The Farm Boys' bullpen, in particular, appeared to have no business being dominant after back surgery shelved closer A.J. Vanegas until at least late March. Yet the bullpen has given up only three earned runs over its first 34.2 innings of work this season. All told, Stanford has burst out of the gates with a 6-2 record fueled by a 2.04 ERA over its first 71 innings, over a run and half lower than last year's 3.66 mark.
Cardinal arms are throwing strikes. They've opened with a 3.66:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a significant early improvement upon last season's 2:1 figure.
Appel, by the way, may have never been better than he was in last Friday's 3-1 win over Fresno State, when he pitched his third complete game against the Bulldogs and registered 98 miles per hour on the radar gun within his first few pitches. Last season, Appel usually required a few innings to build up to that blazing velocity. This time, he poured in the gas immediately, complementing it with a sharp 87 MPH slider before ultimately adding a devastating changeup. The 35 scouts in attendance certainly left impressed with the right hander's three-plus pitches.
Now, the sample size for the Cardinal's younger arms is still admittedly small at this point. But early success is significant, for it shows Stanford has a bevy of freshmen who are capable of pitching well at the Division I level. Bobby Zarubin threw darts on his way to striking out 11 Fresno State batters (and walking only one) in 7.1 one-run innings Sunday, while Marcus Brakeman and Daniel Starwalt have combined to throw eight innings of one-run, one-walk ball. Logan James has struggled to overcome the early-game hump, and that may cost him the Sunday starting job early, but veterans Sahil Bloom, Dean McArdle, David Schmidt, and Sam Lindquist have made up for it by allowing only one total run. Junior Garrett Hughes has improved his velocity from the mid-80s to about 90 miles per hour, emblematic of the entire staff's growth.
Remember that the Cardinal's opposition will likely build a scouting report to face the team's young, and currently unknown arms by the time that Pac-12 play begins. Counter-adjustments will be necessary, lest Stanford's freshmen run into the same rough patch that Hochstatter encountered down the 2012 stretch. But the staff's low walk rate early on in 2013 -- only 18 in 71 innings, good for a 1.17 WHIP -- indicates an early maturity that is promising moving forward.
Offensive Awakening: Slater, Ringo, Diekroeger
The 2012 pace may never be matched. Last season's Stanford team had scored 75 runs through this point of the season, while this year's squad has registered only 33 runs through eight games. But while the Cardinal sputtered early against Rice's sharp breaking balls, the Farm Boys bats are showing serious signs of life that indicate the pitching staff may be able to count on consistent support this season. The Cardinal cranked out 15 hits in Tuesday's 7-2 win at St. Mary's, a balanced attack that saw offensive pressure persist throughout all nine innings and also padded the club's impressive 37-walk total (through only eight games).
Offensive continuity is beginning to emerge from surprising places. Austin Wilson's elbow injury will shelve him for about 4-6 weeks, but Austin Slater is spelling him beautifully in right field. Last week, Slater had yet to record a career hit. Four days later, he'd racked up eight knocks, a game-changing home run, and a team-leading .368 average perfectly suited for the lineup's No. 5 hole. Those results are a perfect complement to his blistering offseason. The sophomore's beautiful throw Wednesday hosed a St. Mary's runner at home plate to preserve a Cardinal lead and provide an excellent Wilson canon-arm impersonation.
Justin Ringo has also filled the slugger's void, moving from a .190 average off the bench in 2012 to a .360 clip (and 1.107 OPS) in the clean-up spot. His Wednesday blast successfully challenged the tough part of St. Mary's Louis Guisto field. The senior's resurgence must continue for the core of the Cardinal's order to remain productive while Wilson is absent. If Ringo keeps displaying this combination of discipline and power, Mark Marquess has the luxury of putting Danny Diekroeger and his excellent bat control in the No. 2 hole, behind either freshman speedster (Drew Jackson or Jonny Locher) and ahead of stalwart Brian Ragira. That's a potentially dynamite combination.
The lower half of Stanford's order is still searching to find its groove. Alex Blandino is off to a slow 4-for-23 start, but his talent is not a question. Dominic Jose, Wayne Taylor, and Lonnie Kauppila have combined to open only 9-for-50, but positive signs abound anyway. The sample size is still small, Taylor delivered Sunday's sweep-clinching hit with a disciplined opposite field poke, and Kauppila has displayed explosive post-injury range at the shortstop position.
In that way, Stanford is winning through markedly different methods than last season. Early on, the Cardinal are getting the job done via pitching and defense, a sustainable combination that only threatens to grow more dangerous with further offensive development. This weekend's Top 25 home showdown against Texas (featuring always entertaining head coach Augie Garrido) will provide an opportunity for the Farm Boys to fortify their already solid start.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
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