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Irish Recruiting Class Of '01 Overcomes

by John Manuel
May 17, 2004

The gauntlet was thrown down right there, in black and white.

Then Notre Dame's recruiting coordinator, Brian O'Connor called the freshmen who came to campus in the fall of 2001 the program's best: "This class . . . should far surpass any we've had."

He was right, and fast. The Irish freshmen--led by righthanders John Axford, Grant Johnson and Chris Niesel--helped pitch Notre Dame to the College World Series the next summer for the first time since 1957.

Matt Macri watched those games from the stands at Rosenblatt Stadium. The crown jewel in the class, Macri had his right arm in a cast after Tommy John surgery, which ended his season after just 68 at-bats. He hit .206, and the team's presumed closer never threw a pitch off the mound.

Head coach Paul Mainieri still recalls Macri's emphatic introduction to Irish baseball that fall. "He came to Notre Dame as our most highly touted recruit ever, and that fall he played like it," he said. "He was going to play shortstop, hit third and be our closer. He was that good. He looked like an all-American that fall."

Mainieri was so impressed that he made a prediction about Macri's draft future. "He's not only going to be a first-round talent in a couple of years," the coach said in 2001, "he's going to be a first-five overall pick."

Macri has not lived up to those expectations. The Tommy John surgery in April 2002 didn't help; he was rusty last year in his comeback, playing (and starting) 60 of the Irish's 63 games while hitting .294-4-35. Draft-eligible as a 21-year-old sophomore, he wasn't selected.

The 6-foot-2, 190-pounder has had a productive junior season, however, helping lead an injury-riddled Irish club to a No. 10 ranking and 35-9 record. At 12-5 in the Big East, Notre Dame is tied for second in the league with Pittsburgh, a half-game back of Rutgers, heading into this weekend's series at Connecticut.

Macri is the team's leader in games (42) and batting at .346-7-40. He ranks second in RBIs, slugging and on-base percentage. He also has settled in at third base in his first full season after moving from shortstop.

Of course, just as Macri has hit his stride, the rest of his classmates have endured their own hardships. Every significant member of Macri's class--with the exception of Niesel--has had a major injury in his Notre Dame career.

Now Macri is the healthy one. The irony is not lost on the bright Iowa native, who was a 17th-round pick out of high school back in '01 by the Twins.

"It was crushing for me getting hurt (as a freshman), and my sophomore year I still didn't feel right," he said. "I was just happy to be taking my cuts and taking groundballs. It took a year and all summer (in the Cape Cod League) to get my confidence back and my swing back at the plate."

Macri hit just .172 for Brewster in the Cape, but he led the league with 30 walks and ranked second with seven home runs. He also spent the entire summer at third, his likely position in pro ball . . . if he remains a hitter.

Scouts coveted Macri's 94 mph fastball out of high school, and some scouts still question his swing. Macri said he has no doubt that he is ready to sign this time, and he'd prefer to hit.

"I don't really miss pitching; I like being out there every day," he said. "Some teams I'm sure still think of me that way, but I'll tell them that I want to give it my best shot as a hitter. If it doesn't work out, then I can always go back to pitching.

"As for signability, if scouts question that, it's really not understandable. I only have two semesters left of school. I guess I understand they're a little paranoid because I went to school instead of signing, but it's different this time."

With injuries behind him, Macri is finally playing his best. His classmates can't quite say the same thing.

Niesel entered the season with a 13-1, 2.95 career mark and has managed to stay healthy. But he's a pedestrian 5-2, 4.35 this season. Axford has missed the season with Tommy John surgery. At least he had Macri to lean on for advice and help with his rehab.

Johnson, though, is on the way back. The 6-foot-5, 215-pounder was the ace in 2002 (9-5, 3.46, team-high 101 innings) and pitched for Team USA before he had surgery to repair his rotator cuff that December. After redshirting last season, he's back in the Irish rotation and was 2-0, 2.36 in 27 innings.

Johnson said he's feeling stronger and more confident every week, especially since trainers have cleared him to throw his slider. (He wasn't allowed to throw a breaking ball for his first four starts.) Mainieri says Johnson's velocity is back in the 92-94 mph range, but his command (14 walks) has wavered. Johnson called the road back to health frustrating but said he hopes he is near the end of it.

"At first, I wasn't interested in results when I pitched; it was just the process of pitching," he said. "I mean, when I first came out of surgery, the doctor said the good news was I would throw again. I didn't even think that would be in question."

Johnson got back on the mound with a strenuous weightlifting and running program, and has pitched without pain. His redshirt season takes some pressure off regarding the draft, he said. "It would take the right round and the right dollars."

Mainieri expects to get several members of the stellar freshman class of 2001 back, especially Axford and Johnson. Even with all its members have been through, the class has lived up to the hype in many ways. And depending on how the draft goes, they may not be done yet.

"It would have been unthinkable that we'd get to have them as seniors," Mainieri said.

And after a short pause, perhaps allowing himself to consider it, he added, "I still don't think it will happen."

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