Baseball Preview: Fresno State

After ten straight games at Sunken Diamond to open the season, the Stanford Cardinal finally head out on the road. This weekend it's a three-game series against Fresno State. The Bulldogs have high hopes of an NCAA Tournament bid in 2006. A team loaded with returning talent, Fresno is the consensus pick to win the WAC this year. Here is a complete series preview.

It's a big weekend for the Fresno State baseball club as the Bulldogs look for a key series win when they welcome the Stanford Cardinal to town.  Fresno hasn't qualified for the NCAA Tournament since 2001 - a rare four-year drought for one of the most successful collegiate baseball programs on the west coast over the last quarter-century.  Fourth-year head coach Mike Batesole has had to undergo a rebuilding process since taking the reigns prior to the start of the '03 campaign.  His teams have finished 30-29, 29-29, and 30-29 over the first three years, but 2006 has a different feel to it.

Batesole has done an excellent job recruiting over the past few years and the result is his most talented and experienced club in '06.  The offense returns every key hitter from 2005 as eight total starting position players are back.  The pitching took a bit of a hit in the offseason with the first round draft selection of ace starter Matt Garza plus nearly every important reliever moving on.  But Batesole brought in two-time California JC Player of the Year Andy Underwood to fill one starting rotation spot.  Then last year's #2 starter Doug Fister turned down the New York Yankees after his sixth round draft selection last June and decided to return to Fresno for his senior season.  The result has Fister now headlining a very talented Fresno starting rotation.

The Bulldogs bring a 6-6 record into this pivotal non-conference series.  Ranked 21st in the Baseball America preseason poll, Fresno State quickly fell out of the rankings after a season-opening three-game sweep at Cal Poly (a team now ranked in the top 25).  However, since then the Bulldogs have rattled off three straight series victories to get back to .500.  After taking two-of-three from UCLA in Los Angeles, Fresno State opened their home schedule with a series win over nationally ranked Pepperdine.  Last weekend, the Bulldogs won a series over visiting Utah Valley State.  Although after a pair of easy wins to open the set, Fresno was defeated by a 5-4 score in the finale.

The Bulldogs were the consensus preseason pick to win the WAC this year.  Part of that is all of their returning talent.  A bigger part is that Rice moved to Conference USA.  While the experience in their starting lineup is impressive, the strength of this team is probably their starting pitching.  Fister has a chance to be drafted in the first few rounds this June with a big year.  A tall, lanky right-hander at 6'8", 195 lbs. Fister brings a 1-2 record and a 4.50 ERA over four starts into this series.  He features a low 90's sinking fastball and an above-average curve ball.  Fister has pitched seven innings in each of his last two starts and is the top strikeout pitcher on the staff (24 SO in 22 IP).

Junior lefty Eddie Romero is scheduled to get the ball on Saturday afternoon.  Romero made 24 appearances - nine of which were starts - last season in compiling a 6-4 record with a 4.62 ERA.  Romero, like Fister, definitely has the capabilities to pitch deep into the game.  He fired eight shutout innings in his last start versus Utah Valley State.  The southpaw surrendered just four hits with two walks and seven strike outs in what was the best start of his career.  So far this season, Romero has a 2-1 record and a 4.37 ERA.

On Sunday, it will be the junior righty Underwood.  A 21st round pick last June out of Fresno City College, Underwood decided against the pro game instead beginning a career with the Bulldogs.  Statistically speaking, he's been the most impressive Fresno State pitcher this season.  Over four starts, Underwood boasts a sparkling 1.99 ERA with just nine walks and 23 strike outs over 31 2/3 innings.  Three weeks ago, Underwood fired eight scoreless innings (three hits) at UCLA.  In his next start, he tossed a complete-game against the Waves (two earned runs, five K's). 

While the trio of Fister-Romero-Underwood could give the Cardinal offense fits this weekend, if Stanford can get to the Fresno State bullpen, they should be in a good position.  The Bulldogs suffered significant losses to their relief corps and if the numbers are any indication, many of those holes have yet to be filled.  Five pitchers have seen most of the action out of the bullpen for Fresno State thus far in 2006.  Only one (Jason Breckley - 4.05) has an ERA below eight.

Offensively, Fresno State struggled often last year recording just a .275 team batting average while scoring under six runs per contest.  But valuable experience was gained as every key hitter is back in '06 and the numbers have improved across the board.

Sophomore third baseman Beau Mills is one of the top power hitters in the country.  The clean-up man in the lineup, Mills smacked 22 home runs as a freshman last season to lead the WAC.  He also drove home 63 runs to go with a .319 batting average in earning Freshman All-American honors.  Mills is hitting a modest .261 with a pair of home runs through 12 games this season.  He was rated the top professional prospect in the WAC Conference by Baseball America prior to the start of the year (not draft-eligible until 2007).

