The Return to Omaha
Warning: Don't take the Super Regional road through the humid Southeast in an attempt to reach the College World Series. Stanford baseball learned that the hard way in 2011 and 2012, swept away by North Carolina and Florida State squads in hostile environments. Last year's demise was particularly gruesome: the Seminoles butchered the Cardinal 17-1 and 18-7 in sweltering Tallahassee.
"I think [the Florida State blowouts] taught us that we can't focus on the externals, the crowd, the humidity, final exams. We have to learn to focus on playing good baseball," senior ace Mark Appel said. "This year there's going to be a huge emphasis on winning the Sunday games, getting those sweeps, and winning those midweek games. It's huge for getting that national seed and hosting a Super Regional."
In 2012, Stanford finished 41-18, but a regular-season ending home series loss to Cal, which included a gut-wrenching 18-inning Friday night defeat, eventually forced the Cardinal to pack their bags for Tallahassee.
This year, Appel is the country's best starting pitcher, and his surprising senior return complements an offense that packs legitimate firepower for the preseason No. 9 Cardinal. Austin Wilson, Alex Blandino, and Brian Ragira comprise an enviable three-batter core, but the Cardinal must replace starters Stephen Piscotty, Jake Stewart, Kenny Diekroeger, Eric Smith, and Tyler Gaffney.
Ultimately, as is always the case, the Farm Boys' success will hinge on pitching depth. Appel has Friday locked down, but the Saturday and Sunday starters' spots remain question marks until someone performs consistently. Sophomore lefty John Hochstatter gets the season's first Saturday nod at No. 20 Rice, while the Sunday role will initially belong to a freshman: highly-touted Freddy Avis, lefty Logan James and Daniel Starwalt are all candidates.
1B - Brian Ragira (JR)
2B - Danny Diekroeger (JR)
SS - Lonnie Kauppila (JR)
3B - Alex Blandino (SO)
LF - Dominic Jose* (SO)
CF - Jonny Locher* (FR)
RF - Austin Wilson (JR)
C - Wayne Taylor* (SO)
Projected Batting Order
1 - L/R Jonny Locher* - known for speed, but has displayed impressive pop (two HR in one intrasquad game)
2 - L Danny Diekroeger - excellent bat control, can find hole to execute hit-and-run
3 - R Brian Ragira - beautiful, consistent line drive swing, but can he generate more power?
4 - R Austin Wilson - everyone is expecting a monster season; no shortage of intrasquad bombs
5 - R Alex Blandino - lightning-fast swing; must avoid sophomore slump
6 - L/R Dominic Jose* - The key to Stanford's lineup; .375 over 40 at-bats in 2012
7 - R Lonnie Kauppila - back from a knee injury; gap-to-gap power would greatly help
8 - L Wayne Taylor* - only hit .152 his freshman year, but has been hitting well to all fields in offseason
9 - DH (Drew Jackson, Zach Hoffpauir, Austin Slater, Brett Michael Doran, Brian Guymon, Austin Barr)
Lineup Thoughts: Keys to Success
My projected Stanford lineup is contingent on all bats -- particularly Dominic Jose's -- reaching their full potential. With the Ragira-Wilson-Blandino core, there's no question that the Cardinal offense will be dangerous. The difference between a good attack and a juggernaut, though, likely depends on the type of season that the sophomore left fielder Jose can put together. In 40 at-bats last year, the freshman hit .375 and pumped a grand slam out of the ballpark. If he can translate that kind of success into a full season, Marquess' No. 6 hole will round out a true titan.
Of course, the losses of Piscotty, Stewart, Smith, Gaffney, and Kenny Diekroeger will be challenging to overcome. But Locher has dazzled at times in intrasquads. He is considered to have top-shelf run-generating tools primed for the leadoff spot, but he has also developed the power to drive the ball out of the ballpark. This was on full display during Stanford's first January intrasquad, when he belted two home runs to left field.
If Jose can successfully man the order's six spot, Marquess will have the luxury of batting Danny Diekroeger second in the order, a perfect spot for a left-handed hitter with excellent bat control. Diekroeger has repeatedly displayed the ability to utilize the hole on the right side of the infield throughout intrasquads, an especially valuable asset if Locher is able to consistently reach base and keep the first baseman glued to the bag in front of him.
