9 Takeaways: Baseball vs. Kansas

Stanford is on a roll having now won five consecutive games after sweeping Kansas last weekend. A number of unlikely players came through with big performances against the Jayhawks while the starting pitching continues to improve and the bullpen was effective. We offer a series of nine insightful observations, opinions, and statistical notes from the Stanford sweep.

Stringer Saves The Series - It was a banner weekend for relief pitcher David Stringer as the junior notched saves in all three games versus the Jayhawks.  All total, Stringer worked 3 1/3 innings yielding three hits, two walks, and five strikeouts.  Twice (Friday and Sunday) he came in and preserved a one-run lead.  Combined with his three-inning (no runs allowed) save last Tuesday versus USF and Stringer should merit strong consideration for Pac-10 Pitcher of the Week.  It's a huge boost to the bullpen, obviously, to have a lock-down pitcher available in the late innings.  Coming into the year, Stringer was an attractive option see significant action out of the bullpen with all of his experience from a year ago.  Plus, he throws a lot of strikes and is remarkably poised while on the mound.  Big situations don't rattle Stringer like it may with some of the younger pitchers on the staff, so it's not a surprise to see him excel in late-inning spots.  Mark Marquess will always ride out a hot hand, whether it be a pitcher or hitter, so expect Stringer to continue to be his go-to guy in the late innings. 

The only concern right now may be overuse.  Stringer threw 34 pitches on Friday and then came back in the ninth innings on both Saturday and Sunday.  He's appeared in eight of Stanford's first 12 games and certainly won't be able to keep up at that rate.  Other pitchers are going to have to emerge and earn Marquess' confidence in late innings before Stringer burns-out.  Winning games by more than three or four runs, on occasion, should also help the situation.

Taylor Improving - It's often been a frustrating time at the plate for slugger Michael Taylor during this first month of the season, but the junior right fielder is showing signs of breaking out.  Taylor had a dismal first two games in Texas two weekends ago when he went 0-for-8 with five strikeouts to drop his season batting average to .179.  Since then, Taylor has gone 6-for-20 (.300) in five games (all Stanford wins) with just three strikeouts.  His batting average may still just sit at a less-than-spectacular .229, but it does appear the Florida native is moving in the right direction. 

On Sunday, Taylor had an impressive swing of the bat in the first inning when he drove a pitch from Kansas left-hander Andy Marks off the batters eye in straightaway center field.  The home run probably traveled about 415 feet.  He also hit a couple of scorching line drives to the outfield in the final two games of the series that may not have resulted in hits, but were still very well struck balls and encouraging signs.  The power numbers are there for Taylor with his team-best totals (tied) of two triples, two home runs, and 22 total bases.  The super-sized outfielder just needs more consistent contact at the plate and if the last two games of this series were any indication, Taylor could be ready to bust out.

Surprise Move - A curious move from Marquess this early season has been the amount of work for left-handed relief pitcher Blake Hancock.  Hancock didn't pitch at all last season as a freshman (battled injuries for much of the year), but has now seen action in five games out of the bullpen this year - second-most appearances behind the workhorse Stringer.  Hancock is not a hard-thrower from the left side and routinely was hit hard in preseason intrasquad games (10.64 ERA, 11.0 IP, 18 H, 13 ER), yet he's being used in some big spots out of the bullpen.  On Saturday, Hancock entered a tie game in the sixth inning and promptly walked the first batter he faced to load the bases before Kansas' Robby Price smacked a hard ground ball to the right side of the infield.  Stanford got a huge break when the ball struck the baserunner who was moving toward second as the grounder was ticketed for right field and likely a 3-1 Kansas lead.  Stanford is a bit shorthanded when it comes to left-handed relievers with Sean Ratliff recovering from an arm injury and now seeing all of his time in center field.  This could possibly explain the extended use of Hancock, but it still is a surprising move from the coaching staff. 

Only time will tell as perhaps the staff sees something in the left-hander and figures he can be a big part of the bullpen - especially against left-handed hitters.  But if not for the baserunning blunder on Saturday, the Cardinal may very well have lost that game.  In his five appearances this season, Hancock has a 10.12 ERA (3 ER/2.2 IP) and a .417 opponents batting average.

Defense - The Stanford defense is still looking for their first errorless game of 2007 (12 games played).  As a team, the club has posted a subpar .959 fielding percentage thus far although the error totals have slowly decreased since their terrible weekend in Fullerton (seven errors).  That all said, early-season struggles in the field shouldn't be a huge surprise with this club.  Consider that Adam Sorgi hasn't played an inning yet defensively this year.  Jason Castro, the top defensive first baseman on the team, has seen sparse action at first.  Ryan Seawell is adjusting to a new position over at third and a freshman is playing shortstop (Adam Gaylord).  Small improvement in recent weeks is a step in the right direction, but this defense, as a whole, still has a ways to go before becoming one of the better fielding teams in the conference.

Ryan Seawell - Seawell appears to have put his leg issues behind him as the senior third baseman had a huge series at the plate against the Jayhawks (six hits).  Seawell now paces the club with a .367 batting average (11-for-30).  He's also added two home runs and four RBI.  Seawell has already matched his home run total from a year ago as his position change does not appear to be affecting his production at the plate.  Seawell didn't play much in the summer, the fall, or during the preseason, but in what he showed when he did get on the field, there was no question that the Menlo Park native was going to be one of the best hitters on the club.  His development from freshman year to senior year offensively has been massive and fans are starting to see the results (hit .313 while starting 40 games last year in addition to his hot start in '07). 

