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Stanford relies on bats -- not arms -- for recent success
by John Manuel
It's hard to recall now, but for a while, Stanford's baseball program underachieved.
Mark Marquess' first season as head coach was 1977, and a decade later the Cardinal won the first of its back-to-back national championships. However, from 1990, when the Cardinal was upset twice in the College World Series by eventual national champion Georgia, to 1998, Stanford was not the Stanford we know now. The Cardinal reached Omaha just twice, in 1995 and '97, crashed to earth with five losses in its last six games in '98, and even had a losing season in 1993.
Now, of course, Stanford has acquired a reputation of consistency that most programs envy. The Cardinal has made five consecutive trips to the CWS, reloading every season and never finishing a year ranked lower than fourth since 1999. The only disappointment has been three second-place finishes in 2000, 2001 and 2003.
In the program's ascendancy under Marquess, the Cardinal built its reputation on pitching. The program produced big league arms such as Jeff Ballard, Rick Helling, Jack McDowell and Mike Mussina, and long-time pitching coach Tom Dunton assembled staffs that set Pacific-10 Conference strikeout records in 1986 and 1990.
During Stanford's recent run of dominance, the program has produced its share of excellent college pitchers. Righthander Jeff Austin was BA's College Player of the Year in 1998, and more recently, Stanford has trotted aces such as Justin Wayne, Jason Young, Mike Gosling, Jeremy Guthrie and John Hudgins to the mound in Omaha.
As good as those pitchers have been in recent years, though, they don't match up to McDowell and Mussina, and they haven't been the true key to Stanford's five-year streak in Omaha.
The Cardinal's best talent has been in the field, not on the mound, producing stellar defenses and explosive lineups. Stanford has emerged as one of the nation's most consistent offensive clubs, and the trend even has carried over to pro ball, as in the case of Indians outfielder Jody Gerut, whose rookie season in 2003 was the best of any Stanford alumnus other than Mussina.
The 2004 Cardinal team looks like more of the same. In getting off to a 10-2 start and climbing to No. 1 in Baseball America's Top 25 rankings, Stanford has given notice that it has one of the nation's best lineups--again.
Fuld Does It All
That's true even after Texas held the Cardinal to a .208 average over a three-game series. Stanford pounced on several Longhorns mistakes (they made 10 errors) and got enough offense to complement solid outings by lefthanders Mark Romanczuk and Blake Holler.
Igniting the offense for the fourth straight year, senior center fielder Sam Fuld keyed the win in the rubber game of the series with an RBI and two hits, making him the fourth player in program history to record 300 hits.
"The biggest thing that we had happen to our program this year was to have Sam Fuld come back for his senior year," Marquess said. "He's going to hold most of our hitting records when he graduates, except for home runs. He's just been an exceptional player for us."
Fuld embodies all three traits that have made Stanford's offense so good over the last six seasons. To some, he's a good pro prospect, a solid-average runner who can steal a base, plays great defense in center field, makes consistent hard contact and has exceptional makeup. To others, he's "a good little player," as one scout put it, "but you always include the word 'little,' because he's 5-foot-9."
And this year, he's a senior. In recent years, the Cardinal has had more success at keeping players like Fuld, 2003 All-America catcher Ryan Garko and career hits and RBIs leader John Gall (1997-2000) on campus for four seasons. Coaches love seniors, and with good reason--seniors always seem to make a big impact on teams that get to Omaha.
Loosen Up, Coach
Stanford also has gotten contributions from the proverbial "good college player," such as Jed Lowrie, a sophomore middle infielder who has developed nicely after adding strength in the offseason; Marquess has started batting him third in the order. Lowrie's strong arm and good range also help him continue the program's recent string of excellent infield defense.
The Cardinal's real talent lies lower in the order, with players such as sophomore first baseman John Mayberry, an unsigned 2002 first-round pick of the Mariners; preseason All-American Danny Putnam; toolsy catcher Donny Lucy; and junior DH Chris Carter, whose raw power ranks with any college player.
Aside from Putnam, all of them came to Stanford with considerable hype. Unlike Stanford hitters of the past, such as David McCarty, Jeffrey Hammonds and even Joe Borchard, they're showing signs they will hit in pro ball as well as in college.
"The rap has been that (Marquess) is too hands-on and so mechanically oriented (as a hitting coach)," said one veteran scout. "That's why you've had the guys like McCarty and Hammonds not get it done, when everyone thought they would be good players.
"But it appears that they've let up a bit with Mayberry; he's looking more like he did in high school. They don't seem to say too much to Putnam, and he can just really hit. He's strong; he's going to hit some home runs.
"Maybe the coach has loosened up."
Marquess? Well, he did consent to a slight alteration to the team's classic V-neck jerseys, closing the cursive "a" on the front so that it no longer seems to read "Stunford."
Some things do change at Stanford--even reputations.