Strike One: Cardinal Rules
STANFORD, Calif.— Mark Marquess has been around college baseball long enough to know that seven straight wins at the beginning of the season won't matter in June if his team's season is over before the College World Series. So when asked what Stanford's second straight impressive sweep over a ranked opponent—this time against No. 12 Texas—shows about his team, the 36-year coaching veteran preached patience.
"We knew we had a good team, but it is still so early," Marquess said. "We haven't really been through tough times yet and we still have a lot of work to do, so we won't get too excited yet."
But redshirt junior lefthander Brett Mooneyham has been on The Farm for three seasons and Stanford hasn't made it to Omaha in any of those three seasons. So when he was asked whether this season's team was the best he has been a part of in his career after Saturday's series-clinching 7-2 win over the Longhorns, he was a little less reserved.
"Easily," Mooneyham said without hesitation. "This is easily the best team I have been on here."
After the Cardinal systematically dismantled the Longhorns at Sunken Diamond all weekend, it is hard to argue with Mooneyham's assessment.
Center fielder Jake Stewart gave Stanford a 1-0 lead with a solo home run in the bottom of the first on Friday night and the Cardinal never looked back. Starters Mark Appel, Mooneyham, and freshman John Hochstatter combined to allow just three runs in 21 1/3 innings, and the offense exploded for 29 runs—including 13 in the fourth inning on Sunday—and that was easily enough to take care of a Texas team that is struggling mightily to score runs.
After scoring 35 runs in three games against a talented Vanderbilt club last weekend, Stanford's offense was a known quantity. But there were still questions about the pitching depth, and especially who would emerge as the Sunday starter. Yesterday, Hochstatter, who doesn't boast the same electric repertoire as his more highly touted rotation-mates, took the first step toward answering that question.
After throwing 6 1/3 hitless innings of relief against the Commodores, Hochstatter changed speeds and kept the ball down in the zone against Texas, allowing just one run over 6 1/3 innings. His offense did the rest.
Unfortunately for the Longhorns, the two starters that preceded Hochstatter on Friday and Saturday were even better. On Friday, the Cardinal scored five runs in the first two innings and that was all that Appel needed. The junior and potential top pick in the draft used a 92-94 fastball and a sharp slider to keep the Longhorns' predominantly lefthanded lineup off balance, as he struck out a career-high 10 batters and allowed only one run over seven strong innings. On Saturday, Mooneyham was arguably even better. The redshirt junior said he felt 100 percent after missing last season with a finger injury, and he looked like it on Saturday, scattering three hits over eight innings while striking out seven.
"Any team would like to have those guys," infielder Kenny Diekroeger said. "When you combine those pitchers with the offense we have, it makes for a pretty scary combination. The pitching was great but some of our hitters still haven't gotten going yet, including me. I didn't do too well in the first few games, and I think we are still finding our groove as a team. Once we do you are going to see even better things."
The questions about the depth of the staff remain after highly regarded sophomore righty A.J. Vanegas struggled in relief of Appel on Friday night and Dean McArdle wasn't much better in relief of Mooneyham on Saturday. Fortunately for the Cardinal, they have the offense to make up for it. Led by six hits from Diekroeger and Stewart, the team hit .364 in the series, capping the weekend off by sending 18 men to the plate in the fourth inning on Sunday and turning a 1-1 tie into a 14-1 boat race.
The team is hitting .344, has 25 extra-base hits, and has already scored 72 runs in seven games. And after hitting 27 home runs as a team last season, the Cardinal already has seven home runs through seven games this year.
There are very few lineups in the country that can match Stanford's combination of speed, power, physicality and talent. Just like there are not many teams in the country have a 6-foot-5, 245-pound promising prospect like Austin Wilson hitting in the nine-hole. A lineup like that is a luxury for a pitching staff still trying to gel.
"It's great to have a lineup behind you that can get you out to early leads as we have done pretty much every game we have played thus far," Mooneyham said. "In past years, runs have been at a premium, but this year, I feel like our lineup is as strong as it has ever been since I have been here, and it takes a lot of pressure off of you as a pitcher when you know you have those guys hitting behind you."
Stanford has been among the most impressive teams in the country thus far this season, and its talent and hot start have many thinking about a trip to Omaha. Since making five straight trips to the CWS from 1999-2003 (with a trio of runner-up finishes in 2000, 2001 and 2003), Stanford has been back only since, in 2008. But there is still plenty of season left to play.
Both convincing sweeps came against ranked teams that are struggling mightily. Oregon went into Nashville this weekend and swept the Commodores, dropping Vanderbilt to 1-6 on the season. Meanwhile the Longhorns leave California hitting .184 as a team and having scored just 13 runs in seven games. The schedule also doesn't offer Stanford many favors, with a road trip to Fresno State next weekend and undefeated Rice visiting Sunken Diamond the weekend after that. All of this meant that when Marquess talked to his team after Sunday's win, it wasn't all pats on the back.
