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Rotation to lead the way

Joe Hettler | Thursday, February 12, 2004

As the baseball season draws near, Chris Niesel is in a familiar position.Last year at this time, Niesel was expected to become the ace of Notre Dame’s pitching staff after freshman All-American Grant Johnson had season-ending shoulder surgery in late December 2002. Niesel and Johnson were supposed to be a dominating No. 1 and No. 2 in the Irish rotation, but when Johnson went down, the pressure to perform well increased for Niesel. The same will be asked of Niesel this season as Johnson rehabilitates and two other projected starters – John Axford and Jeff Manship – are out with season-ending elbow problems.”Niesel is our bulldog out there,” Notre Dame coach Paul Mainieri said. “Last year when [Johnson] went down with the injury, the onus was on [Niesel] to lead the staff, and he did a tremendous job all year last year. When [Johnson’s] back to full strength, I’m going to feel like we have co-aces like I did their freshman year. But until then, [Niesel] is really going to have to shoulder the load again, and I believe he’s up to that task.”While Johnson is on track to return to the starting rotation at some point in the first half of the season, he will be on a pitch count and will come out of the bullpen for the initial part of the year. The limitations on Johnson – he will be limited to 50 pitches at first – as well as the injuries to Axford and Manship, mean other Irish pitchers must step up against stiff competition.Niesel will be the only truly experienced starter returning, and he hopes to continue his impressive career at Notre Dame.”I don’t feel any added pressure,” Niesel said “With the losses of [Axford] and [Manship], that will give opportunities to other guys on our staff. I think we have a great staff. I think we’ll do a good job.”After going 4-0 with a 3.36 ERA his freshman year, Niesel earned All-American and Big East Pitcher of the Year status as a sophomore. He was 9-1 with a 2.65 ERA and led the Irish staff in numerous categories including wins, strikeouts, innings pitched and starts. He regularly throws three pitches – a low-90s fastball, a hard-breaking curveball and a changeup. This summer, he even worked with coach Terry Rooney to develop a slider.After the end of last season, Niesel had won 31 of his last 33 decisions, dating back to his senior year of high school. That stretch also included his two seasons at Notre Dame, summer ball in the Cape Cod league and two Blue-Gold game scrimmages.Joining Niesel in the rotation will be sophomore Tom Thornton, who went 5-1 with a 1.81 ERA against mostly mid-week competition last season. Mainieri believes Thornton is ready to face better teams this year and has slated him to pitch against USC in Notre Dame’s second game next weekend.”There’s no question in my mind that Tom Thornton has good enough stuff to win against good teams,” Mainieri said. “He’s got a lively fastball, his curveball can be very nasty and his changeup is improving – and he throws the ball in the strike zone.”Mainieri also expects to use several freshman pitchers in the rotation or out of the bullpen. Derik Olvey is expected to start in Notre Dame’s third game against Louisville. The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Olvey out of high school in the 13th round, but the Alabama native honored his commitment to Notre Dame and could make an immediate impact for the Irish staff. Olvey was an All-American after going 9-1 with a 1.49 ERA as a high school senior. Mainieri said fellow freshman Dan Kapala and Jess Stewart will be integral parts of the bullpen. Kapala went 11-4 with a 1.05 ERA as a senior, while Stewart was 6-3 with a 1.41 ERA during his last season in high school.”[Kapala and Stewart] are two freshmen that I think are going to shoulder a big load on our staff this year,” Mainieri said. “Quite frankly, our team is going to go about as well as those guys pitch for us out of the bullpen because we’re going to desperately need them to do some great things for us.”Notre Dame will also use several returning players like Joe Thaman, Tyler Jones and Ryan Doherty in the bullpen. Mainieri expects to use a variety of pitchers in different roles during the first part of the season.Thaman played first base during his first three years at Notre Dame but converted to pitcher after last season. Thaman pitched in high school, and Mainieri said the senior will have a chance to throw significant innings in 2004.”[Thaman] pitched as well as anybody during fall practice,” Mainieri said.Jones will assume a more prominent role this season, as the coach said he could pitch in upwards of 25-30 games after going 2-1 with 12 innings of work in 2003. Rooney changed Jones’ pitching style from throwing overhand to sidearm, which gives him more movement on his fastball and off-speed pitches. The 7-foot-1 Doherty has the best chance to be the Irish closer this season after posting a 2.20 ERA in 44 innings of work last season. Mainieri said Doherty will be the “main guy coming out of the bullpen this year” for the Irish.”He has a chance to be a dominating relief pitcher for us,” Mainieri said. “He’s going to throw the ball really hard.”Rooney worked with Doherty on improving his two-seam fastball. This pitch, which Doherty now throws consistently, cuts in on right-handed hitters and tails away from left-handed hitters. Doherty also throws a good changeup.Mainieri said the Irish need the entire staff to improve to make up for the limitations of Johnson and the losses of two pitchers.”With the loss of Axford and Manship, we’re going to need all those guys to step forward,” Mainieri said.