Baseball Set To Resume Play

The Cardinal baseball season is set to heat up as the team returns from their 12-day finals break this weekend. Stanford boasts the #12 national ranking and will play the likes of Pacific, San Jose State, and Sacramento State before the start of the Pac-10 schedule on April 1st. Read on for notes and commentary on how the season has gone thus far, what looks good, and what needs to improve.

The wait is almost over.  Baseball is about to return.  The Stanford Cardinal are just completing 12 consecutive days without any games as the players prepared for and then took their final exams.  So far in 2005, it's been a season of mixed results, but overall the team boasts an 11-7 record (not bad at all for the schedule they've played) and a #12 national ranking.  Stanford is now scheduled to play six games versus the likes of Pacific, San Jose State, and Sacramento State before opening the Pac-10 portion of the schedule on April 1st at Washington State.

The first 18 games of the season have been quite predictable.  Stanford is playing one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country this season with road trips to defending national champion Cal State Fullerton and last year's runner-up Texas.  The end result versus those two teams was just a 1-5 record, but if nothing else, the Cardinal showed they could compete with two of the best teams in the country (Texas is ranked #1, Fullerton #2 in this week's Baseball America poll).  The two losses at Fullerton came by a combined three runs with the three Texas defeats were by a total of four scores.  The close defeats still show up as an "L" on the win-loss ledger, but they could prove to be quite valuable as the season progresses.

First and foremost, it gave the players and coaches a pretty good idea of what needs to be improved upon if this team is to make a run at Omaha.  At the top of the list, it's for better overall production from the entire starting lineup.  Stanford fans were spoiled last year when, as a team, the Cardinal hit .324 with a remarkable 96 home runs.  With six new faces in the starting lineup and the brutal schedule, a slow hitting start for the team was expected.  But the positive is that the players have seen the very best now when it's comes to opposing pitching and it should do wonders as they embark on a pitching-rich Pac-10 Conference schedule.  This lineup, while the overall numbers may not reflect it just yet, does not lack for talent and stacks up favorably with some of the high-powered Cardinal lineups of recent years (with the notable exception of not having quite as much home run power as last season).

Certainly the bottom half of the lineup is the focal point here, but already since the Texas series a lot of guys are starting to show plenty of improvement.  Stanford racked up a pair of non-conference series wins over USC and Cal (4-2 combined record) before the finals break and the offense played a pivotal role in a couple of those victories.  Two of the new outfielders are slowly, but surely increasing their batting averages with Chris Lewis hitting at .284 and Jim Rapoport at .279.  Lewis has also now smoked four home runs (second on the team) with Rapoport knocking out four doubles and a triple (not to mention ten walks - tied for third on the club).  Production from these two hitters toward the bottom of the lineup will be key if Stanford is to make any kind of run in the Pac-10 and beyond.

Not surprisingly, Michael Taylor has been inconsistent with the bat early this season.  It's not often that Mark Marquess inserts a freshman into the starting lineup from day one and then never takes him out even if the player struggles.  Taylor began his career with just two hits in his first 25 at-bats, but has since hit .326 (14-for-43).  Like his fellow outfielders, he appears to be coming around with the bat (overall average now at .235) and it's quite clear the coaching staff has high hopes for this young man and is expecting him to be a main offensive threat by May/June.  And while, at times, there are at-bats where Taylor will look completely overmatched, he is getting better and continued improvement can be expected.

The one position in the lineup that has also gotten off to a slow start, but has yet to really show many signs of improvement is that of DH.  Four different players have received starts at designated hitter through the first 18 contests with Brendan Domaracki, Ben Summerhays, Ryan Seawell, and Jeff Boes combining for a .188 average (12-for-64) with no extra base hits and 21 strike outs.  Of late, Marquess appears to have settled on Domaracki as the DH versus right-handed pitching and Seawell versus the lefties, but fans are still waiting for a breakout game.

