Stanford Baseball finished the winter quarter portion of its 2007 schedule on a high note. The Cardinal came back against rival USC in their final game before a two-week break for final exams, scoring 10 runs in the eighth and ninth innings of a 14-9 victory. Least celebratory after that March 11 victory, however, was starting pitcher Nolan Gallagher, who gave up six hits and four walks before being pulled after a lead-off double in the fourth inning. The junior righthander was tagged for four earned runs in three innings pitched despite being handed a 3-0 lead by his teammates in the opening frame.
Though the Cardinal emerged victorious at game's end, it was another personal defeat for Gallagher. The 6'3" hurler coming into this year was the supposed "ace" of the Stanford staff and a projected top draft pick in June. He was also the team's most experienced pitcher, expected to lead a staff that would lean significantly on freshmen and sophomores. Gallagher's junior season started nothing like he or the Cardinal expected, logging a 1-2 record and a 7.92 ERA.
After a number of disappointing outings, Gallagher was replaced by Jeffrey Inman in the Friday starter's role, a dramatic move that put a freshman in that first-day pitching position for the first time in more than a decade on The Farm. The junior ace was suddenly throwing third on Sundays. In that new position, Gallagher continued to struggle. He was touched for eight earned runs in 6 2/3 innings pitched in two Sunday starts, with six walks against seven strikeouts. Never before did the junior so look forward to final exams at Stanford.
"I had two rough starts in a row against Cal and USC, so I just tried to get back to the basics of simplifying my delivery, repeating it and throwing a lot of strikes," Gallagher says. "Over the two-week period, I just tried to simplify things - get back down to simplifying my delivery and my approach. Throwing more strikes... That was the goal, and I was able to do that in the intersquad [scrimmage]. I tried to get as many repetitions as I could. I kind of sped up my delivery a little."
The break in the 2007 schedule for Stanford was not a complete relief from baseball, including several workouts and scrimmages. Gallagher says he threw a full outing of 80 pitches in one such team scrimmage, which was successful with his new approach. That set the stage for what he and the coaching staff hoped could begin his turnaround past weekend. The schedule provided a wrinkle, however. Stanford had just a two-game series on tap, a home-and-home affair with Sacramento State. Gallagher's role as the third-day starting pitcher would ostensibly leave him out of the mix against the Hornets, but head coach Mark Marquess made a move. He decided to throw his first-day and second-day starting pitchers both in the first game against Sacramento State and leave the second game for Gallagher to start.
It so happened that first game was a disaster for Stanford as it restarted the 2007 schedule, dropping a 6-0 decision on Saturday against by far the weakest opponent of the season. With Gallagher and his stratospheric ERA taking the hill for the Sunday game in Sacramento, the Cardinal community braced for further disaster. Instead, the most spectacular and surprising result of the season ensued. Gallagher threw a complete game and four-hit shutout, as Stanford stomped Sac State in a 10-0 win.
It was just the second complete game of Gallagher's collegiate career, and the first for a shutout. He threw seven strikeouts, which tied his career-high (coming previously in his other complete game; May 20, 2006 at UCLA). Gallagher threw strikes throughout the game, which is something that could not be said about him previously in 2007. On Sunday, he walked nary a batter through nine innings and only four times reached a three-ball count, none of which resulted in a baserunner.
"It was kind of an immediate payback, which is not how it always work in baseball," Gallagher says of his turnaround performance in Sacramento. "I was just able to throw a lot more strikes. My fastball command was really good. I don't know if that will be a consistent thing now or not, but that was the big difference for me on Sunday. I had the command of my fastball pretty much the whole game."
"Into the eighth and ninth, I was kind of just throwing, but early in the game for the first seven innings, I was able to command that pretty well, which was the difference between the whole season," he continues. "What I've struggled with has been fastball command and not being in the zone enough. I was able to do that and throw a lot more strikes. I think I threw close to 70 percent strikes, which is something that I hadn't been doing. That was kind of the immediate payback, and hopefully that will continue to develop."