Marquess confirmed that he is expecting a great year from five-tool stud Wilson in the middle. Meanwhile, Ragira and Blandino, two excellent bats in their own right, should see plenty of strikes because of the big junior stalwart. Plus, the development of the bottom of Stanford's order should also be intriguing. Taylor, who scuffled to a .152 batting average his freshman year, has been swinging the bat extremely well throughout the entire offseason. He has displayed power to all fields on his way to earning the starting nod a year after Smith's departure.
Kauppila's return from a season-ending knee injury solidifies the Cardinal defensively, but Stanford will also look for offensive efficiency from their starting shortstop. Kauppila was batting .280 when he went down last season. He won't be counted on to deliver much power at the plate, but a continued presence on base will help the Farm Boys reach the designated hitter spot and turn the lineup card over.
Speaking of that DH hole, Marquess has named several candidates, all of whom have the potential to raise the spot's slot in the lineup order. Brett Michael Doran saw starting action in 2012, while Austin Slater has strengthened as a sophomore. Junior Brian Guymon displayed impressive power this offseason, blasting another home run as recently as this past Sunday. A pair of talented freshmen, though, have generated a considerable buzz: shortstop Drew Jackson, the fastest player on the team, and outfielder Zach Hoffpauir, also a hard-hitting safety generating offseason buzz on the football team. Hoffpauir tripled off Appel in his first live at-bat since last April, though he must consistently learn to lay off breaking pitches on the college level. As for Jackson, Appel has raved about him at the plate, calling him a "very tough at-bat", high praise for a freshman coming from a senior star.
Pitching, Pitching, Pitching
Offensive prowess will be rendered moot, however, if Stanford does not perform well on the mound. Appel is expected to be excellent on the mound again after his 10-2, 2.56 ERA numbers in 2012 dazzled for much of the season. Alas, Appel cannot pitch every start, leaving the Cardinal tasked with replacing Brett Mooneyham and Stephen Piscotty, who anchored the Saturday and Sunday starting positions down the 2012 stretch.
Sophomore lefthander John Hochstatter, whose 12-to-6 breaking ball regularly baffled hitters early last season, gets the season's first Saturday nod. He finished 2012 with a 4.53 ERA while walking more batters (18) than he struck out (15). Almost all of his control struggles came after a hot start to the season, so Stanford is counting on him to regain his early form. Such mastery from Hochstatter could produce a potentially balance-disrupting Friday-Saturday combination with Appel, who throws much harder (and from the right side).
Either Freddy Avis, Logan James, or Daniel Starwalt will begin the season as Stanford's Sunday starter. "He Tries Harder" Avis has touched 94 miles per hour on the radar gun, while James has provided intrigue by hitting 92 MPH from the left side.
"All of those guys are more than capable," Marquess said. "Their success will depend on them being able to control a secondary pitch on top of their fastball. At this level, you need that to succeed."
Stanford hopes closer A.J. Vanegas, who lit up Cape Cod league radar guns with 98 MPH fastballs this past summer, returns in late March from back surgery. Assuming Vanegas can work back to full strength, the back end of the Cardinal bullpen will be fortified. Sahil Bloom, Dean McArdle, and David Schmidt all also have experience coming out of the 'pen, but the details of Stanford's relief plan will develop with the season. Fans need look back no further than 2011, when Chris Reed emerged as the closer midway through the season.
Stanford's lineup remains formidable, and its pitching staff retains the talent to win. If Vanegas can return to man the closer's role by the Pac-12 season, the Cardinal look to have the firepower to be a very complete baseball team. Of course, strong individual performances from some newcomers and first-year starters are necessary, but offseason intrasquads have given plenty of reason for optimism. The Cardinal are as good of a bet as anybody to win a loaded Pac-12 that features No. 5 UCLA, No. 6 Oregon, the No. 9 Cardinal and No. 10 Oregon State each in the top 10. (And don't sleep on No. 16 Arizona State or No. 18 Arizona.) If the Card can win a stacked league, the road back to Omaha becomes exponentially easier, as it would go through Sunken Diamond.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Football Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMLombardi.
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