Baseball Preview: Texas

Stanford is off to an excellent start in the Austin Regional after a 7-2 victory over N.C. State on Friday. But the road just got much tougher. Up next is a matchup with defending national champion and #1 seed Texas. Here is a detailed preview of Saturday's contest between the Cardinal and host Longhorns. First pitch is scheduled for 1:00 P.M. (PDT).

The defending national champion Texas Longhorns have the ideal road in front of them for a return trip to the College World Series.  By virtue of garnering one of the eight national seeds, the Longhorns are guaranteed to be playing all home games throughout the regional and super regional rounds in an attempt to advance to Omaha.  Stanford will have to deal with a crowd of over 6,000 screaming Texas fans on Saturday afternoon in what is considered one of the top home field advantages in all of college baseball.  And oh yeah, the team they'll be facing is pretty good too.

The Longhorns have won two national titles (2002, 2005) in the last four years under Augie Garrido and the '06 edition has all the pieces in place to make another serious run.  The #3 national seed, Texas cruised past UT-Arlington, 9-1, in their regional opener on Friday afternoon.  Garrido rolled the dice by sending out Kenn Kasparek to the mound - an experienced sophomore, but a hurler who has spent most of the year as a reliever/weekday starter.  Kasparek went on to fire 7 1/3 quality innings versus the Mavericks with just one run allowed and seven strikeouts.  That means UT is fully-armed with all of their top starting pitchers plus a rested bullpen entering play on Saturday.

The Cardinal can expect to face ace right-hander Kyle McCulloch on Saturday - the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year.  McCulloch has made 17 starts this season racking up an 8-4 record with a very impressive 3.24 ERA.  Over 105 2/3 innings, McCulloch has displayed excellent control with only 30 walks compared to 80 K's.  One of the top starting pitchers on Team USA last summer, McCulloch isn't quite as high a prospect as Greg Reynolds, but is still considered one of the finest pitchers in the college game and should be a high draft pick next week.

Stanford has had some success against McCulloch this year.  It was often a difficult first month of the regular season for McCulloch and the Cardinal helped that cause on February 19 at Sunken Diamond.  In a 5-1 Stanford victory, the Cardinal tagged the UT ace for all five of those runs on seven hits over 4 2/3 innings. 

McCulloch though has had a fantastic second half of the year going unbeaten in his last ten starts (7-0 record) with a 2.67 ERA.  He had a string of ten consecutive starts allowing two earned runs or fewer snapped his last time out.  Back on May 27 versus highly ranked Nebraska in the Big 12 Tournament, McCulloch allowed five earned runs (matching a season-high) on eight hits spanning six innings.  He also struck out just one batter.  The right-hander is fully capable of shutting down the Cardinal on Saturday, but Stanford certainly won't be intimidated considering the caliber of pitchers they've faced in the Pac-10 this season.

The Longhorns boast a 3.76 team ERA and have a solid bullpen that gives many teams fits.  It's not quite as dominant as in years past when the likes of Huston Street and J. Brent Cox meant "game over" for the opposing team, but it's a solid relief corps across the board.

Freshman lefty Austin Wood is the closer having appeared in a whopping 34 games this season.  The southpaw has notched seven saves to go with a 3.18 ERA.  Randy Boone (4-2, 2.90 ERA, 2 SV), Joseph Krebs (2-1, 3.03 ERA, 2 SV), Joey Parigi (1-2, 3.86 ERA, 1 SV), and Kyle Walker (4-1, 3.89 ERA) are the most often used relievers by Garrido.  Krebs, Walker, and Parigi are all left-handed and when you add Wood to that equation, it probably means the Cardinal will be facing a left-handed pitcher toward the end of the game on Saturday.  Krebs did throw 1 2/3 innings (no hits allowed) in relief of Kasparek on Friday.

Adrian Alaniz (16 GS, 7-3, 4.00 ERA) and Riley Boening (12 GS, 4-1, 5.26 ERA) round out the starting rotation.

This is also a Texas ballclub that has some pop in their lineup.  The Longhorns score nearly six and a half runs per game to go with a .298 team batting average.  It's an offense that will often play a Garrido-style small ball which means plenty of sacrifice bunts and stolen bases.  By unlike some of the other dominant Texas teams in the last five seasons, this year's edition has pretty solid power across the board.

Leading the way is center fielder and #3 hitter Drew Stubbs.  Perhaps the finest all-around athlete in college baseball this year, Stubbs is expected to be a very high first round draft pick next month.  He can do it all on the baseball field - hits for a high average, has tremendous power, unbelievable speed, excellent defensive instincts, and a cannon for an arm.  Disch-Falk Field has all kinds of territory from gap-to-gap and Stubbs is the perfect player for the ballpark.