Gallagher unofficially threw 107 pitches in the game, which is rather efficient work for a nine-inning outing. 72 of those pitches were strikes, or 67 percent. His early innings were even better, throwing 76 percent strikes and facing the minimum nine batters in the first three innings. Sacramento State was immediately on their heels against the new and improved Gallagher, who tossed 25 total pitches in the first third of the game. His five-pitch and eight-pitch first and third innings, respectively, were particularly lethal.
The early work was even more impressive considering that his slumping teammates were doing nothing whatsoever at the plate. Stanford was hitless through those first three innings, extending their scoreless streak to 12 innings against a completely unremarkable Sacramento State pitching staff. There was no hint or promise that Gallagher would receive support on the scoreboard.
The Red Lodge, Montana man also admits that he had no expectation that he would throw with such early success or with such consistency and longevity for a complete game. Marquess had indeed told The Bootleg the previous day that he wouldn't throw Gallagher nine innings in the Sunday start - not a chance. The coach and his pitcher saw the improvement during the break and were optimistic that his fastball command would show improvement in the Sacramento State start, but nobody would have believed that the result was so quickly be so dramatically turned around.
"It definitely wasn't something that I was expecting right away," Gallagher admits. "I was just trying to throw strikes down in the zone and trying to get some quick outs. I was able to do that, but I wasn't impeccable by any means. There were times where it came and went, but for the most part I was more consistent in that outing than I have been in any other outing."
"I was just hoping to continually get better," he adds. "It turned out to be a great outing, but it was actually just a stepping stone. I wasn't planning on going that long. My goal was to throw two or three quick innings, and maybe go five or six. Once I got in that position, it was going quicker than I expected. I wasn't expecting to go nine [innings] or anything. I was just expecting to build on last week. I didn't think it was going to come all at once. It was kind of exciting to see that come. Next week I'm just going to build on what I've been working on."
Gallagher's confidence that he could throw deep into the game and not just the middle innings came in part due to the explosion of support his teammates gave him at the plate in the fourth and fifth frames. Stanford scored three runs in the fourth inning and then batted around for six more in the fifth. The Cardinal did it piecemeal, with no extra-base hits. Stanford stroked singles for all 13 of their hits in the game, and they were aided by a pair of Hornets' throwing errors in those big scoring innings.
The junior righty took the run support and dropped the proverbial hammer on Sacramento State. After a first-pitch leadoff single to start the bottom of the fourth inning, Gallagher retired 14 straight batters, including five strikeouts against the next six that faced him at the plate. This came by design and not coincidence. Gallagher was working the games within the game to perfection.
"Early on, the goal is to keep [the score] at zero until your team can score. You always want your team to score first. That was kind of the goal for the first few innings," he explains. "Then when we got that three-run lead, we always talk within the pitching staff about throwing a shutout inning after you score. We consider that as the 'momentum rule.' That was something I really concentrated on after the three-run inning."
Three strikeouts in the fourth certainly seized the momentum for Stanford, and Gallagher did not let up in the fifth.
"At 3-0, they're still in the game, so after that six-running inning, I wanted a really quick inning," the righty recalls. "I think I was able to get a couple of strikeouts that inning. I wanted to get a boost for the team and a boost for me. That was exciting for me to get in on a good note and have that 9-0 lead sealed with a zero in that position."
Soon it became apparent that Gallagher had a chance to go deep into the game. He had a low pitch count and a huge lead on the scoreboard. Pitching coach Tom Kunis made sure to keep his hurler focused on how to finish the game. Gallagher had not thrown more than six innings previously in 2007.
"Around the seventh inning, by then it was a 9-0 lead, and he said, 'We're not going to give in and just starting throwing fastballs. We're going to still pitching. We're going to still work on some pitches. We're still going to work on throwing off-speed early in the count and mix that in there so they can't just sit on a fastball,'" Gallagher recounts.
The junior answered the call. He faced just seven batters the next two innings, allowing only a two-out single in the eighth.