Both Domaracki and Seawell showed some signs of life before the break as Domaracki made a lot of solid contact in the Cal series even if the numbers don't reflect it.  Meanwhile, Seawell went 2-for-4 with two RBI off the bench in the USC series.  Unfortunately, Seawell never got a chance to swing the bat versus the Bears as Cal sports a right-handed heavy pitching staff.  It's been a bit curious that Marquess will, under no circumstances, allow Seawell to bat against a right-handed pitcher (or on the flip side, have Domaracki hit versus a lefty).  It will be interesting to see if this continues as the team returns from break.

Through 18 games, another thing is clear with this team and it's that the outfield defense is nowhere close to what Stanford has seen over the past couple of seasons.  The most mystifying was Rapoport misplaying numerous balls in center field during a couple of the early series'.  Rapoport is an excellent defensive player and fortunately has appeared to put those miscues behind him with some stellar defensive work versus USC and Cal.  It's no surprise that Lewis has endured some problems in left, as after all, he's a natural infielder.  Lewis played very little in the outfield at Stanford until the open of preseason practice in January.  Meanwhile, it's quite frankly been an adventure with Taylor out in right.  Taylor has committed three errors on dropped fly balls and there have been a handful of other misplays that could have been ruled errors as well.  While you have to love Taylor's arm out in right field, I don't know if this coaching staff can afford to keep him out there when the team starts playing the really big games in May and June.  Of course, if he improves, then all the better.  But if not, then why not put the Seawell/Domaracki starter out in right and shift Taylor to DH?  And then down the road, you have to wonder if Taylor may move to first base during his future years on the Farm.  It's certainly something to think about.

Finally on the mound, Stanford has racked up an impressive 3.84 team ERA.  The one possible negative could be the overall inconsistency of the relief corps.  Not a surprise with the freshmen as Erik Davis and Nolan Gallagher (who has actually pitched more as a starter than a reliever) are expected to endure some bumps and bruises as they adjust to facing college hitting.  And the upside on these two pitchers is outstanding as you can tell by watching both that they have all of the tools to be very successful pitchers, probably as starters, while at Stanford.

The most concerning aspect of the pitching staff is probably the lack of production from two veterans in Matt Manship and Jeff Stimpson.  And the reason why is primarily lack of game action.  Manship has pitched in three games totaling 4 1/3 innings with no runs allowed (2 2/3 of those innings came in Stanford's last game before the break).  Manship was a bit up-and-down in intrasquad games (which was a concern at the time since he's so experienced), but you hope he is able to turn things around, gain regular playing time, and succeed.  Stanford fans are well aware of what an effective Matt Manship can do for the Stanford bullpen (nine saves as a freshman in 2003).

The real mystery with the pitching staff is that of the sophomore Stimpson.  Stimpson was lights-out during fall practice and entered January as the closer on the team (as stated by Coach Marquess).  Overall, he pitched well again in January, but has only thrown in one game this year (a scoreless frame versus USC).  Obviously the coaches are playing to win and Stimpson is not injured, so the logical explanation is that he's not pitching nearly as well as he was during January intrasquads.  The team plays weekly intrasquads and "JV" games versus local teams, so Stimpson is getting work.  One thing is for sure, a Cardinal pitching staff with an effective Stimpson could do some serious damage during the Pac-10 season.  The first six weeks I'm sure is not what Jeff had envisioned, but there's still plenty of season remaining to be a major contributor.

Overall, there's plenty to like about this year's Stanford team right now.  The overall team ERA number is impressive and is over a half a run lower than what last year's Pac-10-leading pitching staff finished at.  Mark Romanczuk and Jeff Gilmore were both solid performers at the top of the rotation last year with Romanczuk earning All-Conference honors.  And as you would hope, both hurlers appear to be taking their game to the next level as juniors.

Romanczuk endured a rough start at Texas back on February 18th, but has since come up with two gems versus SC and Cal.  The lefty tossed a pair of complete games with just three runs and nine hits allowed.  Overall, Romanczuk boasts a 4-2 record with a 3.20 ERA and a spectacular .213 batting average against.  Romanczuk has shown he can dominate and has put the minor control problems he was having early in the season behind him.

