Baseball Begins Preseason Practice

With the start of the regular season less than three weeks away, the Cardinal baseball team returned to the practice field this weekend. Hitting dominated fall ball, but it's the pitching that shined over this particular weekend. Read on for which hurlers had their way with opposing batters, which hitters are swinging it well, and where everyone is playing out in the field.

Baseball is back as the 2004 Stanford Cardinal began preseason practice this weekend.  Both days of practice consisted of batting and bunting practice, defensive work, base running drills, and intrasquad games. 

During fall ball, the hitting shined throughout.  I walked away from fall practice believing that this could be a very special hitting group.  Guys like Sam Fuld and Danny Putnam are All-American caliber players while hitters such as John Mayberry, Jr., and Jed Lowrie are poised for breakthrough years.  Typically when the team returns to the practice field in January, it's the pitching that takes center stage.  This happens for a variety of reasons such as the fact the hitters haven't seen any live pitching in quite some time, the pitchers are as fresh as they'll ever be, and the weather is much cooler now as opposed to October which is conducive to lower scoring.  And through two practices, it appears this pitching theme will again hold true.

Before I get to some of the impressive pitching performances of the past two days, here a few hitting notes.  It's quite obvious from watching fall ball and now these two practices that Danny Putnam is going to have a HUGE year.  On Saturday in his first official at-bat of the new year, Putnam promptly smacked an opposite field home run (off Jeff Gilmore).  Not a bad way to get things started.  Then today Putnam recorded two more hits, both ringing doubles.  In the bottom of the last inning with his team trailing by one run and runners on first and second, Putnam ripped a ball off the very top of the wall in left field for a two-run double and the game-winning hit.  A sign of a great hitter is his ability to come through in clutch situations and outside of maybe Sam Fuld, I can't think of anyone better than Putnam to have up when a big hit is needed.

Speaking of Sam Fuld, the Cardinal leadoff hitter did his thing in the two intrasquad games this weekend.  In ten plate appearances, Fuld reached base in eight of them (three singles and five walks).  Fuld continues to do an excellent job of being patient at the plate and waiting for his pitch.  Yet, Sam is not afraid to go after the first pitch in an at-bat if it's to his liking.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, I don't think there's a better leadoff hitter in college baseball.

Finally, it should come to no surprise to you if you've read my fall ball reports that Jed Lowrie is hitting well.  This weekend, the sophomore infielder went 5-for-10 with a pair of doubles.  Lowrie is quite frankly one of the best hitters on this team.  He would seem to be the perfect fit as Stanford's #6 hitter - a guy who hits the ball to all fields, gets on base, but doesn't necessarily hit for a lot of power.  But, I'm starting to wonder if Lowrie may get some looks in the #5 hole.  Typically the #5 hitter for Stanford is someone who will hit for power (Chris Carter or Donny Lucy could fit this mold in 2004), but from what I've seen from Jed in practice, he's clearly become one of the most impressive hitters on the club.  The batting order will certainly change all throughout the year, but don't be surprised to see Mr. Lowrie manning a spot normally held by a bona fide slugger.

Moving to the pitchers, Saturday's practice saw Mark Romanczuk and Jeff Gilmore start on the hill.  Romanczuk starting on the first day certainly wasn't a surprise, but Gilmore getting the nod should tell you that the coaching staff is sold on his abilities to be a major contributor this season.  Gilmore pitched only 2 1/3 innings last year as a freshman, but he dazzled in the fall and will see plenty of action this season. 

Gilmore started slow on Saturday.  Fuld started the first inning with a sharp single to left field.  Putnam then immediately followed with the aforementioned home run to left center.  It didn't look like all that bad a pitch, but rather some nice hitting on the part of Putnam.  So, two batters and two runs scored.  That would be all the hitters would get though as Gilmore went on to retire the next 12 batters in a row.  Retiring 12 in a row against this offense should catch your eye.  Gilmore showcased great control as he continues to pitch from a 3/4 release that puts some natural cutting action on everything he throws.  Gilmore's final line: 4 2/3 IP, three hits, two runs, no walks, and four strikeouts.  The no walks is particularly impressive considering each hitter was starting with a 1-1 count.  I wrote at the end of fall ball that Gilmore would certainly see plenty of time out of the bullpen this year, but I think now the coaching staff may be giving him a hard look as their #3 weekend starter.