The shutout was in tact and the complete game was now within reach. Gallagher through eight innings had thrown just 90 pitches and given up only three hits. The only batter to reach second base came back in the fourth, when a two-out wild pitch allowed a runner to second.
Then Gallagher was jolted as he started the ninth inning. A pinch hitter ripped a triple to lead off the inning. Not only was Gallagher touched for his first extra-base hit, but he also had the shutout spoiler just 90 feet from home with no outs. Kunis visited his pitcher on the mound next.
"It was kind of funny," Gallagher says. "Coach K came out and said, 'I want a strikeout here. You can't let this guy score.' It was an emotional boost. I think he was trying to get in me. I didn't want the guy to score, either."
"I was able to get a strikeout and a pop-up back to back, which was pretty huge," he describes. "Anything else, like a fly ball or a ground ball in the infield, and they would have scored.. We were playing back; you wouldn't play in in that situation. So that was a personal battle to make sure that guy didn't score, and I came out on the right side... It was the personal satisfaction. It was good that we were able to get the shutout, which is not always easy to get."
After the Sunday celebration faded, observers were left to wonder why this kind of performance from Gallagher had to wait until late March to emerge. The 21-year-old has thrown in 52 games in college, and this junior season was supposed to be his best.
"Starting off the year, looking back on it, I think I might have put too much pressure on myself. I was trying to perform too much and trying to do too much early," Gallagher reflects. "Halfway through the year - this always happens - you kind of sit back and realize what you've been doing wrong and what you've been doing right. I tried to push too early. You know that you're one of the leaders on the team and one of older guys on the team, so you want to push and start the team off well. Well, you can definitely push too hard. That's something I did, so that was kind of disappointing the way I started and the way the year has been so far."
"It's a good thing," he continues. "It's not an immediate turnaround; there rarely is in baseball. I don't expect this to be a cakewalk now at all, but you try to persevere and do better each outing, regardless of what it is. No matter what it is, you try to get better each outing, so I'm trying to be able to do that. Sometimes it doesn't come, and it's tough. It's a constant battle, but I realize what I didn't do right at the beginning of the year, and the team has still been winning. That keeps your spirits still up. We were able to rely on some other guys, which is good. You sit back a little and come into your own. Hopefully that will happen and I keep getting better. I want to concentrate on that as much as I can, instead of the past."
Gallagher can take solace in the fact that through his personal struggles, his team has pushed through. He may be just 2-2 on the season, but Stanford is 5-2 in games he has started.
Of course, the complete game shutout he scored on Sunday is just one game for Gallagher. He and the Cardinal have three months of the season still ahead. This weekend will mark an important transition as the non-conference season gives way to Pac-10 play. Up first is UCLA at Sunken Diamond, the first of eight conference series in the next nine weekends. Gallagher foremost wants to demonstrate continued command of his fastball, which was superb on Sunday and the biggest difference between his success and failure in 2007. The righthander is also looking to take the next steps in improving his other pitches, which admittedly were not as good on Sunday and need to work for him against stiffer Pac-10 competition.
"I thought my change-up and curveball were alright on Sunday," Gallagher offers. "But I would like to improve my curveball and make that more of a strikeout pitch. If we get that fastball command polished down, then I would try to get that curveball as more of a put-me-away pitch. That's something that I didn't think was that great against Sac State. I would say that would be the next level. Also throwing my change-up for a strike more. That wasn't as good on Sunday, but I was able to get away with it just because I could command my fastball better. That's the next step, throwing those for strikes more. That would probably be the only adjustment I try to make this week. You can't make too many adjustments on a week-to-week basis."
If Gallagher and Kunis continue their adjustments with success anywhere approaching the results that the past few weeks have brought the 6'3" junior, there could be a much-improved and downright dangerous Stanford this spring. Resurrecting Gallagher as the staff ace would be a momentous piece to the puzzle of this season, which still has miles of baseball ahead and plenty of surprises in store.
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