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BASEBALL: No catch-22 for Irish aces

Tom Dorwart | Tuesday, April 19, 2005

For the Notre Dame baseball team, there’s something special about the number 22.

By now, when opposing teams see the soon-to-be legendary digits embroidered across the chests of the Irish jerseys, they might as well call it a day – especially if the player wearing the uniform is a pitcher.

From 1998 to 2001, four-time All-American and first-round draft pick Aaron Heilman donned the double two. He compiled an astounding 425 strikeouts and racked up 43 wins and 12 saves in his four-year career with the Irish.

Heilman – now with the New York Mets – threw a complete game, one-hit shutout Friday against the Florida Marlins.

And from 2002 to 2004, All-American Grant Johnson also sported a “22” across his jersey. The Irish ace was a two-time All-American and a second round pick of the Chicago Cubs in 2004. Johnson went undefeated in his junior season and ran up a team-leading 51 strikeouts.

This year, it’s up to sophomore Dan Kapala to continue the tradition of the number 22’s pitching dominance.

“This year I was looking to assign number 22 to one of the freshmen, and Dan Kapala came to me and said, ‘I want to wear number 22,'” coach Paul Mainieri said. “The last two guys that wore number 22 were No Americans, and they both won a lot of games for us.. 1 draft picks and All-

“So, today when he [Kapala] showed up to the field, I said, ‘Did you see what Heilman did last night – pitched a one-hit shutout.’ I said, ‘You want to wear that number 22, you better wear it with pride today, boy.'”

Kapala did just that Saturday in the opening game of a Big East conference doubleheader against Connecticut, leading his team to a 3-2 victory. He pitched the game of his career in turning in a complete-game, two-run performance in the eight-inning duel and earning – fitting as it may seem – his second win of the season.

“I was just so proud of Kapala,” Mainieri said. “[I] just thought he pitched so courageously.”

Junior lefty Tom Thornton was not to be outdone. So, Thornton delivered yet another complete game for the Irish – his second in a row – in the late game Saturday afternoon against the Huskies in a milestone game for coach Mainieri. The Irish won 7-1. For the first time since Heilman and teammate Danny Tamayo completed the feat in 2001, two Irish starters combined for complete games in a Big East doubleheader.

Mainieri got his 800th career victory. On the landmark day, all the ever-humble coach could do was praise his players.

“[Thornton], what can you say, he’s been our leader all year on the mound. He did a tremendous job for us.

“It has nothing to do with me,” Mainieri added. “It’s all about the kids – them playing the game. I haven’t won one game in my career. Believe me, I haven’t hit one ball or thrown one ball or fielded one ball or scored one run.”

Thornton improved to 4-4 on the year. In his last start, he pitched a complete game in his home state of Massachusetts against Boston College.

Heading into the final game of the series, the Irish had used only two pitchers due to the nearly flawless outings of Kapala and Thornton.

Sophomore Jeff Manship appeared poised for another solid start but was nailed on the hand by a comebacker in the first inning of the Sunday game. He left the game, and Mainieri said he would be examined and his pitching status would be day-to-day.

Luckily, the Irish could turn to sophomore Jeff Samardzija.

Samardzija picked up his fifth win of the season in a gutsy performance, improving his mark to 5-0. He pitched 6.1 innings and faced 25 batters – a day after enduring an exhausting football practice.

“The guy goes through a grueling football scrimmage yesterday and then comes over here and competes his rear end off for six and a third innings,” Mainieri said. “That’s just a tremendous athlete. [He] gave us a chance to win the game.”

With the starters and middle relievers shaping up, pre-season and 2004 All-American closer junior Ryan Doherty did his job as well.

Doherty entered the game in the eighth and retired all four batters he faced through the ninth, earning his fifth save of the season. The Irish won 9-7 to sweep the Huskies.

After the series sweep, there was a certain buzz in the Irish clubhouse. The Irish had just jumped two spots in the Big East standings – from fifth to third place – sitting only one and a half games behind conference leader St. John’s.

“We won three big games this weekend; we put ourselves right back in the hunt for this thing [the Big East title],” Mainieri said.

The buzz was not only the sound of an excited, victorious team, but also the replay of the zip of a 90 mph Ryan Doherty fastball, the break of a slicing Tom Thornton curveball, the hum of a Dan Kapala heater or the precision of a Jeff Samardzija payoff pitch resonating through the clubhouse.

The hitting has begun to hit stride, and the pitching isn’t far behind.

“We can talk about the disadvantage of being in the north and going south, but for some guys it takes a half a season or more before they can find their timing or their groove,” Mainieri said. “You’ve got to play games.”

Against Connecticut, the early-season struggles vanished for the Irish pitching staff – whose ultimate test might come later this week with five straight games Wednesday through Sunday.