Sophomore Pitchers Set To Take Off

We continue our in-depth preview of the 2005 Stanford Baseball team with a closer look at a quartet of sophomore pitchers. Each hurler enjoyed plenty of success last year as freshmen, but based on their fall performances, to say each has improved might be an understatement. Read on for all of the notes, quotes, and stats.

Blake Holler, Matt Leva, Greg Reynolds, and Jeff Stimpson.  Four pitchers who saw considerable playing time last season as freshmen and now look primed to take their games to the next level as they begin their sophomore campaigns.

All four hurlers played prominent roles on the team last season.  The lefty Holler was the #3 starter from late-February until mid-April before joining the bullpen as one of the team's most reliable relief pitchers down the stretch.  The 5'10" Matt Leva began the year in the bullpen before moving into the Sunday starter position in mid-May.  Leva came through with a couple of solid starts toward the end of the season including a complete-game victory over St. John's in NCAA Regional play.  Reynolds, the 6'7" local product, sat out the first half of the season with an arm injury before returning to action in late-March.  Reynolds split time between the bullpen and the starting rotation - beginning both Sunday games during the Pac-10 season and sometimes Tuesday non-conference contests.  Meanwhile, Stimpson was arguably Stanford's most dominant relief pitcher during the months of March and April seeing considerable action during the late innings in numerous key games.

There aren't many groups of freshmen pitchers that come through Stanford who A) pitch so much in their first season and B) have as much success as this quartet of hurlers enjoyed.  So what do they have for an encore?  Look for bigger and better in 2005 as these four pitchers position themselves to play leading roles on the Stanford pitching staff.

"The sophomores are light-years ahead of where they were last year at this time," comments head coach Mark Marquess to The Bootleg.   "They're all so much more further along."

Light-years ahead?  That's an awfully strong statement to make when these four pitchers all appeared ready to contribute as frosh around this time last season.  But quite frankly, the comment is justified after having watched these guys pitch over the fall.

"I thought from the end of last season to end of the fall, the sophomore class really looked like established college pitchers," observes junior shortstop Chris Minaker who had a chance to hit against each hurler during fall intrasquad games.  "They didn't look like kids out there anymore."

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Reynolds came to Stanford as the most highly touted pitcher of this group.  An imposing figure on the mound, Reynolds had a huge senior season in high school up in Pacifica that earned him California HS Player of the Year honors.  MLB scouts projected Reynolds as a second or third round draft pick in June of 2003 but he fell all the way down to round #41 thanks to his strong commitment to Stanford. 

Reynolds had a solid fall during his first quarter on campus - impressive enough that he was gaining consideration from the coaching staff as a potential #3 starter for the opening weekend of the season.  But something wasn't right with the towering righty.  Reynolds was, in fact, pitching through pain in his elbow the entire fall and it finally got to the point that just before preseason practice in January he decided to shut everything down.  The fact he pitched well that fall despite not being 100% was a great sign for the future, but in the short term, Reynolds was sidelined not to return to game action until late-March.

Reynolds was never able to quite get on track last spring while wearing the Cardinal and White.  A few quality outings were mixed in that included three no-hit innings of relief versus Santa Clara on April 13th and five solid innings (2 ER, 0 BB, 4 SO) in a start against Saint Mary's on April 20th.  Reynolds' most impressive performance of the season came on May 2nd in a Sunday start versus Washington State at Sunken Diamond.  He retired the first 11 batters of the game and carried a one-hit shutout into the fifth inning before surrendering three scores in that frame.  That was essentially his season in a nutshell.  Flashes of brilliance, but never anything sustained over a long period of time.  The end result was a 6.00 ERA over 27 innings pitched and an opposing batting average of .283.

He would, however, get a fresh start over the summer.  Pitching in the high-profile Cape Cod League, Reynolds started strong and finished with a bang.  He eventually became a starting pitcher for his team out in the Cape and in his final start of the season on August 7th, Reynolds fired eight spectacular innings yielding just one unearned run on four hits with ten strike outs.  Reynolds finished the summer with an outstanding 2.27 ERA in 39 2/3 innings with an opponents average of .187.

Reynolds kept the momentum going back at Stanford this past fall.  Completely healthy, Reynolds dazzled as one of the team's top pitchers as the opposition hit a paltry .179 against him and he averaged nearly a strike out an inning.  Add it all up, and this sophomore pitcher is poised to breakout on the college baseball scene this season.

