Starting Lineup Taking Shape

With less than two weeks until opening night, perhaps the biggest question surrounding the Cardinal baseball team is who will fill out the bottom portion of the starting lineup. However, a handful of players are emerging both offensively and defensively and we've got the scoop. In addition, check out some notes on Sunday's high-powered intrasquad game.

Perhaps the biggest question mark surrounding this year's Stanford Baseball team right now is who will step up and replace the six departed players in the starting lineup.  A few of the spots were no brainers - even before the first pitch of fall ball.  Junior John Hester will step in and replace Donny Lucy behind the plate while sophomore Jim Rapoport is penciled in to start in center field for the graduated Sam Fuld.   Then at the end of fall practice, it was becoming evident that freshman Michael Taylor was a strong candidate to start from day one in right field.  However, that still leaves three more open spots in the lineup.

One topic of interest the entire preseason has been the battle at third base.  Junior Chris Lewis saw the bulk of the playing time over at the hot corner during fall ball.  He had a solid three weeks of October with the bat - certainly a strong enough effort to warrant immediate playing time this season in the starting lineup.  However, it would appear the coaching staff may be leaning in another direction for this position on the team.  And the primary reason has to be defense.

Sophomore Adam Sorgi has now seen the majority of the playing time at third since the start of preseason practice.  Defensively, there's probably no one better on this team on the infield.  Sorgi has excellent range and a good arm which has led to flawless defensive work this preseason.  He's a natural shortstop and probably would be Stanford's best defensive option at that important position, but with the way Chris Minaker played with the glove the last two-thirds of '04, it's clear the coaching staff doesn't want to mess with that winning formula.  And there's something to be said for keeping the middle infield combination of Minaker and Jed Lowrie intact for the duration of the season.

So if Sorgi is going to start this year at an infield position, it's going to be third base.  With Sorgi at third, the Cardinal should boast one of the top defensive infields in the country.  It may not be quite as strong as the record-setting Stanford infield of 2002 (Andy Topham, Scott Dragicevich, Chris O'Riordan, and Arik VanZandt), but they really aren't that far off. 

The only question with Sorgi is will he hit enough to stay in the lineup full-time.  Early indications this preseason say he will in fact do so.  He'll likely be plugged into the seventh or eighth spot in the lineup, so All-Conference production isn't expected.  Coach Marquess is just looking for someone to post a reasonably high average, show the ability to get on base, and do any necessary little things (i.e. bunt or hit behind a runner) that's asked of him.  If Adam Sorgi can get these things done, then combined with his defense, the Cardinal will be set at the hot corner this season.

Concerning Lewis, there are multiple options for where he'll be playing this season.  With the production he's shown with the bat in intrasquad games, Lewis will certainly be in the starting lineup on opening day.  And with the coaching staff apparently leaning toward Sorgi at third base, that has shifted Lewis' primary position to left field.  Coach Marquess recently told The Bootleg that he plans on using Lewis much like he's used Brian Hall in the past.  An athletic player who can move all over the diamond - a type of player that's invaluable to any team.  If Sorgi doesn't work out at third base, Lewis is clearly the next option over there.  But in the meantime, left field may be where we'll see Lewis on January 28th.  He has a nice throwing arm and pretty good speed (and with Jim Rapoport tracking down just about everything from his center field position, even average speed from this year's left fielder would be fine).  And of course, if Lewis doesn't start in left field, gaining playing time at designated hitter would be the next most likely destination.

The third and final open spot in the starting lineup may go to sophomore outfielder Ryan Seawell.  Seawell had a nice fall with the bat and has kept the momentum going thus far in January.  He's not a flashy player in that he doesn't hit for tremendous power or run really fast, but this Menlo Park native has shown he's more than capable of handling the pitching at this level.  And Seawell, while he's known right now as more of a gap hitter, is the type of player who will likely hit for a decent amount of power as he continues to mature.  Seawell and Lewis are clearly the two leading candidates to start in left field at this moment in time.  In all likelihood, one will be in left and the other at DH on opening night.

There are two other players who may garner immediate playing time this season.  One is junior backup first baseman Ben Summerhays.  Summerhays had just 12 at-bats last season and is looking for an increased role on the team in 2005.  Obviously first base is taken with John Mayberry, Jr., so Summerhays' only option for a spot in the starting lineup is at DH.  The key for Ben is consistent production with the bat.  He has tremendous raw power and puts on a show every day in batting practice.  Every once in awhile in intrasquads he'll put forth a spectacular game, but is still searching for that consistency.  He's struggled thus far with the bat in January practice games as the big-bodied left-handed hitter attempts to gain playing time at DH (against most likely just right-handed pitching).

