Baseball Preview: CS Fullerton

With the calendar turning to February, it's time for baseball. The Cardinal open the 2007 season this weekend with a three-game series at 14th ranked Cal State Fullerton. Both clubs are young with a handful of newcomers and inexperienced players expected to play key roles this weekend. Fullerton though still features perhaps the best starting pitcher in the country. Here is a full preview.

Eight months after a blowout loss at eventual national champion Oregon State in the Super Regionals, the Stanford Cardinal return to the baseball field for a season-opening three-game series at Cal State Fullerton.  Fullerton has plenty of new faces this year, but one major exception to that is the return of All-American starting pitcher Wes Roemer.  Regarded as one of the finest pitchers in college baseball, Roemer gets the ball in the opening contest at Goodwin Field and will oppose Cardinal right-hander Nolan Gallagher.

Stanford swept the Titans last year at Sunken Diamond in the opening weekend of the season, but Fullerton certainly had the last laugh after reaching the College World Series in June.  With a veteran club that pitched and played defense as well as any team in the country, the Titans (50-15 overall record) won a pair of games in Omaha before falling to North Carolina in the bracket championship. 

A pitching staff that compiled a spectacular 2.73 ERA last season will feature plenty of new arms in 2007.  Gone are starting pitchers Lauren Gagnier (14-5, 2.80 ERA) and Dustin Miller (12-1, 3.13 ERA) along with ace late-inning relievers Vinnie Pestano (2-1, 0.97 ERA, 13 SV) and Ryan Paul (3-1, 1.01 ERA, 2 SV).  But of their "big five" pitchers from a year ago, one key hurler is back and that, of course, is Roemer.

Roemer made 20 starts last season as the Fullerton ace and compiled a 13-2 record to go along with a stellar 2.38 ERA.  The secondary numbers are even more impressive as the right-hander walked only seven batters compared to 145 strikeouts in 155 innings.  An All-American, Roemer then went on to star with the US National Team last summer.  A legitimate National Player of the Year candidate, Roemer will prove to be an incredibly tough test for the Cardinal hitters Friday night.

With Stanford likely not to score many runs in the series-opener, it'll be up to Gallagher to keep the Titans offense in check.  Gallagher assumes the role of Friday starter for the Cardinal after the loss of Greg Reynolds to professional baseball.  The junior right-hander joined the starting rotation toward the end of last season and finished the year with a 5-5 record and 3.99 ERA in 65 innings. 

Two newcomers to Division I college baseball will match-up on the mound Saturday evening in game two of the series.  For Stanford, it'll be the collegiate debut for freshman right-hander Jeff Inman.  Stanford's best pitcher during Fall Ball and preseason workouts, Inman is also the hardest thrower on the club with a fastball that tops out in the mid 90's.  This is a big test for the rookie and is a huge vote of confidence from the coaching staff to put the freshman in a starting role the opening weekend against a club like Cal State Fullerton.  Inman though has all of the tools necessary to become the next great pitcher at Stanford.

With Gagnier and Miller gone, the back-end of Fullerton's starting rotation will have a different look this year.  Opposing Inman on the mound Saturday will be junior college transfer Jeff Kaplan.  A right-hander, Kaplan played at Irvine Valley College last spring and went 5-5 with a 2.56 ERA (fourth in the conference) and 100 strikeouts (second) in 84 innings.  Kaplan is in the starting rotation thanks to a standout Fall Ball on the mound, but like Inman, has yet to throw a pitch at this level.

On Sunday, the Titans will send out redshirt freshman Sean Urena.  Urena has a big body at 6'2", 255 lbs. and did not pitch last year with Fullerton as a redshirt.  The most likely starter for Stanford in the series finale will be sophomore left-hander Jeremy Bleich.  Bleich may be the top pitcher on the club right now and thus may be used early in the weekend out of the bullpen if Stanford has a late lead and the coaching staff wants to get a victory and early control of the series.  Bleich excelled as a closer during the first half of last season picking-up seven saves before joining the starting rotation later in the campaign.  All total, Bleich went 4-4 with a 4.05 ERA in 60 innings as a freshman.  He then went on to earn Cape Cod League All-Star honors for his efforts during the summer.