"We can't get overconfident," Marquess said. "You just tell them to keep working, and that's my job to make sure they keep working hard. So we have done a good job of it so far, and so I will make sure to tell them to keep doing it."
Strike Two: Elsewhere In The Golden State-Lone Star State Challenge . . .
LOS ANGELES—The three marquee series of Week Two all featured teams from Texas visiting teams from California. And like Stanford, hosts UCLA and Cal State Fullerton won their series, beating Baylor and Texas Christian. But unlike the Stanford-Texas series, the other two were very competitive. In fact, the visitors won the Friday openers in both series, but the Bruins and Titans each battled back to win the series.
After Baylor clubbed UCLA 15-3 on Friday, the Bears had a fine claim for the loudest start in college baseball (non-Stanford category). Baylor opened its season with eight straight games against quality opponents that were in regionals a year ago, sweeping Oral Roberts and winning midweek games against TCU and Texas State before improving to 6-0 on Friday. Baylor was playing with abundant confidence, grinding out at-bats offensively and shutting down opposing offenses, which mustered just 10 runs total in Baylor's first six games.
"I think we're doing a good job with just playing it one pitch at a time," Bears coach Steve Smith said, even after his team lost the next two games of the series. "The guys are locked in, playing hard. Honestly, that's all you can ask. I don't have any complaints."
UCLA coach John Savage had plenty of complaints with his team Friday night. With the departure of Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, UCLA's identity has shifted. The veteran, athletic lineup is now UCLA's greatest strength, but the Bruins produced just two runs in their two losses to Maryland last week, and after drubbing Cal State Northridge midweek, their bats went quiet again Friday.
"When we don't get so antsy and out of character, we can hit," Savage said. "It was just the first weekend, everyone said, 'Oh, here we go again.' The rest of the country, I'm sure, said, 'I told you so.' Because we had 29 strikeouts against a good Maryland pitching staff, and, 'You guys miss Trevor and Gerrit.' I told them that. I said, 'Hey, you proved people right—that offense has not gotten better.' So they took it as a challenge."
The Bruins took advantage of the President's Day holiday to reset their offensive strategy, focusing on improving their two-strike approach and getting on base by any means necessary. They rededicated themselves to assistant Rex Peters' message after Friday's loss, and as a result they scored nine runs in Saturday's win and eight runs Sunday against a solid—if not overpowering—Baylor pitching staff.
"It's going to be a grind (this year); we knew that," Savage said. "Baylor's a very, very good team, we know that. They came out and thumped us on Friday, handed it to us—as good a beating as you're going to see on Friday night. The last two days, we played the way we were expecting to play. We knew there were going to be some bumps along the road, but I think this year 9-3, 8-6, 8-4, those are the type of games we have to outlast people, and the last two days we did."
The top six hitters in UCLA's lineup—Beau Amaral, Tyler Heineman, Cody Keefer, Jeff Gelalich, Trevor Brown and Cody Regis—are all veterans of its 2010 Omaha run, and all are savvy and experienced enough to be very tough outs. Gelalich, in particular, seems to have turned a corner this year. Hitting in the cleanup spot, he hit a number of balls right on the nose this weekend, and he launched a majestic two-run homer in the first inning Saturday.
Sophomore shortstop Pat Valaika has also started to come into his own, playing with more confidence defensively and emerging as a key righthanded bat in the lineup, the way Savage always envisioned him. He went 3-for-4 with two doubles and four RBIs in Sunday's come-from-behind win, when the Bruins overcame a two-run deficit with four runs in the eighth.
"It was a good way to end the weekend," Valaika said. "We got on base, we battled with two strikes, which the first weekend we didn't do . . . That first weekend it was jitters. Once we got that out of the way, everyone started to play with confidence and having fun, and it's showing."
Cal State Fullerton can't blame jitters for its opening weekend series loss. The Titans went across country and played tough against top-ranked Florida, winning the Sunday game. Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook said his team's at-bats against Florida—who is "supposed to be the '27 Yankees"—were off the chart, which is why he was so surprised and disgusted with his team's 14-strikeout performance in Friday's loss to TCU. The Horned Frogs were playing with an infield full of reserves, pressed into action by injuries, but the Titans could not put the ball in play often enough to test them.
Fullerton's approach improved somewhat in Saturday's win, when the Titans did a better job laying off breaking balls in the dirt, drawing eight walks.
"We just didn't throw strikes," Frogs coach Jim Schlossnagle said after Saturday's game. "We're playing good defense, we're having competitive at-bats. I'm not worried about our offense; it will come in time. We've always been a dominant strike-throwing pitching staff, and we're going to be that again, but we have to get some guys some experience, and they have to trust that."
