No. 2 baseball to host Vandy in season opener

Sunken Diamond was splashed in sun on a picture-perfect, cloudless Wednesday afternoon just two days before the opener of one of the most anticipated seasons in Stanford baseball history. A special sense of excitement and optimism was evident among coach Mark Marquess and the Stanford players as they visited with media. Here's a feel for the team, along with some valuable nuggets of information.

To put it bluntly, Stanford baseball is stacked heading into the 2012 campaign. Seven of eight starting position players return to a squad that also boasts pitcher Mark Appel, Baseball America's projected No. 1 overall draft pick. Saturday starter Brett Mooneyham's return from injury gives the Cardinal rotation a second potential stud and is a big reason why the team is ranked No. 2 nationally, behind only Florida, heading into this weekend's season-opening three-game set against Vanderbilt.

  • Based on word coming out of the team's several weeks of intrasquad scrimmages, the Stanford offense should really be something special.
    Mark Marquess refused to call it the most talented lineup he's coached in his 36 seasons on the Farm for fear of upsetting some current Cardinal major leaguers, but he did admit that it "reminds [him] a lot of some of [Stanford's] best teams."
    Staff ace Appel, the preseason favorite to win National Pitcher of the Year Honors, says that he's gotten pushed around by the Stanford offensive juggernaut during scrimmages–and that the six runs in three-plus innings he surrendered a couple of weeks ago were not due to poor pitching on his part. "Our guys are absolutely crushing the ball," he said.
    Catcher Zach Jones is the only departure from a lineup that churned out 5.4 runs a game last year and is scary from top to bottom. Hitting leader Stephen Piscotty topped the prestigious Cape Cod League with his .349 average this past summer, and left fielder Tyler Gaffney is riding a 22-game hit streak into the season opener, though he'll have to find a way to avoid a cold-hitting start commonly associated with not swinging a baseball bat through fall's football season.
    "It's hard to explain being part of this lineup because everyone is such a good hitter," shortstop Kenny Diekroeger said. "There's a certain confidence there, it's a swagger you can't measure."

  • No matter how good the Cardinal lineup is, though, Marquess emphasizes that it'll be a moot point if Stanford doesn't pitch effectively.
    That means that southpaw Brett Mooneyham is likely the "X" factor in determining this team's success. Mooneyham missed 2011 with a finger injury but says he is back to 100 percent, ready to take on the No. 2 starter spot, behind Appel. The hard-throwing left-hander was dominant in stretches two years ago, and if he can pitch well on Saturdays, Stanford's offense will be tough to match.

  • Despite the fact that a huge portion of the 2011 team is returning, two big lineup questions have yet to be answered.
    First, there's the catcher's spot, vacating by the graduated Jones, who was a phenomenal defender at the position. Christian Griffiths, converted infielder Eric Smith, and touted freshman Wayne Taylor will all compete for that job. "We may even platoon it all season," Marquess hinted.
    The other void left to be filled is in the closer's spot, which Chris Reed vacated when he the Los Angeles Dodgers named him the sixteenth overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft. Several names surfaced Wednesday as potential replacements, but the one that always made its way back into the conversation was that of freshman right-hander David Schmidt.
    "He throws 89-93 and he has Kevin Brown sink," Mooneyham raved about the newcomer. "He's got that closer's mentality, he just pounds the zone with that pitch and says ‘here it is, hit it.'"
    Marquess, though, noted that a decision hasn't yet been reached and that the team will use its tough preseason schedule to allow a closer to surface naturally, much like Reed emerged last year after he was roughed up as a starter during the year's first series.
    "Reed moved from starter to closer last year, and that was a pleasant surprise," Marquess said. "If we had been playing a lesser opponent, that wouldn't have happened, and we wouldn't have made that change. So we'll just wait and see again."
    John Hochstatter and Spenser Linney, two freshmen lefties, are also causing quite a bit of talk.

  • Speaking of Stanford's schedule, it is the toughest in the nation.
    No. 10 Vanderbilt, No. 5 Texas, No. 6 Rice, Fresno State, and four Pac-12 teams ranked in the preseason Top 25 will give the Cardinal a run for their money. But there is a sense of relief that, unlike last year, most of the team's series are in Palo Alto.
    Vanderbilt, Texas and Rice all visit Sunken Diamond, with Stanford's only preseason road series being a manageable bus ride away at Fresno State.
    "That's definitely a good thing," Diekroeger said. "There's not much worse than writing an essay or studying for a midterm in a plane or hotel room."

  • Most of all, though, the team cannot wait to tackle the high expectations, take the field and play ball.
    "I'm ready to play someone else, because I'm tired of us having to play ourselves," Marquess laughed. "As a coach, you always lose. When you're pitching well in practice games, you think you have no hitters. And when you're hitting well, you think your pitching is bad. It's time to play a real game."
    That time will come this Friday at 5:30 p.m.

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