If Bleich doesn't see action out of the bullpen early in the weekend, he'll get the ball on Sunday afternoon.  Other candidates to start for the Cardinal include junior right-hander Erik Davis (1-1, 4.91 ERA last year) and sophomore right-hander Max Fearnow (2-0, 5.91 ERA).

These are two teams with different situations when it comes to their weekend rotations at the start of the season.  Fullerton returns their ace (Roemer) who is an All-American and one of the top pitchers in the country.  But the rest of the rotation is gone and filled with unproven arms.  Meanwhile, Stanford lost their star (Reynolds), but returns their other two starters (Gallagher and Bleich) with one needed to step up and become a go-to ace.  Stanford's team ERA last season was 4.55.

The starting rotation looks very different for Cal State Fullerton at the start of the year and the same can be said for their lineup.  From a club that hit .313 last season, the top six hitters have all moved on (Justin Turner, Blake Davis, Danny Dorn, Brett Pill, Brandon Tripp, and David Cooper).  One of the few "known" players in the Titans lineup though is senior third baseman Evan McArthur.  An outstanding defensive player, McArthur is also a quality hitter as evident by his .303 average, seven homers, and 36 RBI as an everyday player a year ago.  Joining McArthur on the left side of the infield is sophomore Joe Scott.  Scott only garnered 14 at-bats last year with standouts Davis and Turner playing up the middle, but like McArthur, he's a top-flight defensive player who should step in nicely at the shortstop position.

Stanford though may catch a break this weekend as McArthur has been bothered recently with a sprained wrist and thus may be limited in the series.  Senior two-way player Bryan Harris, who started 24 games last season and hit .295, would seem to be the most logical replacement. 

Just two other starters, outside of McArthur, are back for Fullerton in 2007.  Senior catcher John Curtis (.277, 0 HR, 23 RBI) started 46 games last season while junior center fielder Clark Hardman (.224, 0 HR, 12 RBI) found his name on the lineup card 36 times a year ago.  Hardman is a very talented player having earned Freshman All-American honors in 2004 (.341 AVG) before missing all of '05 with a serious arm injury and working his way back to full strength all of last year. 

Some of the new faces in the Fullerton lineup this weekend could include outfielder Nick Mahin (JC transfer, leadoff-type hitter), outfielder Khris Davis (freshman, future star), first baseman Jake Vasquez (senior, transfer from Texas A&M, power bat), and second baseman Joel Weeks (junior, JC transfer).

Stanford, meanwhile, has a more experienced offense returning although the '06 club didn't come close to matching Fullerton's production from a year ago.  The Cardinal hit just .286 last season with 40 home runs, but will try to build on a fantastic final month at the plate that led to a regional victory last June in Austin.

Eight of the 12 regulars are back - although two key starters will see little-to-no action this weekend (more on that later).  Expected to be one of the top hitters in the country this season, junior right fielder Michael Taylor anchors the offense.  Taylor hit .325 as a sophomore with five home runs and 39 RBI - generally batting fourth in the order behind graduated All-American shortstop Chris Minaker (.364, 11 HR, 68 RBI).  With Minaker now playing professional baseball, it's up to Taylor to now carry the load offensively for the Cardinal.

Junior Adam Sorgi also returns after missing last year because of a shoulder injury.  Sorgi led the '05 Cardinal in batting average when he hit a .322 clip.  A natural shortstop, Sorgi continues to recover from labrum surgery and will probably be restricted to playing third base (if in the field at all) early in the season.