Meanwhile, Gilmore has actually posted even slightly better numbers than his classmate.  Speaking to me before the season, Gilmore said he wanted to have a year that mirrored John Hudgins' junior campaign and it's so far, so good for the Huntington Beach native.  Through six starts, Gilmore has a 2-1 record with a fantastic 2.80 ERA.  He continues to possess excellent control with just ten walks in 35 1/3 innings while the opposition is hitting a paltry .194 against him.  That last statistic is perhaps the most telling as Gilmore is hardly overpowering with a fastball in the mid-80's, but he's the true definition of a "pitcher" and has been a pleasure to watch perform his craft this early season.  If Romanczuk and Gilmore can maintain this level of excellence, then Stanford should be a force on the national scene this season.

The third starter is still a question mark, but I feel as if it's not nearly as big a problem as last season.  Gallagher faltered in his last two Sunday starts, but has shown he can compete with his performances versus Kansas and Texas (five shutout innings against the Jayhawks while he carried a one-hit shutout into the sixth in Austin).  If Gallagher isn't allowed to continue as the third starter, sophomore Blake Holler is a logical choice to replace him.  Holler has been the Cardinal's most reliable reliever so far with a 3.15 ERA and .215 opposing average in 20 innings out of the bullpen.  Holler also has starting experience as he spent roughly two months of last season as the Sunday guy with plenty of success.

It will also be interesting to watch the role Greg Reynolds has with the team for the rest of the season.  Reynolds was roughed up in two Sunday starts very early in the year before he was regulated to the bullpen.  It would appear, however, that he's starting to regain his touch as the sophomore allowed just two hits and one earned run in 3 2/3 innings over relief appearances against the Trojans and Bears.  If he's not a weekend starter, look for Reynolds to be a key long reliever during the Pac-10 season.

The emergence of the two players on the left side of the infield has also been exciting to see through the first 18 games.  Chris Minaker wasn't asked of much last season as the #9 hitter in the lineup, but that's all changed now as he finds himself in the second slot in front of the All-American duo.  And Minaker has so far come through with a .324 batting average and a whopping seven doubles.  He's doing a nice job of getting on base while his defense at shortstop has been phenomenal (no errors).

Sorgi hit just .214 as a freshman last year in limited action, but has showed possibly the most improvement of any position player.  Recently inserted into the top spot in the batting order, Sorgi is tied for second on the team with a sizzling .338 batting average, six doubles, one triple, and one home run.  Sorgi, like Minaker, is also doing a great job of putting balls in play.  And like his infield mate, Sorgi is playing tremendous defense at third as the Cardinal boast a spectacular .978 fielding percentage despite the outfield struggles (would be the highest in school history if the season ended today).

The coaching staff is certainly looking for more production from John Hester, but that should happen shortly.  Hester has slugged six doubles and his 15 RBI (third on the team), but his batting average sits at just .268 with no home runs.  Look for Hester to come out and put together a few nice games with the bat as he tries to solidify himself as the #5 hitter in the batting order.

Finally, it's ho hum for the Preseason All-Americans, Jed Lowrie and John Mayberry, Jr.  Lowrie has already smoked seven home runs to go with 24 RBI and a .338 batting average through 18 games.  Lowrie is clearly being pitched around a lot more this season, but is doing a nice job of being patient and waiting for his pitch.  Meanwhile, Mayberry is tops on the team with a .352 batting average.  He has clubbed four home runs along with 18 RBI and like Lowrie appears headed for a huge season with the bat.  As the weather warms and the other hitters in the Cardinal lineup start to put up big numbers, look for Jed and Junior to take off and lead what should be a potent offensive attack.

The Pac-10 is as competitive as ever this season.  I would argue that it's the strongest Pac-10 since the Six Pac and Nor Pac merged before the 1999 season.  Six of the nine teams possess RPI rankings in the top 47 and two of the remaining three feature winning records.  That means no weekend will be easy for Stanford, so this team will be quite prepared when postseason play begins in June.  The question now becomes will they post enough wins in this very difficult conference so they can enjoy the advantage of home games in the NCAA's?  Only time will tell, but if the bottom of the lineup continues to improve, the outfield defense tightens up, and the third starter/bullpen provides a lift then there's no reason to think this team can't compete with and win against the very best in the country.

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