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Aces up their sleeve

Chris Federico | Thursday, April 8, 2004

If President Bush is still looking for powerful arms, he may want to check Frank Eck Stadium Saturday for No. 5 Notre Dame’s Big East doubleheader with Boston College.

Irish aces Chris Niesel and Tom Thornton bring their combined 8-2 record to the mound against a talented Boston College pitching staff.

Even though the Eagles’ top pitchers, preseason Big East Pitcher of the Year Chris Lambert and lefty Kevin Shepard, will likely pitch against Villanova today, the Eagles still possess a team ERA of 4.36 and several talented hurlers. Senior Matt O’Donnell and junior Joe Martinez – who turned down Notre Dame to go to Boston College – will likely get the ball on the mound for the Eagles.

Meanwhile the Irish possess a bevy of arms to go along with the righty-lefty combination of Niesel and Thornton.

“[The key] is the same thing it always is – pitch. Pitch well,” Irish coach Paul Mainieri said. “Make the plays and give yourself a chance to win. Then take advantage of the scoring opportunities.”

The bulldog

The best way to sum up Niesel’s personality as a pitcher is to look at his performance in one of Notre Dame’s biggest baseball games in the last 50 years.

As a freshman, and with a spot in the 2002 College World Series on the line, Niesel was charged with the task of beating then-No.1 Florida State in the NCAA Super Regionals, in their back yard, in Niesel’s home state.

All the tough 6-foot, 200-pound righty did was hold one of the best hitting teams in the country to one run in eight innings, as the Irish prevailed 3-1.

“I think everybody on our team, when they look at Chris Niesel, they realize we have a bulldog out there on the mound, and we’ve got a chance to win,” Mainieri said. “He’s a great example for all of our younger players.”

Last season, when classmate Grant Johnson went out for the season with shoulder surgery, it was Niesel who carried the Irish on his back. The then-sophomore finished the year 9-1 with a 2.65 ERA. For his efforts, Niesel was named Big East Pitcher of the Year ahead of Boston College’s Lambert.

This season, Niesel has struggled a little more than the Irish tri-captain is used to. He has a 5.09 ERA and opponents have hit .316 off him. But he still knows how to get the win, as he owns a solid 4-1 record on the year.

“I have no concerns about Chris Niesel,” Mainieri said. “He’s going to be an outstanding pitcher the rest of the year for us, no doubt.”

The godsend

At a school like Notre Dame, you know when a coach refers to a player as a godsend, he must be pretty serious. So when Mainieri described his 6-foot-6 pitcher Tom Thornton in such a pious manner, it’s easy to see how important the big left-hander has been to the Irish this season.

“Tom Thornton has been sent straight from God to the Fighting Irish, because he has been an unbelievable life saver,” Mainieri said after Thornton’s nine-inning shutout over West Virginia. “That performance against West Virginia was one of the most dominating performances we’ve seen by a pitcher here.”

But Thornton has been delivering in the clutch all season for Notre Dame. In his first start of the year, the sophomore held Southern California scoreless in six innings for the win. Later, against a hot-hitting Texas Tech team, he limited the Red Raiders to one hit in eight innings for another win.

“The big thing for us this year – the guy that’s really made the difference for us this year is Tom Thornton,” Mainieri said. “Tom Thornton has gone from basically being our fifth guy – our guy who would be pitching in mid-week games – to our No. 2 starter. He’s been just a godsend for us. He’s been outstanding.”

Mainieri says that what has made Thornton so good this year is his ability to pitch ahead in the count and make smart pitches.

“He’s always pitching ahead in the count,” he said. “If you throw strikes early to hitters and you get hitters out with two or three pitches, then it’s going to keep your pitch count down and help you pitch late into the game.”

The closer

When Irish closer Ryan Doherty enters the game in the ninth inning, many opposing players gasp – and not just because of the righty’s 7-foot-1, 220-pound frame.

The sophomore Doherty has proven a nearly unhittable force this season for the Irish.

“I think [Doherty] has been outstanding for us all year,” Mainieri said. “Every single time we have put him out there, he’s done the job for us.”

In 13 appearances, Doherty owns a 3-0 record and 0.66 ERA to go along with a Big East-leading five saves. In his 13 2/3 innings pitched, opponents have gotten only five hits off the gangly Doherty.