At the plate, Stubbs is currently hitting .345 with 12 home runs, 55 RBI, and 25 stolen bases.  He makes so many things happen and can single-handily beat a team (as Stanford saw last year in Austin when the Longhorns swept the Cardinal).

Fellow outfielder Carson Kainer has racked up a whopping 62 RBI this year to go with a stellar .363 average, 23 doubles, and four home runs.  Stubbs and Kainer certainly form one of the most potent 1-2 combinations in college baseball this year.  Kainer will hit either fourth or fifth in the batting order.

The Longhorns also received a boost this week when freshman outfielder Jordan Danks (.330, 2 HR, 21 RBI) returned from an ankle injury.  Danks had missed 20 consecutive games before seeing action at DH versus UT-Arlington on Friday.  He went 1-for-2 with a single and a walk from the #9 position in the lineup.  Danks is considered by many to be the top freshman position player prospect in the country.

You will find little argument from college baseball experts that Texas has the most talented team in the country this year.  McCulloch and Alaniz were the top two starting pitchers on last year's championship club and have continued that success in 2006 (although Alaniz's numbers have dropped off slightly).  Stubbs gives the offense and defense probably the top all-around player in the game.  The lineup is filled with high-level pro prospects while leading the way from the dugout is the all-time winningest coach in college baseball history. 

Texas is currently 41-19 on the year while they claimed the Big 12 regular season title with a 19-7 mark.  The preseason #1 team in the country, the Longhorns are also nearly unbeatable at home with a 25-4 record.  Stanford likely will have to beat Texas twice over the next two or three days to claim this regional.  If they can accomplish that feat, especially considering the games will be played in Austin, it will truly be a remarkable feat worth remembering for many years to come.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Hunter Harris, RF  (Sr., .371, 1 HR, 18 RBI, 1 SB)
2. Nick Peoples, 3B  (Jr., .285, 3 HR, 27 RBI, 19 SB)
3. Drew Stubbs, CF  (Jr., .345, 12 HR, 55 RBI, 25 SB)
4. Chance Wheeless, 1B  (Jr., .284, 2 HR, 28 RBI, 4 SB)
5. Carson Kainer, LF  (Jr., .363, 4 HR, 62 RBI, 4 SB)
6. Bradley Suttle, 2B  (Fr., .311, 4 HR, 36 RBI, 2 SB)
7. Preston Clark, C  (RFr., .276, 4 HR, 29 RBI, 1 SB)
8. Chais Fuller, SS  (Jr., .255, 0 HR, 22 RBI, 2 SB)
9. Jordan Danks, DH  (Fr., .330, 2 HR, 21 RBI, 7 SB)

SP - Kyle McCulloch, RHP  (Jr., 8-4, 3.24 ERA, 105.2 IP, 30 BB, 80 SO)

The Cardinal opened their NCAA Tournament with an impressive 7-2 victory over the N.C. State Wolfpack on Friday afternoon.  Stanford played a complete game in all phases as Reynolds went the distance on the mound yielding just seven hits with two walks and seven strikeouts.  The Cardinal played flawless baseball behind Reynolds as the ace righty induced 13 ground ball outs.  Meanwhile at the plate, Stanford pounded out 14 hits with outstanding production up-and-down the lineup.  It was a completely different output from what transpired last weekend when the Cardinal dropped a pair of games to UC Davis.

Stanford is clearly the underdog in Saturday's game versus the Longhorns, but the Cardinal certainly have to be viewed as a dangerous team by their opponent.  Stanford won two-of-three games from UT back in mid-February at Sunken Diamond.  After dropping a 4-2 contest in the opener, the Cardinal came back with 5-1 and 13-9 wins to take the series.

Stanford has also proven that they can beat anybody in the country.  In addition to their series win over Texas, the Cardinal have swept CS Fullerton and taken two-of-three from both Arizona State and Fresno State (a pair of #2 seeds).  Stanford has generally played their best against the tougher teams on their schedule and they have to hope that continues on Saturday.

The Longhorns though should have the advantage on the mound.  Stanford had to use their #1 starter to beat N.C. State while UT played a weak enough opponent to hold McCulloch back for their second round contest.  Sophomore Nolan Gallagher (4-4, 3.23 ERA) and freshman Jeremy Bleich (4-4, 3.56 ERA) round out the rotation and whoever gets the ball versus the Longhorns will be making the biggest start to date of their collegiate career.

