Baseball: February recap, spring overview

The Stanford men's baseball 2011 season is officially underway, as head coach Mark Marquess and his young players have seven games under their belts and embark on a journey which they hope conclude with a trip to Omaha in June. The Card enter 2011 ranked No. 13 by Baseball America and No. 16 in the USA Today/Coaches national polls.

The high expectations for this year's squad are a product of the returning pitching staff and tremendous amount of potential contributed by the freshman class, ranked No. 1 in the nation by Baseball America for the first time in Stanford history. Anchored by Los Angeles outfielder Austin Wilson, San Lorenzo pitcher A.J. Vanegas and Texas utility player Brian Ragira, the rookies are expected to settle into the Cardinal lineup nicely for the duration of the season.

Coupled with Stanford's stellar sophomore class, 2010's No. 2 recruiting class, the freshmen-sophomore combination should be promising for the team dynamic, even when the Card goes up against Pac-10 powerhouse UCLA later this season.

"We're a very youthful team as far as our position players are concerned," said Marquess of his starting lineup, most of which is comprised of freshmen and sophomores. "The team that normally wins the conference has the juniors and seniors."

Yet, if Stanford can channel its energy into developing the younger players early in the season, and especially before Pac-10 play, it should have the capacity to compete with anyone.

"Our number one goal is to get better. We have a difficult nonconference schedule to begin with, so if we continue to get better, when we get to May and postseason, those younger players will be playing like juniors," Marquess said.

Ultimately, however, Marquess believes "it's up to the pitching, when it's all said and done."

Fortunately for the Cardinal, junior Jordan Pries will be returning to the mound as a two-year weekend starter, along with second-team preseason All-American Mark Appel, who will return for his sophomore year after significant improvement over the summer. On the other hand, it was announced last week that junior veteran lefthander Brett Mooneyham had season-ending finger surgery and will be out for the season.

Thus, the ball was handed to Appel to start the season-opener at No. 17 Rice on Tuesday, February 22. Before the first pitch, assistant coach Rusty Filter commented on Appel's rapid growth since last season.

"Mark has thrown a lot of strikes this year, and I think we have all known that he has had a good arm from the day he walked in here," said Filter. "His velocity has increased from last year, but he now features three pitches and has the ability to throw any of those pitches in any count. He has started to mature right before our eyes."

Appel showed his development in the season debut, in which he gave up only two runs on eight hits over a career-best 5.2 innings and helped the Card to a 5-3 victory over the Owls. Junior Scott Snodgress closed out the win for Stanford after stranding the tying run at second base in the fifth and retiring seven in a row before getting through a shaky ninth inning.

The start was the fourth of Appel's career, and he recognized after last season that adjustments were necessary if he were to earn a spot in the starting rotation.

"It's been a long road," Appel said. "I had a few starts [last year] but was kind of disappointed. I went in to the summer really focusing on getting a lot of innings and gaining the starter's mentality. Everything I did all summer and all fall was preparing for this - to be the Friday night guy."

While Appel and his teammates made a strong first outing, Rice evened the series the next day with a resounding 7-1 win over the Cardinal.

"We had a great pitching performance against us today," said Marquess of Rice's Matthew Reckling, who threw six shutout innings against Stanford. "We couldn't get any hits together, and we couldn't stay away from the big inning when we were on the defensive."

Stanford rebounded to claim a 6-2 win in Sunday's rubber game as the Card's youngsters stepped up.

Freshmen drove in all six of Stanford's runs, and Wilson went 3-for-4 with three RBIs, displaying the exact offensive prowess his coaches knew he possessed. Sophomore Stephen Piscotty added three hits, while sophomore Dean McArdle and senior Danny Sandbrink combined to throw a five-hitter.

Embedded within Stanford's road-heavy preseason schedule was the anticipated home-opener against rival Cal, which took place last Tuesday. Fresh off the series win over Rice, Stanford was eager to host the then-No. 17 Bears, and Marquess was particularly ready to see what freshman Vanegas was capable of on the mound.

"We didn't get AJ in against Rice, since we pitched three games with six guys," Marquess said.

His debut contributed to the 3-2 Cardinal victory over Cal, as he retired the final seven Bears he faced, finishing with two runs and four hits against him over 5.1 innings.

"It was good to get him in," Marquess said of Vanegas. "He had one rocky inning, but then he settled down and pitched really well for us."

The Alameda resident Vanegas, who has grown up watching Stanford baseball, referred to his first experience on Sunken Diamond in the Cardinal uniform as "a dream come true."

Then-No. 8 Stanford was led offensively by sophomore superstar Kenny Diekroeger, who went 2-for-4 with a solo home run and an RBI single. The Cardinal's only first-team preseason All-American also hit .417 during the first weekend at Rice, and his success was no surprise after leading the 2010 team in hitting as a freshman.

Diekroeger did have to make a adjustment in the field this year, however, by switching from third base to shortstop to fill the shoes of graduate Jake Schlander.

Marquess feels that the switch will work in the team's favor, noting that shortstop is Diekroeger's natural position, which he played throughout high school and had to abandon last year upon entering the Cardinal infield.

"Third base is a tough position to play in college, and Kenny did a good job considering it was new for him," Marquess said. "But now he's at his natural position, and he's a much better defensive player because of it."

Diekroeger and his teammates were unable to stay home and enjoy the win over Cal for long, however, as they soon headed back on the road for a three-game series with the then-No. 3 Vanderbilt Commodores that began on Feb. 19.

The Card dropped the first matchup with Vandy in a 2-1 pitching duel. Sonny Gray earned the win for the Commodores, despite Stanford putting the tying run on in both the eighth and ninth innings.

Stanford was unable to produce a win the next day as well, falling again in a back-and-forth 8-7 affair.

Both teams demonstrated explosive hitting efforts, as Diekroeger had a career-best four hits and the Cardinal ended the night with 17 hits in total. Vanderbilt countered with 13 hits which, combined with several inconvenient Stanford infield errors, allowed the Commodores to edge by.

Junior righthander Pries (2-0) gave up only three hits over seven innings on Sunday to dominate the Vandy lineup and allow the Cardinal to salvage the series finale in a 5-2 win. The victory was Pries's second over a top-25 team for the week, as he threw the first four no-hit innings as Ragira, Piscotty and senior Ben Clowe built a Cardinal lead.

Junior lefthander Chris Reed closed out the game with two shutout innings and achieved the save, sending the Cardinal home on a high note, where they face Santa Clara (4-3) tonight.

Thus, Stanford (4-3) currently stands at No. 9, entering the game at Sunken Diamond with significant experience against teams more competitive than the Broncos. Marquess and his young but powerful squad have demonstrated the ability to pull the rug out from higher-ranked teams and pull out some squeakers, but they expect to only get better from here on out.

"You've only seen the tip of the iceberg," said Diekroeger of the Cardinal's progress so far. "There's a lot more to come."

First pitch Tuesday is at 5:30 p.m. at Sunken Diamond.

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