Card Look For More Offense In '06

Intrasquad games continue for the Cardinal baseball squad as the team prepares for the start of the regular season. Friday featured plenty of offensive fireworks at Sunken Diamond with a bevy of returning hitters swinging hot bats. Read on for a full report plus a complete rundown of the projected Stanford lineup and what to expect in 2006.

Friday's intrasquad game at Sunken Diamond was filled with offense as all three hitting groups supplied plenty of fireworks.  A look at the box score :

Red Team          AB   R   H  RBI    BB  SO
Michael Taylor     3   1   1   0      2   0
Jason Castro       5   1   2   1      0   0
Cord Phelps        5   2   3   1      0   0
Austin Yount       5   0   1   1      0   0
J.J. Jelmini       3   0   1   1      0   0
Jeff Whitlow       4   1   1   0      0   0

** Five runs in six innings **
2B - Castro, Yount
3B - Taylor, Castro
SB - Taylor

White Team        AB   R   H  RBI    BB  SO
Jim Rapoport       4   0   2   2      0   0
  Sean Ratliff     1   0   0   0      0   0
Ryan Seawell       3   1   1   0      1   0
John Hester        4   1   3   1      0   0
Joey August        4   1   2   1      0   1
Randy Molina       2   1   1   0      1   0
Stephen Brown      3   0   0   0      1   0
Jeremy Bleich      3   0   1   0      0   1

** Four runs in six innings **
2B - Rapoport, Hester, Molina
CS - Brown  

Blue Team         AB   R   H  RBI    BB  SO
Chris Minaker      4   2   2   1      0   0
Adam Sorgi         4   3   2   3      0   0
Chris Lewis        3   2   2   1      1   0
Brendan Domaracki  2   1   0   1      1   0
Brian Juhl         3   1   2   1      0   1
Grant Escue        2   0   1   1      0   0
Matt Cano          3   0   0   0      0   1

** Nine runs in four innings **
2B - Minaker, Sorgi, Juhl
3B - Minaker

Pitching        IP   H   R  ER  BB  SO
Sean Ratliff    3.0  5   4   3   2   0
Max Fearnow     3.0  6   4   3   0   2
Rex Petrill     3.0  6   3   2   1   1

Blake Hancock   3.0  6   4   4   3   1
Grant Escue     3.0  5   3   3   1   0

* Minaker supplied yet another multi-hit game with a double and triple as part of a 2-for-4 effort.  Both hits were to the right-center gap prompting Coach Marquess to rename that part of the field "Miny Alley."  Minaker has not been shy about using all fields - especially that right-center gap this preseason to pick up a lot of hits.

* Sorgi broke out of a mini-slump to start the preseason with a pair of hits and three RBI.  Lewis continues to show a very disciplined approach at the plate and the results are speaking for themselves.  Juhl also had his second straight multi-hit game.  The Blue Team scored three runs in three out of their four innings on Friday to pick up the victory.

* Castro had a couple of very nice at-bats for the Red Team smacking a double to center and then later a triple down the right field line.  Phelps, a freshman middle infielder, broke out after struggling early this preseason with three hits in five at-bats. 

* Brent Milleville, who usually bats third for the Red Team, did not play for the second straight afternoon.

* Preseason hitting leaders (five games):
Minaker - .474 (9-19), 3 2B, 2 3B, 1 HR
Lewis - .400 (6-15), 1 2B, 1 HR
Hester - .389 (7-18), 4 2B
Taylor - .368 (7-19), 1 2B, 2 3B
Milleville - .333 (3-9), 1 2B
Rapoport - .316 (6-19), 2 2B
August - .316 (6-19), 1 2B

It seems pretty clear that six positions on the field have been locked up entering the regular season.  This group of six players were all regulars a year ago as they combined to start 350 of a possible 354 games between them.  This experience should prove extremely valuable in 2006.  Three of the players are seniors, two are juniors, and one is a sophomore.

