Louisville Baseball Game Notes
Spotlight by Adam Pruiett, UofLsports.com
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - He was a two-time All-State selection in high school and a Freshman All-America after his debut season with the Louisville baseball team. He swapped a metal bat for the wooden variety and carved up the Coastal Plain League one summer. He's been a fixture on the All-BIG EAST team, and he's been drafted twice by a big league organization.
And yet, despite a bio oozing awards and accomplishments, Stewart Ijames entered his last offseason with the Cardinals committed to improving - of all things - his confidence. With such a distinguished background on the diamond, it's hard to believe Louisville's dynamic first baseman/outfielder would lack in that department. But Ijames said the black cloud of 2011, when the Cardinals suffered through a 32-29 campaign and missed the postseason for the first time in five years, hovered over him individually as well.
It's not that Ijames was awful - far from it actually. He clubbed 11 home runs and tallied 45 RBI, efficient numbers for the Cardinals that were second only to Ryan Wright, a fifth-round draft pick by the Cincinnati Reds. The alarming statistic for Ijames was his batting average, which plummeted to .247 after he batted a robust .351 and .324, respectively, in 2008 and 2010 (he missed 2009 recovering from a shoulder injury).
"I would have a good weekend and the following weekday game I just felt like it was the first time I put a bat in my hand, and I just couldn't figure it out," Ijames said. "That's been my drive, that's been my fuel the entire offseason."
Fueled is what he's done to the Louisville offense. A more mature, collected and patient Ijames has been a force in the middle of the Cardinals' lineup, bashing a team-best seven home runs to go along with a team-high 26 RBI and, perhaps most tellingly of his rejuvenation, a .325 average.
Ijames will look to terrorize BIG EAST pitching starting at 6 p.m., ET on Friday as Louisville opens conference play at home against Cincinnati. The two teams will then meet at 1 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday at Jim Patterson Stadium.
"When (Ijames is) at the plate, you know something is going to happen," said junior second baseman Nick Ratajczak (Joliet, Ill./Gulf Coast CC). "Whether there is nobody on or we've got the bases loaded, we know we're going to get something out of it. When he gets his swing off, things just land far away."
Like fellow senior and roommate Derek Self, Ijames remained on campus over the summer instead of playing summer ball. In 2009, he cranked 12 home runs with the Thomasville HiToms of the Coastal Plain League, a total that was tops in the nation among wooden bat leagues and got his name entrenched in big league scouting circles. After another productive season in 2010 with Louisville, the Yankees chose him in the 29th round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, a hike from being taken in the 46th round by the Brewers after his senior year at Owensboro Catholic (Ky.) High School. However, Ijames' name was never called in the most recent draft.
"I've always thought that mentally I was ready to play at the next level for the long haul," Ijames said, "but last year I wasn't drafted and I had been drafted twice previously. I felt like it was probably because I wasn't ready physically, so that was the whole basis of me staying here this summer. I needed to get bigger, I needed to get stronger. That's what the summer was all about."
Ijames trained all summer and continued into the fall and early spring, where he and a group of nearly a dozen Cardinals added multiple workouts a week to their mandatory four. Ijames managed to pack on 30 extra pounds. He squats in the vicinity of 500 pounds, and he's even faster than he was before the significant weight gain.
Along with making considerable strength gains, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Ijames honed his approach to hitting. He said he pressed at the plate last season, trying to hit rockets out of the ballpark and in the process over-striding and lunging at pitches. He believes opponents saw him as a threat, but a vulnerable one who was susceptible to getting himself out. Now Ijames works the count, waits for specific pitches in his wheelhouse and has a better understanding of how pitchers attack him.
"Word has gone around the country that he is the guy that you can't let beat you," Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell said. "To put up the numbers and have the success that he's having when they know he's the guy in the middle of the lineup, it's good to see. He's grown up a lot, and I'm excited for him to continue to have a monster year and get momentum to go into pro ball."
A more deliberate approach to hitting is an adjustment for Ijames. He's always been anxious in the on-deck circle, revealing that "I get nervous. It's been like that since I was 8 years old and first starting to play this game. Last year I was walking up to the plate and I could just feel it: My heart would start racing, I'd get nervous and I'd rush myself into the box."
To curtail his butterflies, Ijames performs breathing patterns at the plate, putting one foot in the batter's box and taking a deep breath before he sets up in his stance. The relaxation technique has paid off. During a series sweep of Oakland, Ijames launched two homers and reached base 10 straight times, netting him BIG EAST Player of the Week honors. He's also had an 11-game hitting streak that validates his restored consistency.
"He never got down on himself last year, but I feel like he put a lot of pressure on himself," Self said. "This year if he gets out or has a bad couple at-bats, he still has a good mindset. I know he's changed his swing a little bit and what he's been telling me, since I do live with him, is that it's the best his swing has ever felt."
Ijames has been on Louisville teams that won 50 games (2010), BIG EAST regular season titles (2009, 2010) and BIG EAST Tournament championships (2008, 2009). His resume brings instant credibility in the clubhouse.
"He's the old man in the lineup," McDonnell said. "He's the leader offensively and he's wise because he's been through it. He's had the ultimate highs and the lows of being a student-athlete. It's good for our young hitters to lean on his experience and his wisdom."
Ijames was a heralded recruit out of Owensboro Catholic after twice being named All-State and earning the MVP award of the 2005 state tournament. Fellow Aces teammates Neil Holland and Joe Devine both committed to Louisville, making Ijames' interest in the Cardinals that much stronger. Ijames gave his word in 2007 to attend Louisville before the Cardinals advanced to the College World Series, "a leap of faith" that Ijames said was inspired by the enthusiasm and conviction of McDonnell, then the team's new head coach.
Ijames can clearly recall signing day. He was fast asleep when the phone rang at 6 a.m.
"I didn't answer, obviously. I just let that one go to voicemail," Ijames said, grinning. "I'll never forget it when I actually listened to it: `Hey, Stewart, this is Chris Lemonis, Louisville baseball (assistant coach). I just want to let you know that you're my very first guy to call on recruiting day. We're interested in you and we're going to do the best we can to make sure you're a Louisville Cardinal.'
"Now," Ijames continued, "he could have done that five more times. That's a great recruiting pitch. I would have done the same thing. But it was cool to have somebody tell me I was the first call they were making."
As Ijames' sublime career attests, it was one of the most important calls the Louisville staff has ever made.