Fall Ball: 10/20 Notes

A trio of freshman pitchers continued their strong fall seasons during Thursday's intrasquad game. The Cardinal don't lack for talented returning hurlers, but the freshman class remains impressive on the mound proving they may be ready to contribute immediately this year. Read on for all of the latest plus notes on two veteran power hitters swinging hot bats.

One of the great aspects of Fall Ball is that every player on the team is allowed equal playing time during intrasquad games - whether you are a hitter or pitcher.  This allows for the perfect opportunity to evaluate everyone on the team, most notably the large freshman class (14 players).  The harsh reality for freshmen in the Stanford Baseball program is that it's highly unlikely you're going to see any significant playing time once the season begins.  Jeff Gilmore pitched two innings all season as a freshman.  Ryan Garko received less than 50 at-bats.  Chris O'Riordan played in one game.  David O'Hagan never saw the field. 

Combine that with the fact that this year's Stanford team returns eight hitting regulars and six of their top eight pitchers from a season ago and, on paper, it would seem that the freshman class will see very little of the field.  Think again.  If there's anything the first half of fall practice has told us it's that this large class of newcomers features plenty of very talented players.  Talented enough to begin making significant contributions as early as this February.

There's the rare exception every few years where a freshman bursts onto the scene and becomes a legitimate All-Conference or potentially even All-American player right out of the gate.  Most recent examples include Mark Romanczuk's (12-2 record) and Carlos Quentin's (.345 AVG, 11 HR) first year's on the Farm.  It's unrealistic to expect that kind of production from a first year player at this level considering the type of competition Stanford plays every year.  There are certainly a couple of early candidates in this freshman class to become immediate impact players, but even if they don't, these newcomers as a whole, won't lack production this season - both hitting and pitching.

Thursday's intrasquad game saw a trio of frosh hurlers make statements on the mound.  Jeremy Bleich had an up-and-down first two outings showing off excellent pure stuff, but lacking consistency (no surprise for any pitcher early in the fall, especially a freshman).  Thursday was a major step forward for Bleich as he attempts to earn meaningful innings as a first-year player in this program.  In fact, over his four innings of work, the Louisiana native allowed just two hits and looked dominant at times on the mound.  Bleich has a fastball that routinely sits in the upper 80's (appears to be the hardest of any of the frosh) and can reportedly touch the low 90's.  His change-up is impressive, but the curve ball on Thursday was what stood out.

I don't think you can really call the pitch a slider despite it's harder velocity.  The pitch is thrown harder than the left-handed curve ball we saw from Mark Romanczuk the last three years and is a legitimate strike out pitch right now.  Bleich would throw it in any count today fooling the top hitters on the team.  Overall, he struck out four batters and walked just a pair.

The lone blemish for Bleich came in his third inning when Cord Phelps bounced a one-out single through the hole on the right side.  Then with two down, senior catcher John Hester drove a Bleich offering over the fence in left center field for a two-run home run.  It didn't appear to be a bad pitch as Hester was jammed slightly, but still had more than enough power to drive it over the wall.  Credit the experienced backstop on that matchup (more on the hot-hitting Hester later). 

Perhaps the most impressive sequence of the afternoon though came immediately after the Hester home run.  It's no surprise to see any college pitcher come a bit unraveled after making a good pitch, but still have a batter deliver a key extra base hit.  Bleich though responded in style.  The dangerous Michael Taylor was up next and Bleich threw maybe his three best pitches of the day.  A hard fastball on pitch #1 for a strike as Taylor never took the bat off his shoulder.  That was followed by a beautiful change-up on the outside corner, knee-high for another called strike.  Then came the curve ball.  A hard breaker that darted below the strike zone that Taylor had no chance on swinging over the top for the strike out.  Three pitches - see you later.  That at-bat spoke volumes of Jeremy Bleich and his tremendous talent.

(For the record, that was only time Taylor was retired today - more later)

Fellow freshman left-hander Sean Ratliff also had a breakthrough outing on Thursday.  The Colorado Player of the Year a season ago, Ratliff had good velocity on his fastball - the best I've seen in three appearances this fall from him.  His change-up and slow curve ball were working very well to the tune of a whopping five strike outs in 2 1/3 innings.  Ratliff walked only one batter and did not allow a run during his stint on the mound.

The big inning for Ratliff came at the end of his day.  After a leadoff walk and a single off the bat of Joey August, the inning was set-up to be a big one with the heart of the lineup due up.  No problems for Ratliff though as he promptly struck out Brendan Domaracki looking (only time he was set down today), Ryan Seawell swinging, and Randy Molina swinging.  You can never have enough pitching - especially left-handed pitching - and the Cardinal have plenty of it this year.

Finally, while Bleich and Ratliff may have received the most mention on the mound for any Cardinal recruits last year - both in publicity and in terms of potential draft status - there's a frosh right-hander who has outpitched everyone in the class so far this fall.  Austin Yount had another very impressive outing on Thursday proving that he can be a key member of the pitching staff starting from day one this year. 

