Pitching To Carry Card In '05

Stanford was a hitting machine last season en route to the Pac-10 Championship. And while the Cardinal should still be able to score their share of runs this season, it appears that we'll see a shift to pitching as the primary strength of the team. Read on for notes and quotes on this year's pitching staff and where everyone fits in.

The 2004 Stanford Baseball team was a special offensive ballclub.  A .324 team batting average (third highest all-time on the Farm) and a whopping 96 home runs (second highest) helped the Cardinal to a Pac-10 championship and a final record of 46-14.  A lot of the star power from that lineup returns in Preseason First Team All-Americans Jed Lowrie and John Mayberry, Jr., but nearly everyone else in the starting nine will be new.  A slight dropoff in offensive production as a team would not be a surprise this year, so that would require the pitching staff to rise up and carry more of the load if the Cardinal are to challenge for another conference championship and make a run at Omaha.

Stanford led the Pac-10 in team ERA last season at 4.35, but that figure was still higher than what we've come accustomed to seeing from the Cardinal hurlers.  Based on summer and fall performances, however, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic that we'll see quite an improvement from the primary Stanford pitchers in 2005.

Of the nine pitchers who threw 25 or more innings last season, seven return to Stanford this season in the form of three juniors and four sophomores.  Dramatic improvement was seen from three of those sophomore hurlers in the fall as Blake Holler, Greg Reynolds, and Jeff Stimpson dazzled this past October in intrasquad games.  From my observations, I believe any of the three could move into the starting rotation this season and post satisfactory results.  They were that impressive.  And this can be traced back to the summer, especially with Reynolds and Stimpson.  Reynolds had an outstanding summer as a starting pitcher in the Cape Cod League (2.27 ERA, .187 opponents batting average) and the same could be said for Stimpson up in Alaska (2.66 ERA - seventh in the league).  The bottom line is that I think it's safe to say fans will be quite impressed with how far these pitchers have come since the end of last year.

While the progress of the sophomore pitching class stole the show this fall, one can't forget the fact that the Cardinal return a pair of junior hurlers who both threw over 100 innings last season as the team's top two starting pitchers.  Lefty Mark Romanczuk (11-3, 4.31 in 2004) has won an incredible 23 games over his first two seasons at Stanford while righty Jeff Gilmore (10-2, 4.43) burst onto the scene last year and became the Cardinal's Saturday starter after throwing a grand total of 2 1/3 innings as a freshman.  Gilmore, like the sophomores, had an excellent fall showcasing a dazzling array of offspeed pitches while continuing to spot his fastball well.  However, Romanczuk took most of the fall season off as he rests a left arm that has seen a tremendous amount of work over the last couple of years.  Because he barely threw this fall, I was unable to get much of a read on Romanczuk as he tries to become one of the more dominant pitchers in the country this season.  But Head Coach Mark Marquess expressed to me a couple of days ago that Romanczuk's job is more than safe as the team's Friday starter entering January preseason practice.

"He was our Friday starter last year and we'll start that way again," comments Marquess.  "I would be surprised if he doesn't remain the Friday starter (throughout the season). 

Meanwhile, Gilmore isn't going anywhere as the team's Saturday guy according to the Cardinal head man.  "Gilmore will be the #2 starter.  I wouldn't change (the starting rotation) unless someone didn't perform well and I'm not anticipating that happening."

Now for the big question of who steps in as the team's Sunday starting pitcher.  This was one of the main problems last season with four pitchers - Mark Jecmen (who is now in professional baseball), Holler, Reynolds, and Matt Leva - all having an opportunity to start on Sunday's.  Based on fall performances, Holler and Reynolds are two clear favorites to become full-time starting pitchers this season.  But Marquess quickly points out that Matt Leva should also be included in this conversation, despite missing the entire fall season with an arm injury.

"The last time he threw it was a complete game in the Regionals, so he's obviously in that mix.  We have a lot of good arms.  There will be a lot of competition for innings."