* John Hester, C
* Chris Lewis, 2B
* Chris Minaker, SS
* Jim Rapoport, CF
* Adam Sorgi, 3B
* Michael Taylor, RF

Despite all of the experience gained a year ago, only one of these players (Sorgi) hit over .300 last season.  This will certainly have to change if the Cardinal are going to challenge for the Pac-10 title and make a deep run in the postseason.  And at least through Fall Ball and preseason workouts, it would appear there will be a nice bump in production from many of these players.

"Obviously it was well-documented that we struggled offensively last year – especially in some key times," states Chris Minaker.  "But we really only lost our star power in Lowrie and Mayberry and those are two huge voids to fill, but looking at the results of the fall and the progress everyone has made, I'm more encouraged about this year's offense than what I saw last year."

The trio of seniors have all shown very consistent bats during fall practice and January intrasquads.  Having three seniors as a major part of the offense can only help Stanford both in terms of on-field production and with leadership/team chemistry.  Hester struggled at times last season as he battled a handful of minor injuries en route to a .282 batting average, five home runs, and 41 RBI.  Baseball America recently pegged him as the top senior catching prospect in the country and I would expect a significant bump in offensive production from the backstop in 2006.  The likely candidate to bat clean-up, a significant bump in production is absolutely necessary from Hester if the team is to enjoy success this year.  Hester has a chance to hit for a high average while also producing a double-digit total in home runs.

Minaker and Lewis should form a nice middle infield combination.  Minaker has been the team's most consistent hitter during Fall Ball and the preseason.  A streaky hitter in 2005, the coaching staff is certainly looking for more consistency from Minaker in '06 - especially if he's going to hit second in the batting order.  Last year, Minaker hit .291 with 25 doubles (second all-time at Stanford), three home runs, and 37 RBI.  Some of those doubles appear to be turning into home runs for the shortstop although I doubt we'll see him match the expected longball output of players such as Hester and Taylor. 

Meanwhile, Lewis also will be asked to improve on his .266 average from a season ago.  He, like his fellow classmates, has hit at a very consistent rate during intrasquads.  Lewis has some of the best raw power on the team and could certainly make a run at double figures in the home run category.  If the average improves, then Lewis could also become a go-to player in the middle of the batting order for the Cardinal.  All three seniors look locked in and ready to lead this offense.

The two juniors have been slightly behind the trio of seniors in terms of offensive production during Fall Ball and January.  However, both have plenty of experience and should again play key roles for the Cardinal this season.  Rapoport had a dreadful summer in the Cape hitting well below .200, but appears to have put that behind him now that he's returned to Stanford.  The verdict is still out on whether he'll be consistent enough to bat in the leadoff spot (hit .297 last year with three homers and 16 stolen bases).  If he does reach base enough to stay in the #1 position in the lineup, then this Cardinal offense could really take off with his tremendous speed and ability to steal bases at an impressive rate.

Sorgi led Stanford with a .322 average last year (5 HR) and will be counted on for similar production this season.  If Rapoport is unable to hit leadoff, then Sorgi could potentially slide into that spot.  Also keep an eye on Sorgi possibly earning some playing time at shortstop (with Minaker shifting over to third).

Finally, there's Michael Taylor out in right field.  The player who will possibly provide the biggest improvement in offensive production of anyone on the team, the emerging star has torched opposing pitching dating back to last summer in Alaska.  A potential first round draft pick in 2007, Taylor should start to realize his unlimited potential this season after a solid freshman campaign in which he hit .289 with four home runs and 28 RBI.  The Florida native is a Baseball America Preseason All-American and has a chance to put up some huge numbers this year.

While experience is not an issue for the Cardinal offense this year with these six players leading the way, a concern has to be who will rise up and fill the shoes of the departed Jed Lowrie and John Mayberry, Jr.  Quite frankly, the production put up by Mayberry last year (.305, 18 2B, 8 HR, 53 RBI) shouldn't be extremely hard to replace, but none of these six returnees have yet to record those types of numbers during their collegiate career (although Sorgi was very close).  The talent and experience is there, it's now just a matter of going out and getting it done.

"We brought back five or six position players with significant experience who put up much bigger numbers this fall than they have in any fall previous," says Minaker.  "I think that's a big testament to the hard work of the coaching staff they put in with us throughout the fall and the end of last spring.  While we struggled a little bit in clutch situations, we still kept our attitudes strong and continued to work on things in practice."