And Mainieri has not been afraid to put Doherty into hairy situations this year. In the series against Villanova last weekend, the Irish skipper put Doherty into the opening game in the sixth inning with the Wildcats storming back, and the big man got two quick strikeouts to end the threat. He then came back in the nightcap of the doubleheader and got the win by pitching a perfect 10th inning.

“I think [Ryan Doherty] has really been one of the outstanding contributors to our early season success,” Mainieri said.

The first baseman

In three years as Notre Dame’s starting first baseman, Joe Thaman had amassed just a .279 career batting average. With an infield chock full of offensive talent in Matt Macri, Greg Lopez, Steve Sollmann and Matt Edwards, Mainieri knew something was going to have to give heading into the 2004 season.

So he approached the senior Thaman with a proposition: let Edwards take over first base and move into the bullpen as a left-handed pitcher.

Thaman, who had not pitched since high school was open to the change, and the move has paid off dividends for the Irish.

“I think Thaman has pitched outstanding,” Mainieri said. “I think what [pitching coach] Terry Rooney has done with him is nothing short of remarkable – taking a kid that hasn’t picked up a ball to step on the mound in three years, and then he comes out there and is doing the things that he has done.”

Thaman has been a steady force for the Irish this season, notching a 2-1 record with a 3.42 ERA in 23 2/3 innings pitched.

What’s more is that the left-handed Thaman has filled a big hole in an Irish bullpen that was very heavy on right-handers.

“I think it’s another added advantage,” Mainieri said of the lefty Thaman. “He’s got a great pickoff move to first. He’s throwing from the left side and he gets left-handers out.”

So while Thaman may miss the ping of the bat that he would hear as a hitter, he doesn’t mind the sound of a “whiff” from batters missing his fastballs.

“It’s worked out as well as I would have hoped it could have,” Mainieri said.

The football player

Irish reliever Jeff Samardzija told Mainieri he wanted to play baseball through a newspaper article last fall. The Irish skipper was reading the South Bend Tribune one day when he noticed that Samardzija – at the time a wide receiver on the football team – had stated he wanted to try his hand at pitching for Notre Dame.

Mainieri talked with Notre Dame football coach Tyrone Willingham and got permission to let the 6-foot-5 freshman tryout.

Samardzija impressed Mainieri and Rooney, earned a spot on the roster and got his chance to pitch for the Irish.

All he has done since that time is earn a 1-0 record and post a 0.47 ERA in 19 1/3 innings pitched.

“Jeff Samardzija has really exceeded our expectations,” Mainieri said. “He has been really outstanding. I’m not sure where we’d be without Jeff Samardzija and how he’s pitched for us.”

Samardzija has been an early leader in the Irish bullpen, allowing just nine hits in nine appearances with the Irish. Right now, he is in the midst of a 15-inning shutout streak.

“I knew if I went in there and play my game and pitched like I could pitch, I could make a contribution to the team, and it would work out,” Samardzija said.

Now, his biggest concern lies with juggling a rigorous schedule that includes classes, baseball games and travel, and football practices and conditioning. As a scholarship football player, Samardzija has an obligation to the football team and has to be present at all of the spring practices.

“I get tired a lot, but it works out kind of nice,” Samardzija said.

The young guns

The rest of the Irish freshman pitching class was one that received a lot of hype coming into the 2003 season, headlined by Texas native Jeff Manship, who was listed by Baseball America as the country’s No. 3 freshman prospect.

But right before the start of the season, the Irish learned Manship would miss all of 2004 with Tommy John surgery.

Fortunately for the Irish, several of Manship’s classmates have stepped up and made a contribution in just their first season at Notre Dame.

“I said going into the season that if our freshman pitchers didn’t pitch well for us, we would have a tough time having a great year,” Mainieri said. “I wasn’t sure which of the freshman pitchers was going to have a great year for us.”

The answer has been several Irish freshman that have made key contributions this year, either as relief pitchers on Big East weekends or as starters in mid-week games.

Jess Stewart owns a 3.70 ERA and 3-0 record, Chris Vasami has a 1-0 record and 4.63 ERA in 11 2/3 innings pitched, Dan Kapala has a 5.02 ERA in 11 appearances, and Mike Dury has logged 7 1/3 innings and allowed just one run in splitting time at first base.

One of Rooney’s tasks this year has been turning the young Irish pitchers from high school stars to confident collegiate pitchers.

“I think Terry Rooney is really doing a great job with those kids out there,” Mainieri said. “They’re really buying into his program and what he’s teaching them. It’s really showing in the way they’re pitching.”