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BASEBALL: Team optimistic in ‘second season’

Tom Dorwart | Thursday, May 12, 2005

To Irish coach Paul Mainieri, the first 42 games of Irish baseball in 2005 have been a tale of two seasons.

“I look at the season like we’ve had two seasons, so in a 56-game schedule, if you look at the first half of the season, being 28 games, we were 14-14,” Mainieri said. “In the second part of the season we’re 13-1-1.

“We’ll just continue to emphasize that ‘second season’ and hope that we can keep it going.”

Notre Dame (27-18-1, 10-7-1 Big East after last weekend’s series at St. John’s) played its first 16 games on the road. The Irish packed their bags for Florida, Arizona and Texas road swings. In addition to the road woes, the Irish had numerous injury problems.

Sophomore right-hander Jess Stewart, who won seven games as a freshman standout pitcher, was out for most of April with a knee injury, while fellow sophomore right-hander Jeff Manship and senior right-hander John Axford have also been slowed in comeback efforts from reconstructive elbow surgery. The threesome – expected at the beginning of the season to play vital roles on the Irish pitching staff – have thrown a combined 23.1 innings.

In early March at the Alamo City Irish Baseball Classic, the hometown team, Texas-San Antonio, sent the Irish to their fifth straight loss – the first time in the 11-year Mainieri era the Irish have dropped five games in-a-row.

Things looked bleak.

Notre Dame went 10-8 in the next 18 games.

But, due to some shakeups in the lineup, better defense and some home games, the Irish have turned their season around – drastically.

“We’ve still got a shot at winning the [Big East] regular season title,” Mainieri said. “I think we’re a much better team here at the beginning of May than we were at the beginning of March; we’ll see how far we can take it.”

“When we flip-flopped Brett Lilley to third base and Ross Bresovsky to second base, particularly Brett Lilley has made us a better team by being at third base,” Mainieri said. “He’s making the plays at third that we weren’t making for the first half of the season, and combined with Greg Lopez at shortstop, we now have a very solid left side of the infield defensively. It’s allowing our pitchers to pitch with a lot more confidence.”

The Irish have pulled their usual April and May magic. In Mainieri’s 11 years at Notre Dame, his teams have combined to win 80.3 percent of their April games.

The team ERA has dropped to 4.50, while the fielding percentage has risen to .957. Lilley leads the squad with a .372 batting average and a .523 on-base percentage. And, most importantly, the Irish are 18-3-1 at home.

Despite the slow start to the season, the Irish always expected success.

“Our goals have not changed, necessarily, because our goal is still to get in to the NCAA tournament,” Mainieri said. “This year it’s been a little bit of a struggle in some ways. If we finish strong, we still could accomplish the things that we’re used to accomplishing around here.”

Those accomplishments are no easy tasks. On the line is the 16-year 40-win streak. With the Big East tournament in reach, its preservation is more than possible.

However, the streak, the Big East championship and the NCAA tournament are not just about winning and losing.

They’re about pride.

“We’ve had some veteran players that have struggled a little bit,” Mainieri said. “But we still have 13 games left to go in our season, plus hopefully the postseason, and if these kids can really regroup and make a strong push to the finish, then I think that will be their legacy – that a lot of people that counted this team out early in the year when we were 14-14, everybody said, ‘Well this team does not have it this year; it’s going to be a bad year,’ but here we are now 27-15-1 with 13 games remaining, and we still have a great opportunity to accomplish everything that we’d want to accomplish in a season.

“I think that would be a tremendous legacy of this team.”

Can the 2005 Irish baseball team leave a legacy, or will it end 16 years of 40 wins? Mainieri knows it’s up to the players themselves to finish the tale.

“The story is not finished yet,” he said. “We’ll have to see how the story finishes.”