After losing bigs bats Jason Castro, Cord Phelps, Sean Ratliff and Randy Molina, weekend starters Jeremy Bleich, Erik Davis and two-way player Austin Yount, 2009 Stanford baseball faces plenty of questions that need answering: How will the Card score runs without all that power and consistency in the middle of the order? How will the rotation matchup on weekend series—a key to success for the 2008 team that won 10 of 12 such series—without those reliable arms?
Perhaps less than a week into the season is too early to answer these questions and make observations of where the Stanford baseball team stands in 2009. But a series win is a series win, and last weekend certainly showed us something about this 2009 squad: they will not quit.
The Cardinal are 2-1 after squeaking out a pair of victories against Vanderbilt, despite being outscored 22-21 on the weekend. (If not for a late and eventually unsuccessful Stanford reserve-led rally in the Saturday opener , the combined score would have been much more lopsided.)
The starting pitching was unimpressive, and the offense started slow in each contest. Both of the wins required late rallies against the Commodore bullpen and, in the series, Stanford only sent pitchers to the mound with leads in two innings—both in the final game.
After falling behind in every game, they outscored Vanderbilt 17-4 after the fifth inning. With the exception of freshman Scott Snodgress, who deserves a pass in his collegiate debut, the bullpen arms were outstanding.
Freshman right-handed pitcher Jordan Pries pitched three shutout innings in the opener to pick up the win in his debut. In the first game on Saturday, sophomore righty Michael Marshall, junior righty Kyle Thompson and senior southpaw Blake Hancock looked rusty but effective, and sophomore righty Carey Schwartz showed that he has the stuff to strike out right-handers at will. Freshman left-handed pitcher Brett Mooneyham allowed 10 batters only a single hit and nary a run in the finale, and sophomore righthanded closer Drew Storen struck out five of the nine batters he faced to close the door.
The new fixtures in the batting order impressed as well, especially infielders Adam Gaylord and Colin Walsh, who each got big hits Saturday. Outfielder Kellen Kiilsgaard delivered his first career home run, shortstop Jake Schlander showed a greatly improved ability to build quality at-bats, and third baseman Zach Jones was very impressive in the leadoff spot on Friday. And, of course, first baseman Brent Milleville and outfielders Joey August and Toby Gerhart were steady in the middle of the order.
But what fans and the team should take from last weekend is that the 2009 Cardinal have all the tools to win, despite losing so many key players from last year's College World Series team.
A bullpen that can shut down a red hot offense and a lineup that can get on base from top to bottom—and knock a few out—will win a lot of games. And a bench that can bring in veterans like Gaylord or power potential like Kiilsgaard, first baseman Jonathan Kaskow or outfielder Kellen McColl will win a few more. Plus a stopper like Storen should keep very many from slipping away.
But this doesn't mean they will win. The starting rotation needs to be better than what we saw this weekend. Yes, a pitcher's first start of the year can only mean so much, but the bullpen can't pitch 13 innings every series and stay effective. Jeffrey Inman did a great job settling down on Friday and taking control after getting knocked around early. Both Danny Sandbrink and Max Fearnow looked good on Saturday, but they got themselves into trouble more than the Vanderbilt hitters created it for them—it is difficult to win when committing multiple errors and almost impossible when allowing six stolen bases in a single game.
The offense, while nearly matching the Commodores in run production, needs to get on base against the opponent's starters: last weekend it managed just 14 hits and four walks in 18.2 innings against starting pitchers, compared to 13 hits and 11 walks in eight innings against the bullpen. Getting the lead early is never a bad thing, and it is easier on the rotation to pitch while ahead once in awhile.
And while the bullpen was great this weekend, it won't be able to pick up two wins every week. How it responds to and manages the rough patches will be extremely important.
Wednesday, the Card took a step back, losing 5-3 to visiting St. Mary's, despite bringing the winning run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth.
This weekend, Stanford visits Fullerton, with the series opener Friday at 7 p.m. Keys will be whether the rotation can all make it through fifth and whether the offense finds itself before the sun sets. If these things happen, and the team has the talent to make you think they will sooner or later, the lofty preseason predictions may end up seeming not all that lofty after all.
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