The Titans have even less experience on the mound. Ace Dylan Floro should be as reliable a Friday starter as anyone on the West Coast, but the rest of the staff still needs to prove itself. Freshmen Kenny Mathews and Koby Gauna combined to work eight innings Saturday, holding TCU to two runs (one earned), and Vanderhook was very encouraged by Mathews' improvement from his first start. A loose, athletic lefthander, Mathews has great movement on his 87-89 fastball and good feel for his changeup, and he was able to throw both pitches for strikes against the Frogs.
"Kenny finally did good because I threatened to kill him," Vanderhook said. "His ball's really live. He doesn't know where it's going. So (pitching coach Kirk Saarloos) and I decided we're just going to throw it right down the middle, and it might go there or it might go there. He can't throw it to a spot, so he can't throw it down the middle, that's our thinking. And he threw strikes and battled some things that happened to him. I'm proud of him."
But neither of these teams is blessed with an abundance of proven pitching, so Friday's 11-10 slugfest shouldn't have been a huge surprise. Starters Trey Teakell of TCU and J.D. Davis of Fullerton both have quality arms and will improve in time.
After the Titans held on for a white-knuckle win Saturday, Vanderhook said he'd find out Sunday morning if his team had any intestinal fortitude. A travel curfew helped out, but the Titans did hold off TCU's furious late rally, escaping a bases-loaded jam in the eighth.
Intestinal fortitude isn't the problem. The Titans have proven they have enough fight to compete with anyone, while their young arms learn on the job.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Andrew Mitchell
FULLERTON, Calif.—Early in the fall of Andrew Mitchell's freshman year, Texas Christian coach Jim Schlossnagle had an inkling that Mitchell might be his next great ace, following in the footsteps of All-Americans Lance Broadway, Jake Arrieta and Matt Purke.
Mitchell started off his 2011 freshman campaign in the bullpen on a staff that returned weekend starters Purke, Kyle Winkler and Steven Maxwell. By the end of the season, as injuries ravaged TCU, Mitchell was the de facto staff ace, going 6-1, 2.84 in 22 appearances (10 starts).
He entered his sophomore year this spring as the undisputed ace of an otherwise largely inexperienced pitching staff, and he pitched like a front-line Friday night starter in TCU's win against Cal State Fullerton this week. Mitchell set a career high with 12 strikeouts over five innings, allowing just a run on two hits and three walks. The lone run he allowed came in the fifth, when it looked like he had escaped a bases-loaded jam by inducing a perfect double play ball, but TCU's inexperienced infield was slow on the turn and Carlos Lopez beat out the relay.
"He maintained his presence, almost pitched his way out of trouble that inning he gave up a run," TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. "He's been that way since he showed up on campus."
He has also been overpowering since he showed up on campus. Mitchell has a pair of plus offerings in a fastball that sat 93-94 early Friday before settling into the 90-92 range later, and a devastating power breaking ball in the 79-82 range.
Seven of Mitchell's 12 strikeouts Friday came on breaking balls in the dirt. He has learned to manipulate the break on the pitch at times, throwing it with a bit more lateral movement to act more like a slider when he needs to throw it for a strike, and using it as a 12-to-6 hammer curveball when he needs to use it as a chase pitch.
"I kind of vary the way it comes out depending on if I want to throw it for a strike or in the dirt," Mitchell said. "I feel like I can throw it in any count, and I feel like I can get guys out with it."
Mitchell did not factor in the decision, as his elevated pitch count forced the Frogs to take him out after five innings when the game was still hanging in the balance. As a strikeout pitcher, Mitchell could benefit by inducing more contact early in counts in order to keep his pitch count down and extend his outings.
"Sometimes these power guys in college, I feel like it's hard for them to get the other team to put it in play," Schlossnagle said. "He's got such a power out pitch. sometimes it even overwhelms the catcher—he's throwing balls a foot in front of the plate, and those are tough to block. But I'm fired up for Andrew. He was just OK last week against Ole Miss, and for him to respond the way he did (Friday) against a really good team is great."
Mitchell thrived in a relief role for Team USA last summer, and Schlossnagle thinks he might still wind up as a power reliever in pro ball thanks to his bulldog approach and pair of power offerings. But he is also making progress with a changeup, which gives him a different look against lefties. He used it to record a strikeout of Richy Pedroza in a key spot Friday.
"It's a pitch I've been working on. It still has a long way to go, but it's good to get some crucial outs in a game to have that third pitch," Mitchell said. "I feel like it's going to be where it needs to be in a couple weeks or so, or however long it takes."
And if he can gain confidence in that third pitch to go along with his fastball and curveball, look out.
"We think he can be as dominant a Friday night guy as we've had," Schlossnagle said.