Yount breezed through his first two appearances of the fall, but finally ran into some trouble early today.  In his first inning, a single from August and a double to deep left field off the bat of Domaracki produced a run.  Yount responded with a ground out of Seawell and a strike out of Brian Juhl to calm the storm.  However, a pair of singles from Molina and Grant Escue added another run on the board for this hitting group against Yount.  Those last two hits were impressive swings of the bat with both players going the opposite way (to left field) on some good pitches from Yount.

And that would be it for any sort of offense against Austin Yount on this day as the freshman responded with three scoreless, no-hit innings to finish his outing.  Overall, Yount struck out three batters (punching out Seawell and Brent Milleville later in the game) with just one walk. 

It's not hard to see why Yount may have flown under the radar a bit when it comes to his pitching ability and the draft last year.  He's not a big guy listed at just 6'0", 165 lbs. and has a fastball from the right side that was clocked a couple of weeks ago in the mid 80's (84-87).  But the fact is, he's aggressive with everything he throws, is very confident on the mound, and flat-out knows how to pitch.  Austin Yount may not have the overpowering right-handed fastball or body type that scouts crave, but the indications from his first fall ball are that he's going to be an important pitcher from early on in his Stanford career. 

And it may get lost in the shuffle a bit, but Yount was just as accomplished in high school as the top recruits in this class.  He was named a First Team All-American as a junior.

If these three pitchers continue to build on their early fall performances, expect the trio to be pushed into some big spots (as Mark Marquess likes to do) early in the season to get their feet wet right out of the gate.

Moving to the hitters, it was a big afternoon for the sophomore Taylor at the plate.  He finished 2-for-3 providing a line drive, RBI single to right field early in the game against Blake Holler.  In his final at-bat, Taylor took an incredibly close pitch from Ratliff that was ruled just low instead of strike three.  Ratliff then tried to come inside and the slugging right fielder belted the offering to deep left center field - one-hopping the wall for a leadoff double.  Ratliff did settle down preventing Taylor from scoring, but it was still an impressive at-bat from the emerging star.

Freshman J.J. Jelmini rapped out three hits as part of a 3-for-5 (all singles) performance at the plate on Thursday.  Jelmini has impressed, both offensively and defensively, during the first half of fall ball.  He's a natural shortstop, but is splitting time between short, second, and third during drills and intrasquad games.  One of the top defenders on the team, Jelmini also continues to bat leadoff for his hitting group.  Based on my observations, Jelmini has all the tools to be a successful player in the starting lineup for this program - perhaps sooner rather than later.  He'll have a tough time cracking the lineup this year though with the likes of Chris Minaker, Adam Sorgi, and Chris Lewis on the infield (barring injuries or a move back to the outfield or DH for Lewis which seems unlikely).

Overall, Thursday was a good day for the pitchers with the junior Holler also throwing well.  He started his afternoon with a pair of no-hit frames with a walk and a strike out.  His third and final inning saw base hits from Jelmini, frosh catcher/first baseman Jason Castro, and Taylor produce a run.  A second run scored on a passed ball. 

Freshman Max Fearnow also saw time on the mound allowing two runs on four hits in 3 1/3 innings.  Fearnow has good stuff and has impressed this fall.  It will be interesting to see where he fits in this crowded pitching staff.

Other Notes:
* Wednesday was a huge day for the offense against the third pitching group.  Three players - including two freshmen - blasted home runs in the hitter-friendly intrasquad contest.  Brent Milleville continued his torrid fall at the plate with a line drive that looked as if it would go through the scoreboard in left center field.  The home run was Milleville's team-leading third of the fall season.  His classmate Jelmini also connected for a long ball driving a pitch over the fence down the left field line for a three-run shot.  Finally, Hester also smoked a home run taking a David Stringer offering and crushing it over the scoreboard for a two-run blast.  Hester, of course, also homered on Thursday and has 12 RBI in eight games this fall.

* Other strong efforts at the plate on Wednesday came from Jim Rapoport (3-for-4, 2B) and Ratliff (2-for-4, 2 RBI).  Rapoport drove a Rex Petrill pitch high off the fence in right field for a two-bagger.  Ratliff, meanwhile, has had a quiet fall at the plate until this week.  He delivered a couple of RBI singles on Wednesday before a ringing double to deep left center on Thursday (after he left the game on the mound).  Ratliff has his work cut out for him to contribute at the plate this year with players such as Taylor, Rapoport, Domaracki, and Seawell (not to mention fellow frosh Jeff Whitlow and August) also playing the outfield.  But these last two days have been steps in the right direction and his dominant outing on the mound this afternoon certainly helped his cause as well.

* Friday will feature the top pitching group of Matt Manship, Greg Reynolds, Jeff Stimpson, and Nolan Gallagher on the mound during the intrasquad game.  On Sunday, the Cardinal will play their annual Alumni Game at Sunken Diamond.  A shortened Old-Timers Game is scheduled for 12:00 P.M. before a full-length contest between the 2006 squad and recent alumni at 1:30 P.M.

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