Junior center fielder Nick Moresi is the top returning hitter on the club after he hit .352 with 11 home runs last season.  It's been a slow start for speedy outfielder in '06 though.  Moresi is batting just .234 to go along with a team-high 12 strike outs through the early portion of this season. 

While Moresi is off to a slow start, sophomore left fielder Steve Susdorf has picked up the slack.  After a freshman campaign in which he just hit .283 with no home runs as a part-time player, Susdorf has come out of the gate firing on all cylinders this year.  Susdorf is leading Fresno in most offensive categories with his .400 batting average, four home runs, 13 RBI, and .829 slugging percentage.  He's doing all of this damage from the leadoff position in the starting lineup.

Finally, junior shortstop Christian Vitters is a hot prospect for the upcoming draft.  The new-age shortstop with his large frame of 6'3", 205 lbs., Vitters is off to a strong start this year.  Through the first 12 games, Vitters is batting .349 with four home runs (tied with Susdorf for the team-lead) and ten RBI.  He's been hitting fifth in the order - behind Mills and ahead of Moresi.

The top part of this Fresno State lineup has plenty of power.  Mills and Moresi are returning double-digit home run hitters.  Meanwhile, Susdorf and Vitters have already smacked four longballs in the early-going.  #3 hitter Kent Sakamoto is also an experienced senior with home run pop.  Fresno State is currently hitting .296 as a team this season while scoring slightly over six runs per contest.  The home run ball can keep them in a lot of games although this is a club that can become a bit strike out-prone.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Steve Susdorf, LF  (So., .400, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 1 SB)
2. Loren Storey, RF  (Jr., .324, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 4 SB)
3. Kent Sakamoto, 1B  (Sr., .340, 1 HR, 10 RBI, 0 SB)
4. Beau Mills, 3B  (So., .261, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 0 SB)
5. Christian Vitters, SS  (Jr., .349, 4 HR, 10 RBI, 2 SB)
6. Nick Moresi, CF  (Jr., .234, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 2 SB)
7. Ozzie Lewis, DH  (So., .471, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB)
8. Frank Lo Nigro, C  (Jr., .241, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 1 SB)
9. Erik Wetzel, 2B  (Fr., .273, 0 HR, 6 RBI, 1 SB)

Fri- Doug Fister, RHP  (Sr., 1-2, 4.50 ERA, 22 IP, 9 BB, 24 SO)
Sat- Eddie Romero, LHP  (Jr., 2-1, 4.37 ERA, 22 2/3 IP, 11 BB, 19 SO)
Sun- Andy Underwood, RHP  (Jr., 2-1, 1.99 ERA, 31 2/3 IP, 9 BB, 23 SO)

Notes:
Susdorf, in addition to hitting for a high average, has done an excellent job as the leadoff hitter by drawing a team-best nine walks ... He currently boasts a .533 on-base percentage ... Sakamoto hit .305 with four home runs and 29 RBI as an everyday player last season ... Vitters was up-and-down last year hitting just five home runs (.293 AVG) ... He's already just one homer behind his output from all of 2005 ... Lewis has eight hits in 17 at-bats this year ... Lo Nigro, a JC transfer, was rated the top newcomer in the WAC Conference according to Baseball America.



STANFORD NOTES
The Cardinal play their first road games of the season this weekend after ten straight at home.  Stanford has already posted series wins over top-ten CS Fullerton (sweep) and Texas while also dropping two-of-three to the Kansas Jayhawks.  After a victory over WAC opponent Nevada this past Tuesday, the Cardinal now possess a 7-3 overall record. 

By and large, Stanford has been winning games with pitching, pitching, and more pitching.  The team ERA currently sits at a spectacular 3.46 with ace starter Greg Reynolds putting up some impressive numbers.  The junior right-hander has taken hold of the Friday spot in the rotation with his 18 strike outs compared to just two walks in 18 2/3 total innings this year.  Reynolds has yet to win a game, but he does boast an impressive 2.89 ERA.

Matt Manship had a solid start last weekend against the Longhorns allowing just one run over 4 2/3 innings.  That lowered his season ERA to 6.55 and the senior right-hander will again get the ball on Saturday this weekend.  Meanwhile, Stanford is again officially "TBA" for Sunday's series finale.  After a pair of strong starts to open the season, Matt Leva didn't get out of the third inning last weekend against Texas (2 H, 4 R, 4 BB).  It remains to be seen if Leva will get another shot on Sunday this weekend or if Coach Marquess will make a change to one of his hot relief pitchers.