He continues, "I think the time we put in last year in developing our swings and the mental approach at the plate is starting to pay off now.  We've gotten a little bit more older and more experienced.  I think you're seeing the fruits of our previous labors now as opposed to getting the immediate payoffs, which we would have enjoyed having last year, but they're coming through more now."

For Stanford to have a special season in 2006 - it's going to take a group of players not only matching the Lowrie-Mayberry numbers, but also exceeding them.  After all, even with the All-Conference duo, Stanford did only finish at .500 in the Pac-10 a year ago while hitting just .287 as a team. 

Certainly one of the main aspects Stanford has going for them offensively this year is the experience factor.  The Cardinal had talent a year ago (much like here in 2006), but it was, by-and-large, inexperienced talent.  Outside of Lowrie, Mayberry, Jr., and Minaker, it was a completely different starting lineup.  Now those players (mainly the six mentioned above) are in their second year of starting and Minaker feels that will make a huge difference in their overall offensive production.

"The biggest difference is the speed of the game," he says.  "Everything is faster when you get to the college level.  We practice fast.  We practice hard.  We try to make our practices as game-like as possible.  But when you get out there in the game and there's a real pitcher and a real umpire that isn't a part of your team or your coaching staff, things change.  Guys just don't realize how different the pace of the game is.  The way the pitchers locate pitches, work counts.  It's just so much different than any other level of baseball experienced previous to here."

Minaker adds, "I think having one year under your belt, you understand the expectations of what it takes to be successful.  Nothing surprises you after you've experienced a full year.  With the schedule we play facing the Ricky Romero's, the Ian Kennedy's, the Tim Lincecum's.  Your second time through, you've seen it and know what to expect.  You know how to approach each guy and how to approach the different situations.  Whereas when you're young, you tend to get caught up in the moment."

The seventh spot in the starting lineup looks like it'll be held by freshman Brent Milleville.  A Kansas native, Milleville dazzled during Fall Ball leading the entire Stanford offense in most offensive categories (including average, doubles, home runs, and slugging).  Whether he can carry over this success once the real games start is another matter, but the fact remains, he is going up against some very talented pitchers in these practice games so hopes are high.  And that kind of production is just not seen from a freshman during his first Fall Ball at the collegiate level.

It'll be interesting to see how Coach Marquess brings Milleville along.  There's no doubt he'll see plenty of early action, but it could be down toward the bottom of the batting order.  If he produces in games like he has been in intrasquads though, it won't be long before Milleville slides into the middle portion of the lineup.  He has tremendous raw power and should not skip a beat when it comes to blasting home runs.  Keeping his average up and strikeouts down will definitely be a point of emphasis early in the season for the fabulous freshman.

In terms of his position on the field, Milleville is a natural catcher, but should see little-to-no playing time there with Hester manning that spot on the diamond.  Milleville has shown he can play a capable first base.  Even with his enormous size (6'4", 240 lbs.), Milleville is quite athletic and moves around the bag very well.  You wouldn't see it much at first base, but his throwing arm is also top notch.  Certainly garnering playing time at DH is also a strong possibility for Milleville.

The other two spots in the starting lineup will likely be held down by this group of four players to begin the regular season : Brendan Domaracki, Ryan Seawell, Brian Juhl, and Jason Castro.  Domaracki and Seawell are battling for regular playing time in left field.  Domaracki was very impressive during Fall Ball hitting over .300 with plenty of extra base hits.  A lefty with a nice line drive swing, Domaracki is much improved from a year ago when he hit .208 in just over 100 AB's (at DH).  Seawell, meanwhile, had a fantastic summer in the Jayhawk League hitting over .330 with a whopping eight home runs.  The junior has yet to carry over that success back at Stanford showing just flashes of strong play during Fall Ball.  Seawell though is an above-average defensive outfielder who also is seeing time at first base during intrasquads and is playing very well over there.  That flexibility should allow Seawell to see the field often early in the year.  Whether he stays in the lineup (in left field, at first base, or DH) will rest squarely on his offensive production.