Two weeks ago, Gallagher fired a complete-game at UCLA in a 6-2 Cardinal victory.  He was, however, roughed up to the tune of five runs on five hits in just two innings versus UC Davis last weekend.  Meanwhile, Bleich was dominant in a long relief stint of Gallagher last weekend working 4 1/3 scoreless frames with just four hits allowed and no walks.  His last start came two weeks ago against the Bruins when he tossed four scoreless innings before getting tagged for four scores in the bottom of the fifth.  Starting pitching is definitely the biggest key of the game for the Cardinal.  The offense likely won't be putting up a crooked number versus McCulloch (as in like what they did versus Hobson and N.C. State on Friday) early in the contest.  And playing from behind against the Longhorns in their ballpark isn't exactly a recipe for success.

With Reynolds going the distance on Friday, it does give the Cardinal a completely rested bullpen for their matchup with Texas.  Look for Erik Davis (1-1, 4.30 ERA, 2 SV) and Matt Manship (2-6, 5.32 ERA) to see plenty of action if the game is close late.

Offensively, Stanford will likely fill out a similar lineup card to what was seen against N.C. State.  Grant Escue has remained red-hot in the #2 hole after rapping out two more hits versus the Wolfpack.  Randy Molina and Jim Rapoport also broke out in the #8 and #9 spots in the order combining for six hits in seven at-bats.  Rapoport's two-run double in the top of the second inning was the key hit for Stanford in their postseason-opening victory.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Ryan Seawell, CF  (Jr., .318, 2 HR, 11 RBI, 4 SB)
2. Grant Escue, DH  (Fr., 16-for-33, 0 HR, 8 RBI, 0 SB)
3. Chris Minaker, SS  (Sr., .349, 11 HR, 65 RBI, 5 SB)
4. Michael Taylor, RF  (So., .308, 4 HR, 35 RBI, 2 SB)
5. Chris Lewis, 2B  (Sr., .300, 8 HR, 44 RBI, 2 SB)
6. Jason Castro, 1B  (Fr., .269, 3 HR, 16 RBI, 5 SB)
7. John Hester, C  (Sr., .267, 1 HR, 20 RBI, 4 SB)
8. Randy Molina, 3B  (So., .314, 0 HR, 9 RBI, 0 SB)
9. Jim Rapoport, LF  (Jr., .250, 2 HR, 27 RBI, 3 SB)

SP - Nolan Gallagher, RHP  (So., 4-4, 3.23 ERA, 55.2 IP, 26 BB, 44 SO)  or  Jeremy Bleich, LHP  (Fr., 4-4, 3.56 ERA, 55.2 IP, 15 BB, 36 SO)

* Meeting in the postseason is certainly nothing new for these two programs.  In 2002, Texas used a pair of one-run victories over Stanford to win their bracket at the College World Series.  Back in 2001, the Cardinal and Longhorns met three times at Sunken Diamond in regional competition.  UT won early in the weekend before Stanford came back with two one-run victories in the final day to claim the championship.  In 1994, the Longhorns defeated Stanford at Disch-Falk Field in the opening game of a regional.

* Texas is currently ranked #4 in the country by Baseball America.

* Texas was swept by Missouri (the #4 seed in the Malibu Regional) in their final regular season series of the year.  Game scores were 6-5, 8-5, and 7-5.  The Longhorns then went 2-1 in the Big 12 Tournament falling to Nebraska (6-5) to finish a game shy of the championship contest.

* The Longhorns have won nine straight games at Disch-Falk Field (April 23rd versus Nebraska, 6-0).

* Stubbs was named co-Big 12 Player of the Year last week.

* The one knock on Stubbs' game is a high strikeout total as the superstar has fanned 58 times this year.  Teammates Kyle Russell (54) and Nick Peoples (49) also have lofty totals.

* Texas went a perfect 5-0 in College World Series competition last year.  McCulloch (6 2/3 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 8 SO) was the winning pitcher in the clinching victory over Florida.

* The Bootleg's recap of Stanford's win over N.C. State:

Game 2: Stanford 7, N.C. State 2
Game 1: Texas 9, UT-Arlington 1

Game 3: N.C. State vs. UT-Arlington, 9:00 A.M.
Game 4: Stanford vs. Texas, 1:00 P.M.

Game 5: Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Loser, 10:00 A.M.
Game 6: Game 4 Winner vs. Game 5 Winner, 2:00 P.M.

Game 7: Game 6 Winner vs. Game 6 Loser (if necessary), 4:00 P.M.

All times are Pacific.

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