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Baseball: Coaches draft teams for intrasquad game

Tom Dorwart | Tuesday, October 4, 2005

For the next three days, at 4 p.m. each afternoon, the Irish baseball team will hold its annual “Blue, Gold Intrasquad Series” – a unique off-season practice.

Unlike other sports’ off-season scrimmages, two of the baseball team’s top assistant coaches drafted this week’s competing squads from the roster. That means the games will be more evenly matched, more realistic.

“We’ve been doing this every year,” said head coach Paul Mainieri, entering his 12th season at the team’s helm. “We have a draft, so there are 13 guys on one team and 14 guys on the other. It’s a very intense series, and everyone’s very passionate about it.”

The coaches have a healthy rivalry and the teammates have some friendly bragging rights on the line.

“Not only the players go at it, but the coaches [do] also,” Mainieri said.

First-year assistant coach Cliff Godwin will coach the Gold, and veteran Terrey Rooney will lead the Blue.

Mainieri called the series “intense and pressure-packed.”

“It’s a little World Series that really creates a lot of high drama and high pressure,” he said.

The draft happened, and the sides are set. This afternoon junior Jeff Manship will take the mound for the Gold, and heralded freshman David Phelps – from St. Louis’ Hazelwood High – will take the hill for the Blue.

Mainieri is excited about the upcoming spring season due to a nearly injury-free fall season, which has allowed for competitive scrimmages and drills.

The only off-season injuries the Irish have had to deal with were sophomore third/second baseman Brett Lilley’s back injury, which will keep him out until the spring, and junior pitcher Dan Kapala’s season-ending shoulder injury.

Lilley will have surgery this Thursday to fix an aggravation that occurred during the regionals last spring and hampered him when he traveled to play summer ball. He will then rehabilitate for about eight weeks, Mainieri said.

Kapala injured his shoulder in the final week of the Cape Cod Summer League after playing well for most of the summer. Mainieri compared his injury to former Irish pitcher Grant Johnson’s shoulder strain during his Notre Dame career. Johnson recovered and finished a stellar career with the Irish.

Still, with nearly every position player returning and loads of experience, Notre Dame has great depth.

The Irish lost first baseman Matt Edwards from last year’s regional championship club that fell to eventual national runner-up Florida, but senior Craig Cooper will replace him.

Cooper played first base at times last season and also played in the outfield. His offensive power is one of his biggest assets. And Mainieri said Cooper is looking “really good over there” at the first base bag.

In another shift, senior Matt Bransfield has moved to left field. He also saw quality time last season. Throughout his career, Bransfield has played catcher, designated hitter and a few other positions.

Each of those seniors hit over .300 last season. Cooper hit .325, while Bransfield hit .313. Cooper was second on the team in runs batted in with 58.

Despite Kapala’s absence, Mainieri likes what he sees from his pitching staff, also. He believes this could be one of the toughest ever.

“I think that Manship, [Jeff] Samardzija and [Tom] Thortnon will just be an outstanding rotation,” he said. “I expect them to be our rotation.

“I’m so pleased with the way our pitchers have played in fall practice. We’ve really developed a deep pitching staff. The guys that are returning really showed a lot of improvement. And we’ve got some freshmen pitchers who are really going to help a great deal also.”

Manship was 2-1 with a 3.97 earned run average after sitting out for part of last season after recovering form “Tommy John” surgery. Samardzija finished 8-1 with a 3.89 earned run average. Thornton finished 6-6 with a 4.69 earned run average and was the workhorse with 96 innings pitched.

Today and Wednesday, the games will be five innings long, and Thursday’s rubber match will be seven innings in order to limit the pitch counts.

“Both teams are using our pitchers,” Mainieri said. “It’s 17 innings, like playing 34. So a pitcher will pitch no more than five innings or 55 pitches. We have to be smart about it and make sure nobody gets hurt.”

Just in case the average fan is looking for the newcomers later today, the freshmen will not have their names and numbers because they haven’t been ordered yet, Mainieri said.

Overall, Mainieri said he couldn’t be more pleased with the team’s progress in fall practice.

“We’ve had some great competition the entire fall. We’ve got some freshmen position players that are really competing hard. Our depth is so much better.

“It’s really created a nice, healthy competitive situation. I couldn’t be more pleased with the way fall practice has gone. I think we’re ready to have an outstanding season in the spring.”

Besides the aforementioned depth of the Irish and their competitive side, their attitude has also been excellent.

“The attitude of the players has been tremendous, the focus,” Mainieri said. “They’re energetic and playing very passionately, very fundamentally sound. I really do believe that we’ll play at the level that is commensurate of our abilities … to have a good season in the spring.”