The calendar has rolled over to the month of May, meaning baseball will soon be the only professional sport in action. Many (and maybe most) Fighting Irish fans already have their eyes on August when fall football camp begins. There are a handful of former Notre Dame baseball players to keep an eye out for in the big leagues this summer. The first one is obvious...
Jeff Samardzija - Pitcher - Chicago Cubs
Notre Dame's most recognizable MLB player is in his second full season as a starter after working primarily as a reliever for his first four professional seasons with the Chicago Cubs. Samardzija was 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA in 28 starts in his first season as a starter in 2012. He struckout 180 batters in 174.2 innings on the mound.
Samardzija was Chicago's opening day starter to open the 2013 season. He picked-up the April 1 victory with 8.0 shutout innings and nine strikeouts against Pittsburgh, but has dropped his last four subsequent decisions to fall to 1-4. His most recent setback came after allowing three earned runs in a season-low 5.0 innings on Monday against San Diego (an eventual 5-3 Cubs win).
Samardzija fanned a career-high 13 in just 5.2 innings (of 17 possible outs) in a 5-3 loss to Atlanta in his second start of the season back on April 7. He has a solid 3.35 ERA in 37.2 innings through his six starts this season and currently ranks second in the National League and is tied for third overall with 47 strikeouts in 2013 (Texas' Yu Darvish leads all of baseball with 58, while Pittsburgh's A.J. Burnett leads the NL with 48 Ks).
A.J. Pollock - Outfielder - Arizona Diamondbacks
Pollock made his Major League debut for the Arizona Diamondbacks last summer. He batted .247 in 81 at-bats and 31 games. Pollock hit three home runs and drove in 10 in his brief time with the big club last summer. He got his shot at a full-time Big League spot this season after the Diamondbacks traded Justin Upton to Atlanta last winter.
Pollock has cooled-off a bit since going on a tear that began with a two home run game against Pittsburgh on April 11, but he is still doing well. Pollock, who starred at Notre Dame from 2007-2009, is still tied for second in the National League with nine doubles. Washington shortstop Ian Desmond leagues the league with 10 two-base hits, while Pollock shares the second spot with the likes of former NL MVP Jimmy Rollins of Philadelphia.
Pollock is batting .256 overall with a .271 on-base percentage. His nine doubles have accounted for nearly half of his 21 total hits. The early hot bat prompted D-Backs manager Kirk Gibson to move Pollock to the leadoff spot, but he is hitting just .231 (6-for-26) with three doubles, one walk and three strikeouts at the top of the order.
David Phelps - Pitcher - New York Yankees
The lesser-known Phelps is more refined than Samardzija at the same point in his MLB career. The St. Louis native was ranked the sixth-best prospect out of the state of Missouri prior to the 2005 MLB Draft, but opted for a college career at Notre Dame instead.
Phelps was named the New York Yankees minor league pitcher of the year in 2010 and made his Major League debut in 2012. He was 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA with 11 starts and 22 relief appearances last season. He struckout 96 batters in 99.2 innings. He was stellar as a reliever last year with a 2-2 record and 2.76 ERA.
The former All-Big East pitcher is 1-1 with eight strikeouts and a 5.29 ERA in 17.0 innings out of the Yankee bullpen this season. He is set to make his first start of the season tonight (Wednesday, May 1) when the Yankees host the Houston Astros.
John Axford - Relief Pitcher - Milwaukee Brewers
Axford has become Notre Dame's most successful member of its 2002 College World Series team; although as a freshman he played a minor role in the team's run to Omaha that season (5-2 in 17 appearances that season).
The 6-foot-6 pitcher has always had a rocket arm, but his long frame has given him struggles with his command that go back to his college days with the Fighting Irish. Axford's breakthrough season came in 2011 when he converted 46 of 48 save opportunities to help the Milwaukee Brewers reach the playoffs.
He was in and out of the closer role for Milwaukee last season. He was bumped in July before returning to closer's duties in August and then converting 17 of his last 18 save opportunities. Axford finished last season with 35 saves in 44 chances with a 5-8 record and 4.67 ERA. He also allowed a career-high 10 home runs.
Axford surrendered four home runs early this season and was quickly bounced from the closer's role in favor of Jim Henderson. He has pitched in 12 games so far in 2013 and is 0-2 with a blown save and 8.44 ERA in 10.2 innings. Axford has already allowed five home runs this season, but after firing a scoreless inning in Tuesday's 12-8 win over Pittsburgh he now has held opponents scoreless in seven of his last eight trips to the mound for Milwaukee.
Three to look for
There are three current Notre Dame baseball players who are all expected to be selected in next month's MLB Draft. Here's a quick look at how they're doing right now (all three are juniors):
Eric Jagielo - 3B: Leads the Irish in batting average (.387), home runs (8), slugging percentage (.653), on-base percentage (.495), and doubles (14).
Trey Mancini - 1B: Right behind Jagielo with a .384 average, .572 slg%, .427 OBP, and leads the Irish with 43 RBIs and five triples. Mancini was just named the NCBWA's National Hitter of the Week and has hits in 18 of his last 22 at-bats for an .818 clip.
Dan Slania - P: The Irish closer earned his 10th save of the season in Tuesday's win at Central Michigan. He has a 0.25 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 36.0 innings. Slania's 28 career saves are a Notre Dame record.