TOP 25 SCHEDULE
*UC Davis at (1) Cal State Fullerton
College World Series participants a year ago, Florida (21-16, 4-8) and Tennessee (19-13, 3-8) sit at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference with six weeks remaining. Whichever team loses this series will slide deeper into trouble and might end up missing this year’s NCAA tournament.
We’re also keeping an eye on Texas A&M’s (19-17) visit to Nebraska (25-5). Former Cornhuskers pitching coach Rob Childress makes his first visit to Hawks Field since becoming Aggies coach last summer, and maybe the former teacher has some instructions on how to beat his former pupils Joba Chamberlain, Tony Watson and Johnny Dorn.
Western Athletic Conference favorite Fresno State (26-10, 7-2) started 7-8, but has gone 19-2 since and enters this weekend atop the league. Louisiana Tech went 17-39 a year ago, finishing with seven straight losses. It started this year 7-9, but has rebounded to go 13-4 since with wins against Baylor and Mississippi State. La. Tech (20-13, 5-3) swept Fresno in Ruston, La., last year, and should be in position to again earn a home series win thanks to the hot bat of freshman Jericho Jones (.414/.500/.770 with eight homers).
Jeff Samardzija spent part of Tuesday afternoon doing his best Bo Jackson imitation. He was wearing football shoulder pads and holding a baseball bat and glove as a photographer guided him through various poses, trying to find the perfect one to appear on a poster Notre Dame will distribute next weekend. That’s when Samardzija will pitch against Rutgers in a Friday night baseball game before playing wide receiver in Saturday’s Blue-Gold spring football game.
“I’m just in college doing it, whereas (Bo Jackson) did it on next level,” Samardzija said. “I’m just having fun–you’ve got to take advantage of it while you can.”
Don’t get thrown off by Samardzija’s humble understatement. In the last nine months, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound junior has put himself in position to join Jackson as am early pick in football and baseball.
After combining for 24 catches for 327 yards in his first two years at Notre Dame, Samardzija set school records with 77 receptions and 15 touchdowns in first-year coach Charlie Weis’ wide-open offense, earning consensus All-America honors in a 2005 football season that ended with Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
The success secured Samardzija’s spot on the depth chart, so Weis allowed him to skip some spring practices for the first time in his college career to concentrate on baseball. The extra time on the diamond has allowed Samardzija increase his velocity, improve his secondary pitches and correct some of the little things his athleticism alone didn’™t overcome during his first two seasons in the Notre Dame weekend rotation.
Now, in addition to NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper projecting Samardzija as the No. 1 wide receiver in the Class of 2007, baseball scouts see the righthander as a potential first-rounder as well. He could be a Top 50 pick in both sports. That leaves Samardzija with a decision to make–eventually.
“I’m an athlete playing baseball and football, which is the proper way to say it. I love both of them,” said Samardzija, who hopes to get drafted in June and play baseball this summer before returning to Notre Dame for fall football practice in August.
“I’m not worrying about making a decision. I get asked everyday, multiple times. It’s tough because I want to give someone an answer, but I don’™t have an answer. This is the politically correct answer, but it’s the truth. Many times I’ve tried to make myself decide, but I can’t do it.”
Notre Dame baseball coach Paul Mainieri doesn’t doubt Samardzija’s resolve, commitment or work ethic. The coach never considered not getting the righthander back for this season, even while he watched No. 83 start the football season with a TD catch in eight straight games.
“I’ve had four or five organizations’ scouting directors tell me, if football was not in the equation this kid is a first-round pick in baseball,” Mainieri said. “That’s face-to-face conversations. This kid is serious about being the best baseball player he can become. Just because he’s a consensus All-American in football doesn’™t mean he’s not going to try to be the best baseball player he can become.”
Samardzija, whose first home start of 2006 drew an Eck Stadium record crowd of 3,028, will start the first game of a Thursday doubleheader against St. John’s (12 p.m. EDT on CSTV) in a battle of the top two teams in the Big East. Notre Dame (24-8, 8-1) has won 14 straight games, while St. John’s (22-8, 8-1) carved out a 13-game win streak earlier this season and has won 15 of its last 16.
Samardzija went 13-4, 3.47 with 98 strikeouts in 143 innings as Notre Dame’s Sunday starter his first two seasons, and though his 4-1, 4.04 record with 23 strikeouts in 42 innings aren’t more impressive at face value, he’s developed into a better pitcher.