Stanford expects to have a better offense this year thanks to the emergence of Taylor, the return of Sorgi, and an up-and-coming sophomore class.  Many of the second year players received substantial time in the starting lineup last year which resulted in some growing pains through much of the season.  The experience should prove valuable now as many have made tremendous strides in the offseason.

As for the injured players, sophomore first baseman Jason Castro (.283, 3 HR, 19 RBI), who is expected to bat in the middle of the order, will not play this weekend because of a broken bone in his right hand.  Castro looks to be the finest of the talented sophomore hitting group.  Meanwhile, senior center fielder Ryan Seawell (.313, 2 HR, 14 RBI) likely won't start during this series as he recovers from a hamstring injury sustained in practice a few weeks ago.  Seawell though may be available to pinch-hit.

Stanford Cardinal (0-0)  at  #14 Cal State Fullerton Titans (0-0)

Stanford Projected Lineup
C - Brian Juhl (Jr., .217, 1 HR, 3 RBI)
1B - Brent Milleville (So., .198, 2 HR, 12 RBI)
2B - Austin Yount (So., .139, 1 HR, 7 RBI)
3B - Adam Sorgi (Jr., .322, 5 HR, 41 RBI)
SS - Cord Phelps (So., .196, 0 HR, 10 RBI)
LF - Joey August (So., .273, 1 HR, 6 RBI)  or  Toby Gerhart (Fr.)
CF - Sean Ratliff (So., .000, 0 HR, 1 RBI)
RF - Michael Taylor (Jr., .325, 5 HR, 39 RBI)
DH - Grant Escue (So., .422, 0 HR, 8 RBI)  or  Sorgi

Cal State Fullerton Projected Lineup
C - John Curtis (Sr., .277, 0 HR, 23 RBI)
1B - Jake Vasquez (Sr., .276, 5 HR, 21 RBI w/Texas A&M)
2B - Joel Weeks (Jr., JC Transfer)
3B - Evan McArthur (Sr., .303, 7 HR, 36 RBI)  or  Bryan Harris (Sr., .295, 0 HR, 15 RBI)
SS - Joe Scott (So., .286, 0 HR, 3 RBI)
LF - Nick Mahin (Jr., JC Transfer)
CF - Clark Hardman (Jr., .224, 0 HR, 12 RBI)
RF - Chris Jones (So.)
DH - Jon Wilhite (Jr., .000, 0 HR, 0 RBI)

Cal State Fullerton was ranked 14th in the country by Baseball America in their preseason Top 50 poll.  By contrast, Stanford checked in at #31.  Despite a younger and more inexperienced club, the Titans are still the team to beat in the Big West Conference.  And certainly don't count this team out in the long run this year on the national stage.  The last time Fullerton fielded such an inexperienced team with numerous preseason questions was 2003.  That Titan squad then turned out to be perhaps the best team in the country and it took two incredible performances from Stanford in the College World Series that June (John Hudgins complete-game in the first contest and Jonny Ash's first career home run - coming off of Chad Cordero - in the second game) to prevent Fullerton from reaching the championship series.  Fullerton doesn't rebuild, they reload. 

Don't think games this early don't matter either.  Stanford just squeezed into the NCAA Tournament last year with a 30-25 overall record and the chief reason was a strong non-conference mark.  Going 5-1 last February over the likes of Fullerton and Texas gave the Cardinal just enough to continue their season last June.  This obviously isn't anywhere close to make-or-break time for Stanford, but a couple of wins this weekend could go a long way when it comes to dissecting RPI ratings in May.  Plus, Stanford will be at home in four of the next five weekends, so a strong start against the Titans could really set the tone for a big non-conference season. 

Stanford at Cal State Fullerton
FRIDAY: 7:00 P.M.
SUNDAY: 12:00 P.M.

On Deck
The Cardinal will play their first home games of 2007 next weekend when they host the Fresno State Bulldogs in a three-game series.  The home opener is scheduled for Friday, February 9th at 5:00 P.M.

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