Fall Baseball Preview

Fall Ball begins on Sunday for the Cardinal baseball team as they begin their preparations for the 2006 season. Stanford returns the bulk of their offense and numerous key pitchers from last year's club that advanced to a Regional championship game. Here is a Fall Ball preview with analysis on some of the burning questions surrounding the team plus notes on this year's game schedule.

Official Fall Practice begins for the Stanford Baseball team at Sunken Diamond on Sunday afternoon.  The three-week stretch of practices will, most importantly, feature numerous intrasquad games that give us a preview of this year's Cardinal baseball squad.  Here are some questions to consider surrounding the 2006 club that we hope to get answers on during Fall Ball:

1. Who will emerge as the next star hitter(s)?

Stanford returns the bulk of their offense from a team that advanced to a Regional championship game last June as eight of the 11 regulars from that squad will be suiting up in 2006.  Two notable departures though include All-American second baseman Jed Lowrie and first round draft pick John Mayberry, Jr.  This duo was the centerpiece of the '05 squad and although neither reached their 2004 outputs at the plate, they were still two of the most feared hitters in the country.  Lowrie and Mayberry combined to smack 22 home runs to go with 34 doubles and 119 RBI last season.  Now the question becomes who will step up and fill their shoes?

The two most likely candidates would seem to be senior catcher John Hester and sophomore outfielder Michael Taylor.  Hester hit .282 with five homers and 41 RBI as an everyday starter last year.  An above-average defensive player with good leadership skills behind the plate, the time is now for the Georgia native to break out offensively.  It could potentially be the #1 key to Stanford's season that a star hitter or two emerge and the '06 edition will have something the 2005 team never did - experienced senior bats.  John Hester is at the forefront of the list and will be one to watch in the fall and in January to see if he can take a leading role at the plate.

Taylor has more physical skills than Hester, but not nearly as much experience at the collegiate level.  The 6'6", 235 lb. toolsy outfielder had a solid freshman campaign hitting .289 with four home runs, 28 RBI, and nine stolen bases.  Good numbers when you're playing a supporting role, but not enough if you're being asked to lead an offense.  Taylor had a tremendous summer in the high-profile Alaska League hitting a cool .317 with power.  He was named the top prospect in the entire league and is receiving mention as a potential first round draft pick in 2007.  But for the short-term, the Cardinal coaches are hoping for a breakthrough season offensively for Taylor to bring some much-needed firepower to this lineup.

Other experienced returnees for the Cardinal who figure to play larger roles include seniors Chris Minaker and Chris Lewis.  Juniors Adam Sorgi and Jim Rapoport also were everyday players in 2005.  But the bottom line is who will emerge to lead the offense, hit for a high average, and supply the power.  Stanford hit a modest .287 as a team last year and badly need improvement in that category if they are to make a deep run in June.


2. Which pitchers will fill the three weekend starting spots?

Stanford's top two starters from a year ago - Jeff Gilmore and Mark Romanczuk - have moved onto professional baseball.  Gilmore, especially, will be difficult to replace after his All-Pac-10 season that saw him finish 10-3 with a 3.76 ERA over 117 innings.  Fall intrasquad games allow for every pitcher on the team to receive equal playing time and thus we get a sneak peak at who might be ready to fill those weekend starting assignments.

Junior Matt Leva has the most starting experience of any hurler on the staff.  The Texas native made 11 starts a year ago (plus six relief appearances) and finished a solid 5-2 with a 4.12 ERA.  Leva also again dazzled in his postseason start tossing five shutout innings in an elimination contest against UT-San Antonio last June.  Leva is clear candidate to remain in the starting rotation, but doesn't necessarily fit the mold as a potential dominant, overpowering Friday hurler.

Classmate Greg Reynolds finished the '05 campaign with authority compiling a sub-2.00 ERA over the final month of the regular season before his memorable 11-inning start against Baylor in the Waco Regional championship game.  Combine that with his masterful summer up in the Cape and expectations are high for the 6'7" right-hander.  Reynolds is a hard thrower who appears to have settled in now at the collegiate level and could be poised for a special season. 

