’t field, tallying five errors. And they certainly couldn’t pitch.Two of the three reasons for Wednesday’s loss also explain why the Irish are struggling 27 games into the 2005 season. The defense has been bad, the pitching worse.While the Irish bats have been consistent – averaging 7.5 runs per contest – Notre Dame’s staff has been anything but. Paul Mainieri teams have always prided themselves on solid pitching. But this season, the arms are a weakness. The teams’ ERA hovers around 5.11, with opposing hitters batting .314. Two of Notre Dame’s better pitchers from 2004, Tom Thornton and Jeff Samardzija, are just 5-4 combined with ERAs of 5.59 and 6.04, respectively.Not having the team’s top four pitchers from the beginning of last season isn’t helping the situation, either. Chris Niesel and Grant Johnson both left school early for the Major League draft, and current starters Jeff Manship and John Axford are slowly recovering from arm problems that kept both out for all of 2004.”The biggest change is that you’ve got two power arms with Niesel and Johnson [gone],” Mainieri said. “When Johnson came back [from injury] we basically had two No. 1’s.”Axford, who was drafted in the seventh round of the 2001 draft by Seattle, showed he’s not back to form yet, yielding five earned runs and five walks in just 1/3 of an inning Wednesday. Manship has only logged 5 1/3 innings this season.Either way, Notre Dame needs someone who can be a stopper. Someone who gets the job done nearly every time out. Someone who gives teammates confidence that the game is under control.The Irish just don’t have that guy right now. Without him, Notre Dame will continue to be up and down all season. With him, the Irish at least have a chance at making a run in the Big East tournament.Whether the pitching comes around or not, Notre Dame’s defense has to improve, particularly in the infield. Last season the Irish had a .967 overall fielding percentage. That dropped to just .954 this season entering the Ball State game. Middle infielders Ross Brezovsky and Greg Lopez have struggled the most with .839 and .924 percentages, respectively.”Our infield defense has been the big concern for me all year,” Mainieri said. “It’s been such an Achilles’ Heel for us. I don’t know what to say except that the infield has been a bigger concern than our pitching … I really feel like we’ve got the players that can play, they just haven’t played great defense yet.”While things have been bad, Notre Dame realizes the season is still young. Mainieri points to 18 more conference games on the schedule as opportunities. After this weekend’s trip to Boston College, three of the next four Big East series are at home, where the Irish are 7-2. All is not lost, but things must change.”It’s obvious that we have some areas of our team that are not playing up to the level that we’ve grown accustomed to over the last decade,” Mainieri said. “Right now we need to win as many games as we can, and we need to qualify for the conference tournament. Once you get in the conference tournament, that’s your way into the NCAA tournament.”It’s a simple plan. But it will become much simpler if Notre Dame improves pitching and defense.Do those things well and the Irish will start doing what this program’s used to – winning baseball games.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.Contact Joe Hettler at jhettler@nd.edu