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BASEBALL:Like Steve Stanley, Brett Lilley does the little things right

Tom Dorwart | Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Brett Lilley isn’t the second coming of Steve Stanley, but as the Notre Dame coaches and fans say, he’s awfully close.

He plays third base. Stanley played centerfield.

Still, the resemblance is there.

“Coach [Paul Mainieri] and a lot of other people a lot of time parallel me to Steve Stanley,” Lilley said. “I kind of play the game like he does. It’s a huge compliment being paralleled to him. He’s obviously one of the best players in the history of this program.”

Stanley – a consensus 2002 first-team All-American and second round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics – started all 61 games his freshman year at Notre Dame in 1999. The 5-foot-8, 155 pound former Ohio prep star from Upper Arlington, the breeding ground that also produced current Notre Dame shortstop Greg Lopez, was never a power-hitter. He was an on-base-percentage guy. Stanley used his hustle and exceptional fielding, his quick bat and keen eye and his flashy speed to excel at the college level.

Lilley, who wears the same number that Stanley wore, number two, has started all 40 games thus far in his freshman season for the Irish. He’s always been a gifted defenseman, a ground ball and line drive hitter who will find the slightest gap in an infield and a speed demon on the basepaths. Like Stanley, the 5-foot-7, 165 pound Lilley, who is batting in the two-spot, simply finds a way to get on base.

“We both bunt; we’re both fast; we hit for average; we don’t hit for a lot of power,” said Lilley, who owns an astounding .517 on-base percentage. “We play the game hard and that’s the biggest thing. We go all out all the time.”

And like Stanley, Lilley will “go all out” not just for himself, but for his team.

He started the first 29 games of the season at second base where he committed only five errors, and, while the Irish struggled to find a steady third baseman, he made the switch to third base in the second game of the Boston College series April 9. At the hot corner, he has committed only one error. And since the switch, the Irish have gone on a 10-1-1 tear.

“I’ve never played third before. I really never even took really a grounder at third before,” Lilley said. “I’ve almost always played short or second.

“I think it’s different, but I just think it’s fun. It’s fun being over there, and these guys hit shots right at you, and you just have to react to the ball. I don’t mind it at all,” he said. “Your head has to be in the game at all times. You never know when the ball is coming, [when it’s] going to be smoked at you. The big thing is I feel like it’s an intense position, and I like that.”

Recently, when Lilley struts to the plate, the theme song from the movie Rudy blares over the loudspeakers. The opposing teams aren’t intimidated by his 5-foot-7 frame.

Pitchers stare, and Lilley glares back, ready to let the naysayers know he can play. His numbers are telling.

Stanley hit for a season average of .326 his freshman year. Lilley, on pace to top that, is batting a team-leading .366, has been hit by 17 pitches and walked 26 times.

“Coach told me at the beginning of the year I’m going to be like Steve Stanley or be just as good as Steve Stanley. I looked at all of his stats, and I’m just like ‘Wow, that’s a lot to live up to,’ but I think I can be just as good or better,” Lilley said.

With his team sitting one game behind Big East leader St. John’s, Lilley expects great things from his teammates and from himself throughout the rest of the season – which includes a pivotal series against the Red Storm and series against powerhouse Southern California and a solid Michigan squad.

“A team goal would be, obviously, to make it to the College World Series. That is my goal in my college career – to go to the College World Series and get the chance to win it all. We’ve really stepped it up lately, and we’ve put ourselves in a position that we’re possibly able to reach that goal this year if the right things happen.”

Before that, Lilley knows the Irish must not look past their upcoming opponents. Tonight at 5, the Irish face Manchester College, and this weekend (Friday at 6 p.m. and Saturday at 1:35 p.m.) the Irish take on Cleveland State, a team they lost to at Frank Eck Stadium a year ago 12-5. All three games are at home.

“We don’t want to have one bad game; we want to be consistent is the main thing,” Lilley said. “I think if we can stay consistent then we’re going to be consistent through St. John’s and carry the way we’re playing right now into that St. John’s series, which is probably one of the most important series this year.

“The big games are the best games. I think everybody picks up their level of intensity for the big games, too. If we can win the big games when it counts, then we can we can make it. If we can go in to St. John’s and win a couple there and then take on USC and play good against them, I think we have a chance of doing something special this year.”

Perhaps Lilley can take the Irish to the same level that another special number two took his team to just three seasons ago.