That complete game was against St. John's last June in an elimination contest for the Cardinal.  Leva allowed just two runs in his nine innings with one walk and five strike outs.  He finished the year with a 4.29 ERA over 35 2/3 innings.  However, Leva's arm injury was serious enough that he did not do any throwing during practices this past October and it's unclear as to whether he'll be at full strength when the team opens preseason workouts in a couple of weeks.  The fact here is that Leva, while ending last season on such a high note, has his work cut out for him if he hopes to stay in the rotation considering how far Holler and Reynolds have come.

Finding quality starting pitching should not be an issue for Stanford this season (whether someone emerges as a true #1 starter is still very much a question, however).  A pressing need though for this team is that of a closer.  Last year this job belonged to David O'Hagan who delivered an All-Pac-10 season that saw him finish the campaign with a 2.97 ERA, six saves, and a sparkling .192 opponents batting average.  So, as of right now, who is the leader to replace the graduated O'Hagan?

"Obviously we have to find someone who can replace O'Hagan, which was a major part of that pitching staff (last year), but we've got Stimpson," states Coach Marquess.  "He's pitched a lot."

This is hardly a surprising revelation if you read my fall practice reports.  Stimpson had a tremendous month of October holding the opposition to a sub-.200 batting average and striking out over one batter per inning on average.  Stimpson has some of the most electric stuff on the team as he showcased an explosive fastball in the fall that consistently reached the low 90's.  And he has plenty of experience pitching in big spots late in games as he made 20 relief appearances last year and was arguably Stanford's most effective reliever in March and April.

The odd men out of the group of Holler, Reynolds, and Leva will also likely see considerable late inning action this year.  The same can be said for junior Matt Manship who has saved 12 games (nine as the closer in 2003 and three in 2004) over the first two years of his Cardinal career.  Freshman Erik Davis also had a strong fall and appears ready to make a contribution from day one.

"We'll probably start Davis out of the bullpen which is kind of new to him," says Marquess.  "We used him that way in the fall and he responded well.  He was very impressive in the fall."

Freshman right-hander Nolan Gallagher is a highly touted prospect, but was kept out of fall workouts because of some tendinitis in his right arm.  Gallagher, a native of Red Lodge, Montana, had a spectacular summer that saw him earn the American Legion National Player of the Year honor.  He may not have received the same amount of hype as Davis during the recruiting season (who pitched for Team USA and was a consensus top 25 prospect nationally) and that can likely be attributed to the lack of baseball attention in Montana.  But the summer success has the coaching staff excited about his potential.

"We know that he's going to be good," states Marquess.  "We were very cautious with him (in the fall) ... but he's fine now.  Better safe than sorry as he threw a lot of innings in the summer for his summer team.  And so it was good to get him a rest and he's throwing again and he'll be ready to go full speed."

Marquess adds, "Now, how quickly Davis and Gallagher make that transition to this level - you don't know until you get into it.  But with where they are right now, I think they should be able to contribute as much as Holler, Reynolds, Stimpson, and Leva did last year.  And they contributed a lot."

No kidding.  The above quartet (which will be the feature of an article next week on The Bootleg), as a group, threw as much as any group of freshman pitchers that you'll ever see at Stanford.  Davis and Gallagher both could potentially be future successful starting pitchers at Stanford, but for now, look for each to provide a huge boost to a talented and deep bullpen.

Barring massive injuries, this year's Stanford pitching staff will not lack for quality arms.  Will they truly be a great pitching staff?  Only time will tell, but the players and coaches are all very optimistic after what was shown over the fall.  Perhaps the only question mark is if someone can rise up and become that true dominant, Friday starter.  Obviously Romanczuk is the most likely to become that guy with all of his experience (both at Stanford and on the international level) during the last two seasons.  With how far the sophomores have developed in addition to the improvement of Gilmore since the end of last year, the pressure will certainly be on Romanczuk to hold onto the #1 spot.  He didn't feel much pressure on last year's freshman and sophomore dominated staff, but I don't think that will be the case again this year.  Certainly some healthy competition won't hurt anyone and the fact is, if Stanford is to become a true national title contender this year, Romanczuk (or someone else) will have to rise up and establish themselves as the go-to, dominant Friday night starting pitcher.

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