"Greg threw well this summer and he showed it wasn't a fluke this fall," comments junior starting pitcher Jeff Gilmore.  "(He has) really consistent stuff.  I stood behind him a few times, behind the catcher, and he threw some of the best curve balls that I've seen him throw.  It was a big improvement from last year.  Additionally, he's got a two-seam fastball that backs up almost like a screwball.  He's kind of blown me up a few times while playing catch with him."

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While Greg Reynolds is one of the clear favorites to move into the Sunday starter spot this year (behind juniors Mark Romanczuk and Gilmore in the rotation), he has plenty of competition from two of his classmates.  One of those classmates is the southpaw Holler.

While Reynolds' fall season at Stanford this year was awfully impressive, it still didn't compare to what Holler brought to the table.  In 13 2/3 innings, the Indiana native proved to be unhittable as he fanned 21 opposing batters and held his fellow teammates to a .170 batting average.  So if you think Reynolds has got the Sunday job all wrapped up, all you have to do is look at those staggering fall statistics and you see why Coach Marquess has the ideal problem on his hands.

Holler was a revelation during the first half of last season.  As the team's #3 starter, he came up with a few tremendous outings.  In his first career start, Holler tossed six innings of three-hit baseball with only one run allowed against a Texas ballclub that spent a good portion of the season ranked #1 in the country.  The following week (February 29th), Holler went up to Berkeley and promptly allowed only one run in seven innings against the Bears.  Then in late March versus the Cal Poly Mustangs, Holler came up with a gem that saw him go eight innings with one run surrendered.  A couple of rocky starts in April knocked Holler out of the rotation, but he would regain his touch in his bullpen role becoming one of Stanford's most reliable relievers down the stretch.  The Terre Haute, Indiana native, finished the season with a 4.34 ERA in 58 innings (third on the team).  For his efforts, Holler was named the team's most valuable freshman at the end-of-the-year banquet.

Like just about every freshman in any NCAA sport, it was by and large an inconsistent year for Holler.  But this fall's effort on the mound leads me to believe Blake is more than ready to take a leading role on this pitching staff.

"The major difference this fall was being able to make big pitches when I needed to and that's what kept me out of trouble," offers Holler.  "Whereas last year I would get into trouble and then I wouldn't make the big pitch when I needed to.  This fall, whenever I got into trouble I was able to get out of it."

He continues, "I'm really working on command and location of pitches because that's proved to be the most important thing at this level.  You can throw 95 (miles per hour), but if it's over the middle, it's going to get hit.  The one thing that I've tried to work on is locating my pitches and that really helped me out this fall."

Stanford baseball fans were often frustrated with the ongoing battle for the third starter position on the team last year.  We may see a similar battle this season, however from the looks of it, it's going to be a situation where pitchers keep outdoing the other.  These sophomores are just that good.

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Reynolds and Holler are certainly the favorites to grab hold of the Sunday spot in the rotation, but one can't forget about Matt Leva.  Leva didn't enter Stanford with nearly as much hype as the above two hurlers, but proved to be just, if not more, successful than any of his classmates when it mattered most.

Leva split time most of the season between the bullpen and the role of Tuesday starter before Coach Marquess finally gave him a chance to start during a weekend game on May 17th at Arizona.  He started strong with three shutout innings before two runs scored against him in the fourth and fifth frames knocked him out of the contest.  The Texas native though would get another chance the following weekend against USC and he would come through in a big way.  On a strict pitch count, Leva fired four no-hit innings against the Trojans with one strike out in Stanford's key 8-2 victory.  Two weeks later, Leva was on the mound in an elimination game versus St. John's in the NCAA Regionals.  No sweat for this cool customer.  With Stanford's back up against the wall, Leva promptly fired a seven-hit complete game with just two runs allowed, one walk, and five strike outs.  This outing often gets overlooked when people remember that fateful weekend of Cardinal baseball (as it was sandwiched in between two losses to Long Beach State), but how often do you see an inexperienced freshman come through with a complete-game victory in a postseason contest like Leva did?

Unfortunately, that's been the last time Leva has thrown on the Sunken Diamond mound.  Leva suffered an injury to his right, throwing elbow toward the end of his summer while pitching up in Alaska and as a result, had to sit out the entire fall season.  It is unclear whether Leva will be at full strength when the team opens preseason practice at the beginning of next month, but if he's ready to go, you have to figure he'll challenge the duo of Reynolds and Holler for a spot in the starting rotation.  And at the very least, he'll be a key member of the bullpen.

