Baseball Opens Fall Practice

The Cardinal baseball squad opened their three-week Fall Practice season on Sunday at Sunken Diamond. The team has already taken part in a pair of intrasquad games with many eye-opening performances. Read on for notes on a returning outfielder starting strong, a freshman position player impressing right off the bat and much more.

The Cardinal baseball team opened official fall practice on Sunday afternoon in preparation for the 2006 season.  Before examining all of the details from the intrasquad games on Sunday and Monday, here's a quick look at where everyone is beginning the fall defensively.  The coaching staff rotates players constantly from practice-to-practice in terms of defensive positioning for both drills and games, yet it's still noteworthy to evaluate where each player was placed for the initial full-team pregame infield/outfield drill:

C - John Hester, Brian Juhl, Jason Castro

The senior Hester headlines the group of catchers this season.  After seeing very little time behind the likes of Ryan Garko and Donny Lucy in his first two seasons, Hester started all but one game behind the dish last year.  A senior catcher should be quite a luxury for the Cardinal coaches and pitching staff this season.  Meanwhile, Juhl suffered through an injury-plagued freshman campaign last year, but the switch-hitting backstop is now healthy and ready to jump-start his collegiate career.  Castro, an East Bay native, was drafted last June and despite maybe flying under the radar a bit in this freshman class with the presence of Brent Milleville, is a talented catcher with some pop from the left side of the plate.  Sophomore Jeff Boes, another catcher, is currently inactive.

1B - Ryan Seawell, Brent Milleville (Grant Escue)
2B - Chris Lewis, Austin Yount, Cord Phelps
SS - Chris Minaker, Adam Sorgi, J.J. Jelmini
3B - Randy Molina, Stephen Brown, Matt Cano

As written earlier, first base will be a point of emphasis during fall ball with all new faces at the position.  Seawell, an outfielder during his first two years on the Farm, continues to see the most playing time at first base among all returnees.  Milleville, a recruited catcher, does have some previous experience at first base, so it's not a new position for him.  Escue did not participate in this initial infield/outfield drill (more on that later), but unlike the two players mentioned above, is a natural first baseman and is seeing all of his time in the field at the position.  Meanwhile, Seawell (outfield) and Milleville (catcher) continue to see plenty of playing time at other positions at other points in practice.

As hinted in an earlier article, Lewis appears to be fully making the transition back to the infield where he spent the first two years of his collegiate career.  Minaker is a two-year starter at shortstop although Sorgi is seeing plenty of playing time at the position.  The junior is probably Stanford's top defensive infielder (he made a fantastic diving catch at shortstop on a line drive moving to his right during Sunday's game).  It will be interesting to follow whether the coaching staff will seriously look at Sorgi at shortstop as we move closer to the regular season.  While Minaker is certainly not a liability, Sorgi is a prospect at the position at the next level.  The down side though would be moving a very experienced player from an important position which could also shift other players around on the infield.

Jelmini, Phelps, and Yount are all freshmen seeing plenty of time at the middle infield positions.  Yount is more well-known for his success on the mound (more on that later).  Finally over at third base, Molina is the lone returnee at the position.  A left-handed hitter, Molina had only six at-bats last year as a freshman.  Brown is a freshmen while Cano, a sophomore, spent last year as a team manager.  Sorgi and Lewis have the most game experience on the team at this position.

LF - Brendan Domaracki, Joey August
CF - Jim Rapoport, Jeff Whitlow
RF - Michael Taylor, Sean Ratliff

Three returnees and three freshmen are currently manning the outfield positions.  Domaracki spent essentially all of his playing time last year at designated hitter, but is a solid defensive outfielder who can play all three positions.  The speedy Rapoport and the slugging Taylor were the everyday starters in center and right, respectively, last season.  Whitlow, much like Rapoport, is a speedster and possesses tremendous potential.  August made a fantastic, full-extension, diving catch running back toward the warning track in left field during the intrasquad game on Monday.  Meanwhile, Ratliff is a two-way player who has already seen action on the mound this fall.  Seawell also continues to see action in the outfield during practice games.

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The first question I addressed in my "Fall Preview" article last week was who will step up and become the top hitter(s) on this team.  One of the players profiled was sophomore right fielder Michael Taylor and the Florida native is off to a hot start.  Standing 6'6", Taylor looks much more muscular this fall as opposed to last year at this time.  He's always had the big physical frame, but with a year of college baseball (and weight training) behind him, it appears from looking at him that Michael Taylor is quickly becoming a well-built physical specimen.  I'd look for big things at the plate from Taylor this upcoming season.

The top high school prospect in the country according to TeamOne Baseball back in 2004, Taylor went a perfect 4-for-4 at the plate over the first two intrasquad games.  Sunday saw a pair of ringing doubles to left field off his bat while he came through with a pair of singles during Monday's contest.  Taylor also continues to run very well and is one of the top threats on this team to leg out an infield single and steal a base.

Finding power sources will be a key for Stanford this season and while more doubles and home runs should definitely come from Taylor this year, a new face is quickly proving that he could be a force to be reckoned with this season.  Catcher/first baseman Brent Milleville had a spectacular afternoon at the plate on Monday.  The two-time Kansas State Player of the Year, Milleville was regarded by many to have some of the best raw power among the high school ranks last spring.  A potential top-five round draft selection if not for his strong commitment to Stanford, Milleville, like Taylor, is a noticeable presence on the baseball field with his 6'3", 230 lb. stature. 