Romanczuk also pitched very well on Saturday.  The sophomore lefty gave up just one hit (a Jonny Ash double) and one run in three innings of work.  Romanczuk walked three and struck out five.  Again, with the 1-1 starting count, each pitcher's walk and strikeout totals may be a bit inflated.  Nevertheless, of the 10 pitchers who threw Saturday and Sunday, Romanczuk's stuff was the best.  He has the ability to dominate every time he steps on the mound.  The first batter he faced on Saturday was Fuld.  After throwing two straight balls to fall behind 3-1, Romanczuk got Fuld to swing and miss on a change-up to make the count full (great sign to see him throw a change on 3-1).  Then on the 3-2 pitch, Romanczuk froze Fuld with a knee-high fastball on the inside corner.  It was a thing of beauty.

My only concern that if he's going to be Stanford's #1 starter is his control.  The Friday night guy can ill afford to give up free passes as the games are typically low scoring and every base runner is huge.  Romanczuk will need to be at the top of his game every time out if this is indeed his role on the team.

On Sunday, the two starting pitchers were Matt Manship and David O'Hagan.  Manship wasn't as dominating as Romanczuk, but still very effective.  In fact, Manship didn't allow a single hit in his 3 2/3 innings of work.  The sophomore right hander walked two and struck out one.  All in all, two very encouraging outings from Stanford's top two starting pitchers.

The senior O'Hagan also didn't allow any runs in 3 2/3 innings, but he did surrender five hits.  With the emergence of Gilmore and the effective work in the fall from frosh Greg Reynolds (who will pitch tomorrow), it will be interesting to see where the coaching staff places O'Hagan this year.  I believe that we'll continue to see O'Hagan come out of the bullpen.  He gives the coaching staff a lot of flexibility out of the 'pen and it would be nice to have a seasoned vet in late inning situations (especially considering just about everyone else in the bullpen is a freshman or sophomore).  Today, O'Hagan didn't walk anybody while recording four strikeouts.

Other Notes:
* Freshman right hander Matt Leva threw during the first day of practice.  Leva pitched very well in the fall and then followed that up with three scoreless innings on Saturday.  Leva allowed three hits, walked just one, and struck out two.  He stands just 5'10" and weighs only 155 lbs., but the little guy can bring it and all signs point to him being a key relief pitcher this season.  One at-bat particularly caught my eye.  With a runner on third and one out, Jonny Ash was at the plate.  The situation calls for a strikeout and Leva promptly blew a high fastball past Ash for the K.  Ash is probably the toughest player to strike out on this team which is why I remembered this AB.  The only negative aspect of Leva's outing on Saturday was allowing his inherited runners to score.

* Sophomore Kodiak Quick also threw on Saturday.  Quick took the fall off, so this was the first I've seen of him since last June.  The rust showed for Quick in his first inning of work as he walked the first three batters he faced.  He settled down after that with only one walk in his last two innings.  As always, Quick had great stuff with a ton of movement.  A lot of uncomfortable at-bats against with poor swings.  If Quick can keep his control in check, he'll definitely be a candidate to close some games this season.

* One other pitcher this weekend that threw very well was junior Jonny Dyer.  In his outing, Dyer allowed only one unearned run in 3 1/3 innings with three hits allowed, no walks, and a whopping six strikeouts.  Dyer also pitched well in the fall and I expect him to be a key middle reliever this year.

* The three freshman hitters who got a chance to play in the intrasquad games struggled quite a bit.  Adam Sorgi, Jim Rapoport, and Ryan Seawell (the top three frosh hitters during fall ball) combined for just one hit in the two games.  This also isn't a surprise as the freshman try to get back up to speed with facing college pitching again after the two month layoff. 

* Defensively, there were no major surprises this weekend.  Donny Lucy at catcher, John Mayberry, Jr., at first, and Jonny Ash at third look to have those spots locked down.  Lowrie will obviously play one of the middle infield positions.  Lowrie is working out at shortstop during pregame infield drills.  However, during the games, Lowrie splits time at short and second.  When he's playing short, Chris Lewis is over at second.  When Lowrie is at second, it's Adam Sorgi at shortstop.  The battle for the final position on the infield appears to be between Lewis, Sorgi, and maybe even Chris Minaker.

* In the outfield, it was interesting to see Putnam play exclusively in left field during intrasquad games with Brian Hall out in right.  During the fall, those players were switched.

* It was only one at-bat, but Chris Carter did not look very comfortable facing Mark Romanczuk.  Carter looked at two straight strikes for the strikeout.  Carter very rarely hit against lefties last year, so we'll see if that changes this season.  But bear in mind that Carter is facing one of the top lefties in the country during these practice games.

* Hall is throwing overhand and looks to be completely healthy.

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