Additionally, Seawell has held his own at the hot corner.  Two weekends ago in Texas and against the Jayhawks, Seawell made outstanding plays while charging in on bunt attempts and throwing out runners at first base.  He's looked like someone who has played third base his entire life.  Seawell may still need work on regular ground balls and also improving his range from side-to-side, but he doesn't embarrass himself over there and his arm has proven to be incredibly accurate.  Even with the injury to Toby Gerhart (which has opened up a spot in left), it looks as if Seawell may stick at third base for awhile because of the abilities he's showing at the hot corner.

Starting Pitching - It wasn't supposed to be a huge question mark on this team, but it quickly became one after getting swept at Cal State Fullerton earlier this month.  Specifically, would Nolan Gallagher ever emerge as a legitimate Friday starter?  The verdict is still out on Gallagher, but the junior had some nice moments this weekend against Kansas.  In picking up his first victory of the season, Gallagher allowed three runs, but only four hits, in 5 1/3 innings with three strikeouts.  Gallagher was out-pitched by fellow starters Jeff Inman and Jeremy Bleich in preseason practice games, but the junior right-hander may be starting to find his groove.  Still, his season ERA sits at a dismal 6.87 (14 ER/18.1 IP) and more work needs to be done if he wants to keep that Friday spot.  Don't expect any changes in personnel and/or the order of pitchers until after the break for final exams, but Gallagher, at the very least, is showing he deserves to remain in the starting rotation with his recent efforts.

Meanwhile, both Inman and Bleich came through with impressive outings versus the Jayhawks.  Inman allowed just one run with five strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings on Saturday.  His ERA (4.87) is the lowest among the starters while he's fanned a team-best 19.  Inserting the freshman into the rotation to begin his career looks to have been the right move as Inman is handling the pressure and workload well.  On Sunday, Bleich surrendered just two runs in six innings to pick-up his first victory of the year.  The lefty struck out seven and lowered his ERA to 5.82 (14 ER/21.2 IP).  Bleich has also displayed good control, but the .356 opponents batting average is a bit troubling.  It was better on Sunday for the sophomore (seven hits allowed in his six innings), but Bleich needs to improve that number if he wants to enjoy more success this season.

All in all, a good weekend for the starting trio.  It's a not a surprise that when Gallagher, Inman, and Bleich pitch well, this team has success.  The next two weekends (at home versus Cal and USC) are key for building confidence and solidifying their spots in the rotation before the Pac-10 season begins.

The "Other" Freshmen - The successes of Inman and Gerhart in practice games was well-documented.  Some of that success has carried over to games already, but this weekend showed that this freshman class is much more than the flame-throwing starting pitcher and the two-sport standout.  With the absense of Sorgi, Adam Gaylord has now started all 12 games this season at shortstop.  Gaylord picked up two more hits on Sunday to raise his batting average to .350 (14-for-40) - third-best on the team.  Plus, while he may not be spectacular at shortstop, the freshman has certainly done the job with just two errors and a solid .951 fielding percentage thus far.  It remains to be seen whether Gaylord can continue this kind of producion, but his contribution to the team has been huge - especially with Sorgi still out.

On the mound, it was Andrew Clauson's time to shine last weekend.  Clauson made a brief appearance (one scoreless inning) late in the Fullerton series, but was called upon in a big spot on Saturday versus the Jayhawks.  With the score tied at 1-1, Clauson entered the game in the seventh and went on to fire 2 1/3 no-hit innings before giving way to Stringer in the ninth.  The freshman was credited with his first career victory and if Saturday was any indication, Clauson will see plenty more action out of the bullpen this season.  You can never have enough pitching.

Jeff Whitlow - Sophomore outfielder Jeff Whitlow made the most of his playing time this weekend.  With Gerhart out and Kansas starting three lefties on the mound, Marquess went to the right-handed bat of Whitlow in all three games against the Jayhawks.  The sophomore belted his first career home run on Friday, contributed an RBI single Sunday, and made a number of fine running (and sliding catches) in left.  Whitlow was actually a big recruit for the Cardinal (received national Top 100 mention - along with classmates Bleich, Ratliff, Tom Stilson, and Brent Milleville - as a high school senior), but struggled to make the adjustment to college pitching last year.  As a result, Whitlow appeared in just eight games last season (all as a pinch-runner) to take advantage of his excellent speed.  Now Whitlow is starting to come around offensively and he should continue to get opportunities in left field when the opponent starts a left-handed pitcher.  Against right-handers, look for his classmate, Joey August (.294 AVG in 17 AB) to garner most of the playing time.

Lefties Looking To Rebound - Kansas provided a unique test for the Cardinal hitters last weekend when they started three left-handed pitchers.  Stanford passed that test with the likes of Seawell, Taylor, and Brian Juhl all providing some big hits.  Seawell and Taylor are two big right-handed power bats for Stanford while Juhl, a switch-hitter, has looked more comfortable batting right-handed thus far in 2007.  Therefore, it was no surprise to see those right-handed hitters do well against the Jayhawks.

The same could not be said though for some of the lefties in the Cardinal lineup who had to deal with the three KU southpaws.  Sean Ratliff struck out six times in the three games.  Jason Castro and Joey August barely played while Austin Yount never got a chance to hit all weekend.  Ratliff, who still needs to work on making more contact at the plate, was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts against left-handed pitching on Sunday before stepping up (finally) against a righty and blasting a single to the outfield.  Ratliff, who is now hitting .280 this season, has made tremendous strides offensively and should see a bump in his batting average over the next two weekends with far less left-handed pitching on tap.  Castro is, of course, returning from his broken hand and did manage a double on Friday night.  He's still just 2-for-16 (.125 AVG) this year, but the ability to get his timing back at the plate and far less lefties on the mound should mean more playing time and more production for the Cardinal first baseman.  Meanwhile, Yount also should return to the field as a second baseman soon.

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