He’s a fresher pitcher, for sure, thanks to Weis’ allowing him to miss nine of the 15 spring football practices. Samardzija has touched 96 mph in every outing this season, and pitches at 92-93–which was about his peak velocity in previous seasons. With no fall practice to build upon, Samardzija is just getting the feel of his breaking ball and changeup and showed progress by tying a career-high with eight strikeouts against Pittsburgh two weeks ago.
“It’s been amazing, my legs are there every weekend,” Samardzija said. “Last year, I’d practice (football) three or four times per week and pitching on Saturday or Sunday, my mechanics were off. Lots of bad habits were coming in those three or four weeks of spring football. This gives me more time to work on little things like mechanics, offspeed pitches, and just getting in front of a mirror and doing dry stuff.”
Three weeks ago, Notre Dame pitching coach Terry Rooney helped Samardzija change his breaking ball grip. He always had thrown a curveball from his three-quarters arm slot, but both pitcher and coach thought they could find more success by switching to a slider. The lesson lasted about 20 minutes, and Samardzija used the next three or four days of practice to experiment with the new pitch before unleashing it in a game. The hard-biting low-80s slider quickly became his second-best offering, and he has recorded 13 strikeouts in his last 13 innings.
That’s the kind of daily maintenance most college coaches and players take for granted during the season, but it was one of the first experiences of that kind for Samardzija.
“Before it was kind of on-the-go,” Rooney said. “Now what we’re able to do is maintain his strengths and improve on his weaknesses, where before we were just hoping to maintain his strengths and mechanics.
“The first two years, confidence and athleticism won him games, now he’s developing as a pitcher. His secondary pitches are starting to come. Now he’s the whole package.”
AROUND THE NATION
• Missouri junior righthander Max Scherzer won’t pitch this weekend at Oklahoma, and coach Tim Jamieson said he was hopeful his ace could return for the OklahomaState series that begins April 21. Shoulder tendinitis caused Scherzer to miss two starts and is again the culprit. Scherzer threw 54 pitches against Kansas two weeks ago before leaving his start against Nebraska last week after 74 pitches. Scherzer is 3-1, 2.67 with 36 strikeouts in 34 innings. He’s made six starts, while junior lefty Nathan Culp, who has assumed the Friday night starting duties, has pitched in all nine weekend series. Culp is 6-3, 2.51 with a 38-5 strikeout-walk ratio in 61 innings.
• Memphis turned double plays in each of the first six innings and again in the ninth to tie an NCAA record with seven double plays in one game as the Tigers beat Murray State 12-1 on Tuesday.
• The College Baseball Foundation announced a ballot of 46 players and coaches from which the inaugural College Baseball Hall of Fame class will be selected. An 80-member committee of former players and coaches as well as national media will vote on the class, which will be announced in late April and inducted into Hall of Fame in Lubbock, Texas, in July. Former players on the ballot include Steve Arlin (Ohio State), Joe Carter (Wichita State), Will Clark (Mississippi State), Neal Heaton (Miami), Bob Horner (Arizona State), Pete Incaviglia (Oklahoma State), Jackie Jensen (California), Brooks Kieschnick (Texas), Barry Larkin (Michigan), Fred Lynn (Southern California), Dave Magadan (Alabama), Paul Molitor (Minnesota), Keith Moreland (Texas), John Olerud (Washington State), Phil Stephenson (Wichita State), Mickey Sullivan (Baylor), B.J. Surhoff (North Carolina), Billy Swift (Maine), Derek Tatsuno (Hawaii), Robin Ventura (Oklahoma State), Tim Wallach (Cal State Fullerton) and Dave Winfield (Minnesota).
Former coaches on the ballot include Skip Bertman (Louisiana State), Charles “Bobo” Brayton (Washington State), Jim Brock (Arizona State), Rod Dedeaux (Southern California), Bibb Falk (Texas), Ron Fraser (Miami), Cliff Gustafson (Texas), Jerry Kindall (Arizona), Dick Seibert (Minnesota), Gary Ward (Oklahoma State), Bill Wilhelm (Clemson) and Bobby Winkles (Arizona State).
Veteran candidates (pre-1947) include players Joe “Rip” Sewell (Alabama), Owen Carroll (Holy Cross), Frankie Frisch (Fordham), Lou Gehrig (Columbia), Bobby Layne (Texas), Ted Lyons (Baylor), Christy Mathewson (Bucknell) and George Sisler (Michigan), along with coaches John “Jack” Barry (Holy Cross), Billy Disch (Texas), Clint Evans (California) and Ray Fisher (Michigan).