Juhl, like Milleville, is stuck behind Hester this season at the catching position.  But the sophomore has shown a potent switch-hitting bat in intrasquads that has put himself in contention for playing time at DH.  Juhl has impressive raw power and probably the best batting eye of anyone on the club.  His injury-plagued freshman campaign (in which he only garnered one at-bat) is well behind him as well.  The clear negative for Juhl is that he doesn't play first base or left field, so it looks as if his only chance to earn regular playing time this year (barring injury) is at DH.

Finally, yet another true catcher is vying for immediate playing time this year in the freshman Castro.  A left-handed hitter, Castro has a sweet line drive stroke with nice gap power.  I expect big things from Castro during his Stanford career and he's come through with enough offensive production in practice games that he should see the field early this season.  Castro will likely not get much of an opportunity to catch, but is an excellent defensive first baseman.  He could slide into the starting lineup over there or, of course, possibly at DH.

This Cardinal offense has a chance to be quite good in 2006.  They won't break any home run records (the amazing raw power of the 2004 club from up-and-down the lineup is not present in this team), but there are enough high average, tough-to-strikeout players for Stanford to enjoy a nice hitting season.  And with the expected strong year from the pitching staff, this offense shouldn't need to break any records for the Cardinal to make a run at the Pac-10 championship.

"I think this team is going to be more execution-oriented," states Minaker.  "One through nine, I believe we're all going to have the ability to put the ball in play consistently.  I think you'll see a lot of contact.  A lot of things being able to happen within the game whether it be hit-and-runs, hitting behind runners, getting the little things done that add up in the end.  I think our power potential may be a little underestimated.  I think there are some guys who will be playing that have the ability to hit a lot of home runs."

A point of emphasis is unquestionably who is going to lead now that Lowrie and Mayberry, Jr. are professionals.  Taylor and Hester will likely begin the season as the 3-4 hitters in the lineup and both have shown much improved bats during Fall Ball and in January.  Seniors Minaker and Lewis are also poised for breakout seasons.  If these returning starters can fill the void, then things will be looking up for Stanford.

Finding nine capable hitters was a major problem for Coach Marquess a season ago.  That shouldn't be an issue in 2006.  The 11 players mentioned above all look like they can start and succeed right away.  Not to mention that Stanford has their deepest freshman class in years.  Outfielders Joey August and Jeff Whitlow plus infielders J.J. Jelmini and Cord Phelps should push the starters all season long. 

The schedule could be an issue for the Cardinal.  Five of Stanford's six non-conference series' are against ranked opponents.  Offense could be hard to come by early in the season, so you hope that doesn't rattle the confidence of these hitters as they move forward. 

The identity of this offense will probably be one of a group of scrappy hitters.  The six returning starters have all shown the ability to put the bat on the ball at an impressive frequency during practice games and thus I think it will, overall, be a tough lineup to record a lot of strike outs against.  Taylor, Hester, Lewis, and Milleville have a chance to put up some big home run numbers, but the overall power production is not going to match that of what we saw two years ago.  The biggest issue in overall improvement from the offense will boil down to improved averages across the board and more specifically, improved averages with runners on base.  Stanford was not that far away from a banner season in 2005 (17 of their 25 losses were by one or two runs).  Clutch hitting is what has to improve and those close losses should turn into close wins - especially with the pitching the Cardinal are going to send out to the mound in 2006.

"Looking back, I can't put my finger on anything," says Minaker when trying to explain last year's offensive struggles.  "Everybody worked so hard last year.  It just became a matter of execution and that we didn't get it done.  There's no excuse for that and there's nothing I can offer to explain it other than it didn't happen.  I feel terrible that it didn't happen, personally, because I want to win.  I feel bad for everyone that was involved with the team last year because we put in so much hard work and so much time.  We had the desire to win and achieve and to live up to what Stanford Baseball expects of us, but it just didn't happen."

Starting February 3rd when Cal State Fullerton comes to town, Minaker and Co. will have a chance to start fresh and lead Stanford to an improved offensive season and hopefully more victories.

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