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The final pitcher of this quartet of sophomore hurlers is Jeff Stimpson.  Stimpson spent the entire year last season in the bullpen making 20 appearances and compiling a 4.68 ERA over 32 2/3 innings pitched.  The ERA may not jump out at you, but this young right-hander burst onto the scene last spring and came up huge in numerous late inning situations.

Stimpson didn't make his first appearance of the year until a month into the season when on February 28th, he tossed two shutout innings to close a ballgame at Cal.  For the next two months, no one could touch him.  Over his first 11 outings (from February 28th through April 27th), Stimpson allowed only two runs on 11 hits in 20 2/3 innings for a staggering 0.87 ERA and an opponents batting average of .159.  He would struggle over the final month of the regular season as the ERA ballooned up to the final mark of 4.68.

"He threw well last year," states Marquess.  "The last 1/3 of the year he was a little inconsistent which is understandable for a freshman.  A lot of times they're lights-out one outing and then not quite as good the next.  He pitched well for us and now he's better."

Better might be an understatement.  Stimpson dazzled over the summer as a starting pitcher up in the Alaska League (considered the second most high-profile summer league behind the Cape) recording a 2.66 ERA (seventh in the league) and 43 strike outs in 47 1/3 innings.  He followed that up with a spectacular fall back on the Farm.  Stimpson, like Reynolds and Holler, held opposing hitters to a sub-.200 batting average finishing at .194 (the three sophomores were the only pitchers on the staff this fall to hold opposing hitters to an average of less than .200).  He also struck out 18 in 17 1/3 innings and compiled one of the lowest ERA's on the team.

It would appear Stimpson has become that much desired consistent pitcher and that has Coach Marquess thinking of using him as the team's closer in 2005.  Last year's closer David O'Hagan (who has graduated) would often be called upon to throw three or four innings of a close game.  And with what Stimpson showed over the summer as a successful starting pitcher who could pitch into the sixth or seventh inning, going through the lineup more than once should not be a problem.

"I think Jeff Stimpson is developing into a David O'Hagan figure," says Gilmore.  "An anchor in the bullpen.  I thought in the summer he had great makeup as a starter.  I think Coach Marquess wants him to be that anchor in the bullpen and I think he'll do great there.  He looks like he's throwing pretty hard and he's always had a great curve ball."

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I haven't seen Leva pitch this school year, but the improvement of the other three pitchers has been fun to watch.  It bodes well for this season with one of these arms expected to move into the rotation and the other three residing in the bullpen as go-to relievers (and potentially fourth and fifth starters in the postseason).  Meanwhile looking toward the future, the outlook for 2006 is looking awfully good right now with likely most of these pitchers assuming roles in the starting rotation.  Holler offers this statement as to why the foursome has turned their game's up a notch since the end of last season:

"As a group, I think it's just experience.  (We've) pitched a pretty good amount of innings and got quite a few appearances especially with Jeff as he came in a lot of key situations in relief.  And Greg and I both got starts as well as relief appearances.  I think one of the main things was getting that game experience and getting in those big situations and dealing with adversity.  Being able to experience failure really helped."

Minaker adds, "Reynolds, Holler, and Stimpson proved that they know how to attack hitters (during fall intrasquad games).  They're not just out there throwing the ball.  They have a calculated approach to their game and they've shown they're able to execute that approach.  It looked to me like those guys really grasped the notion of pitching and of attacking hitters and understanding that they should be confident in themselves because all three of those guys are incredibly gifted as pitchers.  They have the ability to throw hard, but now they have ability to pitch and not just throw.  And we didn't even get a chance to see Matt Leva throw (over the fall) and he could give us some big games.  We should expect a lot from him too."

At this point in the season, the roles of each of these pitchers has hardly been set in stone.  Reynolds and Holler are two clear favorites to become the team's Sunday starter and certainly Leva will be in that mix when he's ready to go full-speed.  January intrasquad games will go a long way toward determining who does get the nod as the #3 starter, but make no mistake about it, all four of these pitchers will be major contributors in 2005.

Marquess adds, "They (the four sophomore pitchers) are so much further along than where they were a year ago and they pitched a lot for us last year.  I think they give us a lot of depth.  Those sophomores are all capable of pitching a lot, starting or relieving.  There's going to be a lot of competition."

Sophomore slump?  Don't count on it.  Before it's all said and done, this might be one of the best pitching classes at Stanford that we've seen in a long time.


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