Trio Taking Charge

The hitters are heating up this week in intrasquad games as preparations continue for the upcoming season. But three experienced Cardinal hurlers are still dazzling on the mound and look ready to lead the talented and deep pitching staff. Read on for all of the latest with the possible starting rotation plus other practice notes.

The Cardinal are in the midst of their second set of intrasquad games of the preseason this week.  The bats are starting to heat up, but a trio of hurlers on Wednesday stood tall and looked poised to lead this talented and deep pitching staff.

The top performer on the mound Wednesday was sophomore right-hander Nolan Gallagher.  The Montana native, who posted a sparkling 2.93 ERA with over a strike out per inning pitched on average in his rookie campaign, excelled against his teammates this week.  Gallagher took last summer off as he returned home and rested in preparation for the upcoming season.  It was a solid Fall Ball season for the hard-thrower as he proved to be one of the more difficult pitchers to hit on the team.  But with the calendar now turned to January, it would appear Nolan Gallagher is taking his game up a notch.

On Wednesday, Gallagher fired five shutout innings with just two hits allowed.  His control was outstanding as Gallagher went his entire stint on the mound without walking a batter (hitters are now starting each count at the standard 0-0).  The second-year player also finished with two strike outs.  Both hits allowed were singles - one of which was promptly forced on a double play while the other was stranded harmlessly at first base.

Gallagher has seen a slight velocity bump this month compared to his Fall Ball performances.  This week, the righty was comfortably sitting between 88 and 91 M.P.H. while also baffling hitters with a sharp curve ball.  The breaking pitch Gallagher features (a spike curve ball) is probably the top curve on the entire pitching staff.  When it's on, he becomes probably the top strike out hurler on the team.

The role Gallagher will have on this year's club is still very much up in the air.  One possibility is that of closer.  Gallagher fits the mold as he's a hard thrower with electric overall stuff to go with the mental capabilities to thrive in high-pressure, late-inning situations.  As a freshman last year, Gallagher was often used by the coaching staff in late-inning spots.  But with his incredibly high ceiling and thus far dominant January, it could be hard for Coach Marquess to keep Gallagher out of the starting rotation.  A scout remarked to me after Wednesday's game that Gallagher certainly has first round potential in the 2007 draft.

Over his first two preseason outings, Gallagher has allowed just one run on two hits in eight innings.  He has struck out six.

A pitcher with very high round potential in the '06 draft, Greg Reynolds, also threw the ball well on Wednesday.  He wasn't quite as sharp in terms of his stuff, I thought, compared to his preseason debut last weekend.  That said, the junior right-hander battled well and the end result was just one run surrendered on three hits over four innings.  He walked a pair and struck out three.

Reynolds struggled a bit (by his standards) early in his outing as it looked like he tried to find himself out on the mound.   The velocity on his fastball was slightly down (88-90 MPH), but still effective combined with his two excellent off-speed pitches.  By his fourth inning of work, it appeared Reynolds found his groove.  He set down the side in order (with two overpowering strikeouts) showing off the kind of pure stuff that has the scouts drooling.  Overall, I thought it was another impressive outing for Reynolds as he still posted solid numbers despite what looked like not his best, in terms of stuff, over the first couple of innings.

Finally, rounding out the trio of effective hurlers on Wednesday was senior right-hander Matt Manship.  Manship had one hiccup in the middle of his outing allowing three consecutive singles which eventually led to a pair of runs.  Other than that, it was as dominant a Matt Manship as I think I've ever seen in his first 3 1/2 years at Stanford.

The Texas product did not allow a single hit over his other three innings of work.  In fact, the only baserunner was a hit by pitch.  Manship struck out three and showed off the best velocity I've seen from him ever.  The senior, who has suffered from lower velocity in past years (his sub-1.00 ERA last season was often with a mid 80's fastball), was regularly in the 88-91 M.P.H. range on Wednesday.  Low 90's and Matt Manship usually don't go together, but all the readings on the radar guns on this afternoon didn't lie.  Manship's hard breaking ball was also proving to be very difficult to hit.

On one occasion, Manship flat-out overpowered classmate John Hester with a couple of fastballs.  The final one was a 91 M.P.H. heater that exploded in on the catcher's hands.  Hester had no chance and became one of many Manship victims on the afternoon.  Like with Gallagher, Manship certainly has the ability to be an effective closer.  However, at this point in time, with all of his experience and impressive preseason results, I think there's an excellent chance he (along with Gallagher) will be in the starting rotation to begin the regular season.

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After an overall quiet weekend offensively, the hitters have started to produce through the two intrasquad games this week (Wednesday and Thursday).  Some highlights :

* Chris Minaker produced multi-hit games on both days.  The senior shortstop has probably been the team's most consistent hitter combining Fall Ball with the preseason.  His experience and ability to make contact could place Minaker in the #2 hole in the starting lineup on opening night.  This week, Minaker went 2-for-3 with a triple to deep right-center field against the top pitching group on Wednesday.  Then on Thursday, the veteran finished 3-for-4 with a double, home run, and two RBI. 