On Monday, Milleville finished a sparkling 4-for-5 with a pair of doubles and a home run (the only on the team thus far) during the intrasquad game.  The home run was a rocket to left on a fastball thrown by fellow freshman Jeremy Bleich.  His first double, a line drive to left field, came off of Blake Holler - the only hit surrendered by the lefty during his stint on the mound.  A pull hitter, Milleville looks to be a very exciting young player who could push for immediate time.  Not to mention he plays more than one position and has a cannon for an arm.

Other top performers offensively early this fall season include senior shortstop Chris Minaker.  Minaker blasted a home run to straight-away center field off of Matt Manship in a modified intrasquad game last week (no fielders, just hitter versus pitcher) and then went a perfect 2-for-2 with a double and two RBI in the first official contest on Sunday.  Hester is making lots of solid contact early on as he finished Monday with a double and three RBI.  Ryan Seawell, Brendan Domaracki, and Adam Sorgi have also had some very nice swings and resulting solid contact over the first two games of the fall season.

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The second and third pitching groups both saw time on the hill over the last two days worth of games.  On Monday, of the five pitchers who threw, four were freshmen.  The lone returnee was Holler who looked very impressive during his stint on the mound.  The junior left-hander, who had a solid '05 campaign out of the bullpen (22 games, 6-3, 3.48 ERA), was throwing with nice velocity on Monday.  His fastball was regularly hitting 88 M.P.H. on the radar gun with a few 90's mixed in.  Combine that with his curve ball and very effective change-up and it was no surprise to see Holler excel on this day.  In fact, Holler tossed three no-hit innings to begin his outing with just one walk and a pair of strike outs (note: all hitters start each at-bat with a 1-1 count).  It's a surprise to see a pitcher go back out for a fourth inning at this juncture of the fall season as each hurler is held to a strict pitch count of about 35.  But with Holler breezing through three innings with few pitches thrown, he was allowed to work into the fourth.  However, it would appear that the Indiana native did tire leaving most pitches up in the zone in that last inning leading to some walks and a run scored.  All in all though, a very encouraging outing from the veteran.

Holler left the game on Monday with the bases loaded and one out in favor of the freshman Bleich.  A highly regarded left-hander who received Top 100 mention last season from the experts, Bleich showed off very impressive stuff on Monday.  In fact, facing classmate Cord Phelps, Bleich needed just one pitch to retire the hitter (and the side) inducing Phelps to ground into an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play to halt the rally.  Quite the impressive beginning for the highly touted lefty.

Of all the freshman I've seen on the mound the last two days, Bleich was throwing the hardest with a fastball that sat in the 87-88 M.P.H. range.  He also featured an impressive curve ball and change-up - all total, three pitches that he could strike out hitters with.  Bleich is an intriguing prospect who will be one to monitor very closely during the fall and January as he strives to earn meaningful innings this season.

The only real trouble Bleich got into on Monday was one bad inning when he allowed the solo home run to Milleville which was followed two batters later by an RBI double from Hester down the right field line.  Bleich walked a pair and struck out two during his 3 2/3 innings of work.

Other freshmen to throw on Monday included Sean Ratliff, Austin Yount, and Max Fearnow.  Ratliff, who hit and played the outfield on Sunday, has a real chance to succeed as both an offensive player and a pitcher at this level.  A High School All-American last spring, Ratliff wasn't throwing quite as hard as Bleich (fastball in the mid 80's, topped out at 87 M.P.H), but threw a handful of very impressive slow, sweeping curve balls.  Ratliff may have tired in his fourth and final inning (victimized by a two-run, two-out single from Juhl), but it was still an encouraging debut from the first-year player.  The only other hit Ratliff allowed during his four frames was a Milleville double.  He finished with two walks and two strike outs.

Yount, like Ratliff, also has a chance to succeed as a two-way player at this level.  A polished right-hander with a fastball that sat between 84 and 87 M.P.H., Yount reminded me of Matt Leva on the mound.  Certainly not a prototypical pitchers body, but he was aggressive with a change-up and slow curve ball and knew how to pitch.  Fearnow, an Omaha product, had an up-and-down three-inning stint.  A right-hander, Fearnow was done in by an inning that saw him walk a pair before a clutch two-out hit plated a couple of runs.

Sunday's third pitching group saw sophomore walk-ons David Stringer and Rex Petrill along with freshmen Blake Hancock and Grant Escue throw.  Escue is an intriguing player.  As mentioned above, he's a natural first baseman who came to Stanford to play that position.  However, the coaching staff appears to be giving him a look on the mound as evident by his three innings of work Sunday afternoon.  Escue isn't a hard thrower, but displayed excellent control and a slow, looping curve ball that fooled a handful of hitters.  With Escue in the mix, the Cardinal now have four freshmen both hitting and pitching (Ratliff, Yount, and Bleich - who took a couple of at-bats Sunday) and five total frosh left-handed pitchers.  It's been quite a sight the last few days to see lefty after lefty after lefty take the hill.  It's not a common occurrence at the collegiate level, to say the least.

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The first set of intrasquad games will conclude on Tuesday afternoon at Sunken Diamond.  Greg Reynolds and Matt Manship headline the list of hurlers that are scheduled to see time on the hill.  Despite the bevy of left-handers taking the mound early this fall, the Cardinal are shorthanded with their pitching ranks at the moment - more on this in later articles. 

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