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Friday, February 25, 2011
Weiland has luck of Irish on his side

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There is no iconic image for Notre Dame baseball, Red Sox pitching prospect Kyle Weiland said, to compare with Touchdown Jesus, the giant mural mounted on the side of the Hesburgh library that towers over 80,000-seat Notre Dame Stadium.

The most distinctive visual at Frank Eck Stadium, the 2,500-seat ballpark that the Fighting Irish baseball players call home, Weiland said, is probably the line of trees planted just beyond the chain-link outfield fence.

Kyle Weiland
Weiland pitched in Double-A Portland last season, where he impressed the Red Sox with his power sinker.

"Obviously,'' Weiland said, "baseball is not what Notre Dame is known for, but we operate the same way as the football team.''

It wasn't always that way. One of baseball's first superstars, Hall of Fame first baseman Cap Anson, was a Notre Dame man, playing a record 27 seasons in the big leagues, starting in 1876 (although it is not a point of pride for the Irish that Anson played a major role in keeping baseball segregated).

Another Hall of Famer, the son of a Long Island potato farmer, played one season for the Irish before being scooped up by the Red Sox: Carl Yastrzemski.

Even a star Notre Dame football player, wide receiver Jeff Samardzija, chose to pitch for the Chicago Cubs rather than migrate to the NFL.

It may come as a surprise, but according to Baseball-reference.com, Notre Dame has sent 70 players to the big leagues, more than a Sun Belt powerhouse like the University of Arizona, where Terry Francona matriculated (in a manner of speaking, as he would be the first to admit). Shortstop Craig Counsell scored the winning run for the Florida Marlins in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. Closer Brad Lidge recorded the final out for the Phillies in the 2008 World Series.

Weiland, who grew up in Albuquerque, knew little of this when he decided to see if Notre Dame might have interest in him. Weiland wasn't recruited by Notre Dame, or anybody else, really, outside of a few local schools. But Christian Parker, who had preceded Weiland at Eldorado High School, went to Notre Dame and made it to the big leagues for a one-game cameo appearance with the New York Yankees in 2001. Parker would come back to work out with the high school kids. He inspired Weiland to contemplate South Bend.

"I wrote them an interest letter,'' Weiland said. "We didn't get too many recruiters in, and I didn't do the showcases around the country, so my exposure was very limited. They wrote back, said we'd like to see you, come up to our camp that weekend. Then they invited me for an official visit, and offered me a scholarship. It was a whirlwind for a few weeks.''

It also worked out splendidly for Weiland, who became Notre Dame's closer, set the school record for saves and in 2008 was drafted in the third round by the Sox, who decided to make him a starter. The transition hit some bumps early. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound right-hander started the 2009 season with a 1-5 record and 6.91 ERA for Class A Salem in his first 10 starts before turning it around. He finished with a 7-9 record and 3.46 ERA and was invited last season to big league camp, his first.

He was assigned No. 97, the highest number in camp. "The same as Wally,'' he said, referring to the Sox mascot. But after pitching in Double-A Portland last season, where he impressed the Sox with his power sinker, Weiland is back this season, wearing No. 87.

"I've moved up 10,'' he said.

He also drew the starting assignment for Saturday night's exhibition against Northeastern, the back end of a day-night exhibition in which highly regarded pitcher Stolmy Pimentel will face Boston College in the first game. The folks back home won't get to see Weiland in action -- NESN is televising a Bruins game that night and has college hockey and basketball in the afternoon, so the BC game won't air, either -- but his game will be carried on radio by WEEI.

It's possible that Weiland will break out his cutter, a pitch he hasn't thrown since college.

"They asked me to hold off on throwing it my first couple of years,'' Weiland said. "They wanted me to work on my other three pitches [sinker, curve, changeup], refine them. But the cutter is a good pitch to have in the arsenal, especially against left-handed hitters.''

The pitch that will take Weiland to the big leagues, if not as a starter then working out of the 'pen, is his sinker.

"That's the pitch I use most of the time,'' he said. "When I'm behind in the count, I like to go to the two-seamer, get them to put the ball in play. A ground ball is a great outcome for a 2-and-1 count.''

Chances are only a handful of Red Sox regulars will be playing behind Weiland on Saturday night, but that doesn't diminish the significance of starting the game, which he called a "big honor."

He pitched in relief in one of the college games last season. His first pitch was a ball, up and away, which prompted a visit from catcher Jason Varitek.

"He could tell I was amped up,'' Weiland said. "He came out and said, 'Here we go, nice and relaxed, let's get it.' We got them 1, 2, 3.

"He told me afterward ... that he was nervous driving to the ballpark. It's baseball. You get excited.''

It's baseball, it's under the lights, it may be just a college exhibition, but it's a chance to make an impression.

"And you never want to take that for granted,'' Weiland said. "A first impression will last five years if it's a bad one.''

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.