By Mark Soltau
In the end, Mark Appel called it a no-lose situation. Pitching in the major leagues has been a lifelong dream, but will have to wait a year for the Stanford senior All-America to earn his degree and help the Cardinal baseball team reach the College World Series.
Last season, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound right-hander from Monte Vista High in Danville, posted a 10-2 record and 2.56 ERA. He recorded a Pac-12 Conference-best 130 strikeouts, and pitched at least seven innings in 14 of 16 starts, including five complete games.
Appel was selected first-team all-conference and a National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association first-team All-America. He was expected to be the first player chosen in the MLB First Year Player Draft last July by his hometown Houston Astros, but wound up going eighth to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Despite what some thought, Appel wasn't crushed.
"It was out of my control," he said. "The night before the draft, I thought long and hard, looked at myself in the mirror and said, `You've done everything you can every time out to put yourself in the best situation possible. The rest is in God's hands.'"
Appel was gratified to be picked so high.
"A lot of people just assumed that I was disappointed," said Appel. "Are you kidding me? That's one of the biggest honors I've ever received. Five years ago if you had told me that, I would have been like, `You're crazy?' The fact that it happened is so mind-blowing to me. It's really humbling to see where I've been, how far I've come, and how far I can go."
Appel, who will complete his degree in management, science and technology in March, said he never stressed out about the draft.
"I was at peace with it," he said. "I wanted to gather as much information as I could to make the best decision I could. I asked my parents, my friends, my advisors, my coaches . . . anybody who had an influence on me to get this far. When it came down to it, it was still my choice."
Besides, Appel had some unfinished business. In his last start at Florida State in the NCAA Super Regional, he failed to survive the fourth inning in a 17-1 loss.
"It was a bummer, but I really think it was blessing in disguise, just showing me how much I really enjoyed playing Stanford baseball and being a part of this team," said Appel. "I can still pitch, have a good time, and not have to worry about the draft this year. I haven't had a single regret since July 13."
Stanford head coach Mark Marquess reminded Appel that once he leaves, everything changes. Baseball becomes a job.
"There's not enough that can be said about the relationships you create with your teammates," Appel said. "A lot of my friends that signed last year have come back and said, `Coach was right. This is the last time until you get to the majors where your teammates are pulling for you.' In the minors, everyone's so cutthroat, trying to get a leg up on everybody else. Even your own teammates are rooting against you, hoping that you don't perform so you can move up to the next level. I can wait on that."
Selfishly, Marquess is thrilled to have Appel back. But only because his ace wanted to return to The Farm.
"To be honest, because of the new draft, the way it was held, people assumed he would be the first guy taken," said Marquess, now in his 37th season at the helm. "And because of unique circumstances to that system, he fell to No. 8. I think if he had gone where everyone thought (Houston), he probably would have had to sign.
"It made him think about it. I know going to Omaha (College World Series) was a big part of what he wanted to accomplish. This way, when he enters pro ball in June, he'll have his degree. It worked out great for us."
What separates Appel from other college pitchers?
"No. 1, he's very athletic," Marquess said. "He was a very good basketball player in high school, so he's obviously very talented. He reminds me a lot of Jack McDowell, who was a great athlete here and won the Cy Young with the (Chicago) White Sox.
"What makes him so special along with that size is his velocity. He throws around 95-96 miles per hour and it's hard to teach that. Coach (Rusty) Filter has done a good job of adding a very good changeup and an outstanding slider. And that's the key. He's really learned how to pitch."
And win. Appel has 18 victories during his three-year career.
"Mark has learned to be really competitive," said Marquess. "He wasn't that way when he was younger."
Appel views pitching as a puzzle, because every hitter requires a different strategy.
"The fun part is figuring out how to give your team a chance of winning," he said. "Making each pitch to the best of your ability to get a guy out. You have to figure out your strength and their weakness."
Appel has always been a Nolan Ryan fan.
"He's originally from Texas, threw hard, was just a workhorse, and never complained," said Appel. "He did his best until the coach took the ball out of his hand. That's my mentality, too."
Appel, who moved to Danville from Houston when he was 12, said his favorite spot on campus is the field at Sunken Diamond. Makes sense given how much time he has spent on it.
"It's a place where you get away from all the stresses and worries that Stanford throws at you," he said. "Having homework assignment after homework assignment, paper after paper, tests . . . it's such a competitive place."
Appel is the leader of a young pitching staff this season and has made a point of sharing his past experiences with the underclassmen, especially the freshmen.
"If I had turned pro, I never would have gotten the opportunity to meet them," said Appel. "And so I'm trying to encourage some of those guys and let them know that, `Hey, I went through all that bad stuff. My freshman year was pretty bad. I know where you're coming from and it gets better from here. Don't get discouraged.'''
Marquess said he's an inspiration to Cardinal players on and off the field.
"He's a very special young man," he said. "Great values, great student, caring person, great teammate and great leader. He's a bulldog on the mound."
Appel didn't pitch during the summer to rest up for the season. But he started throwing in the fall and looked sharp in the team's first scrimmage last Friday. "He was lights out," Marquess said.
Appel can't wait for the season opener Feb. 15 at Rice. He has many friends and family ties to the university. In last year's game at Rice, Appel racked up 14 strikeouts and allowed two runs and four hits in a nine-inning no-decision. Rice made a late push to recruit Appel, but he couldn't be happier about his decision to attend Stanford. Senior year, included.
"Just the opportunities here, you can't really put a price tag on that," he said. "I think anybody that has gone here understands and knows that. You look at Andrew Luck and he did the same thing. He passed up a lot more money than I could have ever dreamed of being offered."
NOTE: Stanford will hold its Cardinal & White Intersquad Scrimmage at Sunken Diamond on Saturday at 1 p.m. Fans will get a sneak peek at the 2013 squad and will have first dibs on a number of free giveaways, including schedule posters, cards and magnets. Admission to the event is free.