* Two of Minaker's classmates have also carried over strong fall practices into the preseason.  Hester smoked two doubles and recorded three RBI as part of a 2-for-3 effort on Thursday.  Meanwhile, second baseman Chris Lewis has hit safely in all four games thus far in the preseason (only player on the team).  On Wednesday, Lewis smacked a Jeremy Bleich offering over the fence in straight-away left field for a homer.  Lewis is Stanford's top returning power hitter in terms of home runs after blasting eight a year ago.  I expect the senior to make a run at double figures in 2006 and if his performance in intrasquads is any indication, he should also see a nice bump in batting average from a pedestrian .266 he hit a season ago.  If the average improves, I think Lewis will be an option to hit fifth or sixth in the order.  By all accounts, all three senior hitters look locked in and ready to put up some big numbers this season.

* Of course, don't forget about Michael Taylor.  The sophomore right fielder had a quiet Wednesday, but bounced back on Thursday with a 3-for-4 effort at the plate.  All three hits were singles.

* Freshman first baseman/catcher Brent Milleville had a pair of very impressive at-bats on Wednesday.  The 6'4" slugger lined a single into right field early in the game off of Blake Holler.  The hit is noteworthy as it was Milleville's second to right field already in the preseason.  The fantastic freshman had a sizzling Fall Ball, but is already showing in January an improved stroke with the ability to go the other way.

Then in his second at-bat, Milleville singled to left field against Gallagher (one of only two hits he allowed on the day).  The only negative for Milleville was after the hit when, while running the bases, he slid hard into second base.  Milleville hobbled off the field on his own power, but did not return to the game and then did not play at all on Thursday.  He was, however, in full uniform and was doing some throwing on the side, so by all accounts, the injury is minor and the coaching staff isn't wanting to force anything at this point in the season.

* First baseman/catcher Jason Castro and outfielder Joey August are two other freshman hitters hitting the ball well early in the preseason.  Castro, who bats left-handed, is seeing a considerable amount of playing time at first base during intrasquads and is handling himself very well over there.  I would expect he'll be given some at-bats early in the season with an opportunity to become an everyday player.  August probably isn't quite as advanced offensively as Castro or Milleville, but his shown a consistent left-handed stroke and is a capable defensive outfielder.  August is playing both corner outfield spots and could eventually push the duo of Brendan Domaracki and Ryan Seawell for time in left.

* Sophomore catcher Brian Juhl had a monster game on Thursday.  The switch-hitter finished 2-for-4 with a triple, a home run, and four RBI.  The home run was a no-doubter to deep right field against Erik Davis.  Juhl suffered through an injury-plagued freshman year that limited him to just one at-bat.  An extremely talented player, Juhl is stuck behind Hester at catcher this year, but his much-improved bat should get some looks at DH.

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Other pitching notes :

* Jeff Stimpson is looking like a completely different pitcher this school year.  After a solid freshman campaign that saw him record a 4.68 ERA and one save in 20 relief appearances, Stimpson basically fell off the map last season.  As a sophomore, Stimpson had a very impressive Fall Ball - enough to warrant mention from Coach Marquess pegging Stimpson as a possible closer.  But he could never really get going in the winter and spring months, for whatever reason.  A combination of a drop in velocity, the lack of an effective curve ball, and probably a loss in confidence translated to a paltry six outings out of the bullpen the entire season (5.62 ERA, 8 IP, 8 BB, 2 SO). 

Stimpson returned to Stanford this year as a junior and impressed tremendously once again during Fall Ball posting some of the top numbers on the staff across the board.  And the encouraging aspect is that the junior right-hander has built on that solid October here in January.  On Thursday, Stimpson fired four quality innings with just one run and two hits allowed.  He walked just one batter and struck out two.  His pure stuff is some of the best on the team and he's been able to control it during intrasquads this year while maintaining a high 80's-to-low 90's velocity.  If Manship and Gallagher both begin the year in the starting rotation, look for Stimpson to garner some key late-inning relief appearances during the non-conference season.  He has all of the looks of a closer right now (Stimpson has allowed just two hits over 7 1/3 innings in two preseason outings).

* The David Stringer story added another page on Thursday as well.  A walk-on from across the street at Palo Alto High School, Stringer never saw the field as a freshman.  After an eye-opening Fall Ball this year in which he led the pitching staff in many categories, Stringer has continued that strong momentum into the preseason.  On Thursday, it was four more scoreless innings with just three hits surrendered, one walk, and two strike outs. 

* Matt Leva also had an effective outing Thursday afternoon with two unearned runs allowed on two hits over three innings (one walk, two strike outs).  Davis (3 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 0 BB, 1 SO) and Austin Yount (4 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 2 SO) both had their struggles.  On Wednesday, Bleich dazzled through two scoreless innings before he was tagged for three runs on the Lewis homer in his third frame.  Blake Holler labored through two stressful innings on Wednesday as well (4 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 0 SO).


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