The other player is freshman outfielder Brendan Domaracki.  Domaracki has been a pleasant surprise in intrasquad games this season.  A similar player to Rapoport in that he runs very well and can handle the bat, Domaracki will push both Lewis and Seawell for playing time in left field all season. 

Stanford may have the top 3-4-5 middle of the lineup in the country this year.  Add in a leadoff hitter who is an emerging star, a freshman right fielder capable of huge things from game #1, and a top flight pitching staff and you have all the makings of a Pac-10 title contender.  The difference between whether this team just challenges for the Pac-10 or makes serious noise on the national level (i.e. a legitimate Top 10 ballclub) may depend on whether this bottom 1/3 of the lineup rises up and becomes bona fide collegiate hitters to complement the rest of the lineup.

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Sunday's intrasquad game was filled with offense despite four of the top pitchers on the team seeing time on the mound.  Preseason First Team All-American John Mayberry, Jr. had a stellar day at the plate going 2-for-4 with a double, a home run, and two RBI.  His home run - off Mark Romanczuk - was particularly impressive in that he was well out on his front foot and practically swung with the just one hand.  However, the end result was a hard line drive over the 335 foot sign down the left field line.  You know you're an All-American hitter when the pitcher makes a good pitch, you're partially fooled, and yet still hit a home run. 

John Hester also had an excellent game finishing 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles and an RBI.  Strong performances like these are nothing new for Hester.  He was Stanford's top power hitter during fall ball and he's continued to swing a hot bat thus far in January.  All signs point toward a huge season for this star behind the plate.

Some of the "bottom of the order guys" mentioned above also had impressive days with the bat.  Seawell went 3-for-4 today with all three hits (singles) going to the opposite field.  Lewis finished 2-for-3 which included a ringing RBI triple to deep right center field off Jeff Gilmore.  Sorgi went 2-for-5 with a pair of hard-hit singles and an RBI.  Meanwhile, Domaracki had a 2-for-3 day that included a triple to deep center field off Greg Reynolds and two RBI.  He also reached base two other times via a walk and a hit by pitch.

The offensive output put forth by the hitters today was quite impressive.  It's been widely written about in these practice reports that the pitching has been very strong.  The first week of January intrasquads were more of the same as the hitters adjusted to seeing live pitching for the first time in a couple of months.  Now with a few at-bats under their belts, they did some serious damage this afternoon which is a very encouraging sign going forward.  Looking at the numbers, against the four pitchers who threw today (Romanczuk, Reynolds, Gilmore, and Blake Holler), the hitters hit a combined .367 (18-for-49) with five doubles, a triple, and a home run.  Only the top 12 hitters on the team saw action in today's game.

Concerning the pitching, the one real bright spot was that Blake Holler put his difficult first outing of the preseason behind him and came up with a solid performance.  In his three innings of work, Holler gave up four hits, but no runs.  He also struck out three.

Romanczuk was pretty solid during his four inning stint.  One frame saw the southpaw fire just four pitches in retiring Rapoport, Lewis, and Hester 1-2-3.  His velocity was very good sitting comfortably at 87-88 M.P.H. while he occasionally hit some 89's and 90's.  When he got into trouble, it was usually with breaking stuff that he left up in the zone.  It was some expected rust for Romanczuk who has barely pitched since the end of the summer in August.  He has one more outing (next weekend) before opening night on the 28th.

Gilmore had a tough outing, if for no other reason, that he was struck with a Chris Minaker line drive on the right foot.  The injury forced him to the dugout for about 20 minutes and it looked as if he wouldn't return for the rest of the day.  But Gilmore was able to continue and actually threw well after the injury tossing two scoreless innings.  Before the injury, the hitters touched him up for a couple of runs with a Jed Lowrie double accounting for most of the damage.

Reynolds started strong today going through Lowrie and Mayberry, Jr. easily in his first inning in putting up a zero.  The Mayberry at-bat was an impressive one as he got the slugging first baseman swinging on a fastball that just exploded low-and-inside.  Reynolds though would struggle some over his final two frames surrendering three runs - the big hits were Domaracki's two-run triple and a Hester RBI double. 

The one aspect of Reynolds' game that I really like right now is the movement he's getting on his fastball.  Often last year, that pitch would come in too straight and despite being thrown hard, would be very hittable.  He's taken a little off of that fastball (high 80's today), but it now has some cut on it and for the most part, the last two innings withstanding, he's been effective with it.

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