Sophomores Nolan Gallagher and Erik Davis are also premium talents looking to breakthrough in 2006.  Each saw plenty of significant time on the mound as frosh - Gallagher, in particular.  The little-known recruit from Montana, Gallagher impressed immediately last preseason with a blazing low 90's fastball and knee-buckling knuckle-curve ball.  The end result was a fantastic freshmen season (primarily as a reliever) when he finished with a 2.93 ERA and over a strike out per inning pitched on average (60 K's in 55 IP).  Gallagher took the summer off to rest and prepare for an important fall season.  Everything about this right-hander screams dominant, hard thrower, top-of-the-rotation pitcher.  If he stays healthy, could 2006 be the year Nolan Gallagher takes that next step?

The fellow sophomore Davis also impressed last year with his 4.31 ERA over 39 innings.  He then thrived as a starter in a lesser-known California summer league.  Davis doesn't throw quite as hard as Gallagher, but still has excellent stuff and was widely regarded as one of the top high school pitchers in the Class of 2004.  Junior Blake Holler is an experienced left-handed arm who could possibly take over a starting spot (3.48 ERA last year).  Meanwhile, senior Matt Manship figures to anchor the bullpen after his stellar '05 year (0.80 ERA, 5 Saves), but could always jump into the rotation if needed.


3. Which freshmen will be ready to contribute from Day One?

Always a hot topic during fall ball.  This will be our first live look at the freshman class and there's plenty of reasons for optimism.  It's a large class with 14 newcomers sporting the Cardinal and White for the first time.  Six of the 14 are pitchers - four of which are left-handed.  There's an exciting two-way athlete, a couple of bonafide top 100 players, a relative of a Hall of Famer, and of course those four left-handed pitchers.

Lefty Jeremy Bleich was a highly sought after high school pitcher last fall choosing Stanford over the likes of Tulane, LSU, and Rice.  A High School All-American, Bleich headlines a deep pitching class.  Tom Stilson, Blake Hancock, and Sean Ratliff also pitch from the left side with Ratliff earning All-American honors as a two-way player last spring.  All indications are that the Colorado Player of the Year will be given a chance to both pitch and play the outfield in an effort to get his power left-handed bat in the lineup. 

Other pitchers include Austin Yount and Max Fearnow.  Yount, the Arizona Player of the Year, is the nephew of the Hall of Famer Robin and enters Stanford with high expectations on the mound.

In addition to Ratliff, other freshmen outfielders include Joey August and Jeff Whitlow.  August is from the same town as Lowrie (Salem, Oregon) and was an accomplished football quarterback in addition to starring on the baseball field during his high school days.  Whitlow was one of the top center field prospects last spring and could become a successful leadoff hitter sometime in the future.

On the infield, J.J. Jelmini is a highly regarded shortstop who figures to push for immediate playing time.  Cord Phelps and Stephen Brown also joined the Cardinal baseball program this fall as infielders.  Grant Escue, another frosh, is a first baseman while Jason Castro was drafted last June as a catcher.

Finally, keep on eye on Brent Milleville.  A 6'3", 230 lb. catcher, Milleville earned Kansas State Player of the Year honors as both a junior and a senior.  Potentially the prize of this freshman class, Milleville has a cannon for an arm, a power bat, and also has the ability to play first base.

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Other hot questions entering Fall Ball include who will step in and play first base?  Stanford lost all three of their first basemen from a year ago (Mayberry, Jr., Ben Summerhays, and Darren Gemoll) and thus leaves a big hole at the position.  Which players will be switching - or at least trying-out - at new positions during the fall?  Will there be any lower-profile freshmen that rise up and prove they are ready to play from the start of the season?  Which returnees will show the greatest improvement from last June to the present day?

Plenty of questions and they all should be answered (at least partly) beginning Sunday afternoon with the first day of fall practice.

SCHEDULE UPDATE
The 2006 game schedule has been finalized with opening day slated for Friday, February 3rd against Cal State Fullerton.  The Cardinal will play their first ten games of the season at Sunken Diamond against the likes of the Titans, Kansas Jayhawks, Texas Longhorns, and Nevada Wolf Pack.  Stanford then will head out on the road for ten straight games away from the Farm before finals break.  There are no surprises in the non-conference schedule with late-February/early-March series' versus Fresno State, California, and USC.

The 24-game Pac-10 schedule begins on March 25th with a home series against Washington State.  This year, the Cardinal will host the Cougars, Trojans, Sun Devils, and Golden Bears at Sunken Diamond.  Stanford travels to defending Pac-10 Champion Oregon State, Arizona, Washington, and UCLA.  The regular season concludes Memorial Day weekend with a two-game, home-and-home series against UC Davis.

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