Speaking of those hot relief pitchers, the Stanford bullpen is the main reason for such a low overall team ERA.  At the top of the list is freshman Jeremy Bleich who has still yet to allow a run this season.  Bleich has pitched in six of the Cardinal's first ten games picking-up a victory and four saves.  Over ten innings, the left-hander has surrendered a paltry three hits with no walks and eight strike outs.  Opponents are batting just .094 against Bleich.

Offensively, Stanford is still batting just .240 as a team although they are still managing nearly five and a half runs per game.  A win over First Team All-American Kyle McCulloch last weekend plus a 13-run outburst in the finale against the Longhorns could mean things are headed in the right direction.  Senior shortstop Chris Minaker rapped out four hits including a grand slam in that series finale.  After two more hits against Nevada, Minaker now leads all regulars with a .308 batting average (only regular on the club over .300).  Michael Taylor is right on his heels batting at a .294 clip.  Taylor has done an excellent job producing runs with 12 RBI's through just ten games.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Joey August, LF  (Fr., .357, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB)
2. Jim Rapoport, CF  (Jr., .257, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 0 SB)
3. Chris Minaker, SS  (Sr., .308, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 1 SB)
4. Michael Taylor, RF  (So., .294, 1 HR, 12 RBI, 1 SB)
5. Jason Castro, 1B  (Fr., .258, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 SB)
6. John Hester, C  (Sr., .235, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 2 SB)
7. Brent Milleville, DH  (Fr., .222, 0 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB)
8. Austin Yount, 3B  (Fr., .222, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 0 SB)  or  Cord Phelps, 3B  (Fr., .176, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB)
9. Chris Lewis, 2B  (Sr., .125, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 1 SB)

Fri- Greg Reynolds, RHP  (Jr., 0-1, 2.89 ERA, 18 2/3 IP, 2 BB, 18 SO)
Sat- Matt Manship, RHP  (Sr., 0-1, 6.55 ERA, 11 IP, 1 BB, 8 SO)
Sun- TBA

Notes: August has five hits in 14 at-bats plus a team-best (tied) six walks ... Rapoport hit his first home run of the season on Monday - a solo blast against the Longhorns ... Minaker raised his average 108 points with six hits in the last two games ... Milleville could also see time at first base (especially on Saturday against the left-handed Romero as Castro will likely sit) ... Sean Ratliff (0-for-7), Randy Molina (1-for-1, 2B), and Brian Juhl (2-for-9) have also been seeing playing time at DH of late ... Lewis continues to struggle as the only regular still batting below .200 ... He's recorded just four hits in his first 32 AB's.



ODDS AND ENDS
* Fresno State is in the midst of a 25-game homestand.  It started on February 10th and will continue through March 26th.  The Bulldogs are 4-2 thus far on the homestand.

* The Bulldogs have had 29 straight seasons of finishing the year at .500 or better.  Legendary head coach Bob Bennett led Fresno State to 12 conference titles between 1979 and 1995.  Fresno has not won a title since '95.  Meanwhile, Bennett retired after 2002 (34 years) at which point Batesole took over.

* Stanford dropped out of the Baseball America Top 25 on Monday morning despite splitting the first two games with #7 Texas.  With their two wins already this week, a series victory in Fresno should result in a return to the poll come Monday.

* Fresno State's last series win over Stanford came in 1999 when they took two-of-three games from the Cardinal at Sunken Diamond.

* Four of the top five hitters in the Fresno lineup (Susdorf, Storey, Mills, and Vitters) are left-handed.  That should result in plenty of action this weekend for Bleich, Ratliff, and Blake Holler out of the Cardinal bullpen.

* Fresno State's starting pitchers have compiled a solid 3.87 ERA thus far in '06.  That's compared to a dismal 9.10 mark for their relievers (5.37 total).  Meanwhile, there are five Cardinal pitchers who don't start on weekends with ERA's below 2.50 (Bleich 0.00, Yount 0.00, Gallagher 1.08, Ratliff 1.59, Stringer 2.45).

* Fister went 7-6 with a 4.32 ERA over 93 2/3 innings last season.  He was the top returning draftee (6th round) in college baseball this season.

* This series features two of the top sophomore position player prospects in college baseball.  In Baseball America's College Preview, Mills was rated the seventh best sophomore prospect in the country.  Stanford's Taylor was right behind him checking in at #8.  Meanwhile, Fister garnered the top senior pitching prospect distinction by BA (#2 overall - Danny Dorn, CS Fullerton).

* Friday's series-opener is slated for a 6:35 P.M. start at Beiden Field.  The games on Saturday and Sunday are each scheduled to begin at 1:05 P.M.

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