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Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - February 17, 2012

Another pitch for success

Stanford opens the season with strong rotation plus key returning players

by Rick Eymer

Stanford may have lost four quality pitchers from last year's staff that produced a team 3.45 ERA, but there's enough returning pitchers to give the Cardinal the look of a champion.

Left-hander Brett Mooneyham did not pitch last year because of a severe finger injury and he was the projected ace of the staff. Right-hander Mark Appel stepped into the top spot and performed admirably enough to have put himself into the conversation as a possible first round pick this year.

Appel and Mooneyham give Stanford one of the top one-two starting combinations in the nation, a major reason why the Cardinal was picked to win the Pac-12 this year and earned a preseason No. 2 ranking by Baseball America.

"It's always hard any time that something you love is taken from you," said Mooneyham, who last threw a pitch during the 2010 Regional at Cal State Fullerton. "It's been difficult but I tried to stay in the game as much as possible."

Stanford also returns seven of its eight position players, with catcher the lone question mark entering Friday night's opener with No. 10 Vanderbilt at 5:30 p.m. at Sunken Diamond. The Cardinal also scheduled top programs like Texas, Fresno State and Rice.

"We're not going to be No. 2 in the nation four weeks from now," Stanford coach Mark Marquess said, referring to a tough-as-nails preseason schedule. "There will be somebody undefeated. We're not going to be undefeated, though I hope I'm wrong."

Marquess said there's still a good competition going on for the catcher's spot, with senior Christian Griffiths the frontrunner. Griffiths missed last year with a shoulder injury. Freshman sensation Wayne Taylor, also a gifted football player, could likely work his way into the starting lineup before too long. Converted infielder Eric Smith is also in the mix.

"We'll platoon to find out who seems best suited," Marquess said. "We may end up platooning the whole season.

Appel and third baseman Stephen Piscotty appear on most preseason All-American lists. Menlo School grad Kenny Diekroeger also has his name on some All-American lists and outfielders Tyler Gaffney and Jake Stewart are also candidates for postseason honors.

"There's something about this lineup that we all have tremendous confidence in it," Diekroeger said. "There's a swagger you can't measure. It's good to play these teams now because it will give us an opportunity to find out where we need to improve."

Other returning starters include first baseman Brian Ragira, outfielder Austin Wilson and second baseman Lonnie Kauppila as the Cardinal finished 35-22 overall, with a trip to a Super Regional.

"I hope we pick up where we left off when the season ended," said Piscotty, a first team All-Pac-10 pick last year after hitting .364. "That was positive momentum we want to carry over."

Gaffney carries a 22-game hitting streak into the season, already the fifth-longest since 1988, and Ragira was named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and freshman All-American.

"You always want to carry your weight but this is the kind of lineup which you don't have to carry like we all did in high school," Ragira said.

Other returners are infielders Justin Ringo, Brett Michael Doran and Danny Diekroeger and outfielder Brian Guymon.

In addition to Appel and Mooneyham, returning pitchers include AJ Vanegas, Sahil Bloom, Brian Busick, Dean McArdle, the team's win leader a year ago, AJ Talt and Elliott Byers.

Also back after missing significant time are pitchers Tommy Colton, Chris Jenkins, Sam Lindquist and Zach Yohannes and catchers Brant Whiting and Trevor Penny.

Mooneyham, who led the team with 99 strikeouts in 2010, may be the most significant addition to the roster. He was a projected first round pick last year before suffering the in jury.

"It's been a blessing in disguise for us," Piscotty said of Mooneyham. "It's great to have him around."

Mooneyham said he's 100 percent ready to pitch on Saturday.

"I'm feeling good about where I am from when I left off," he said. "I just want to go out and be comfortable."

The freshmen class boasts of All-Americans, state Players of the Year, and a Team USA member. Position players Jose Dominic, Alex Blandino (also a pitcher), and Austin Slater may not be far from finding a role on the Cardinal.

David Schmidt and John Hochstatter are at the top of a group of young pitchers who will likely make their presence known this season. Also among the group is Spenser Linney, Jordan Kutzer and Tyler Maxwell. First baseman Geo Saba also helps make this recruiting class one of the best in the nation.

Piscotty thinks Schmidt, who could find himself Stanford's closer before too long, could make the biggest difference this season.

"He pitched well in the fall and has a heavy ball with a lot of movement," Piscotty said. "He throws strikes and the natural movement on his fastball makes him effective."

Schmidt was the first freshman pitcher mentioned by most Cardinal players, and for good reason.

"He has a great fastball," Appel said, "with a lot of movement."

The right-hander was undefeated and had a 1.22 ERA as a senior in high school in St. Louis.

"He throws 89-93 miles per hour with a heavy sink," Mooneyham said of Schmidt. "I'd like to see him in the closer role. He has the one pitch he can pour in. I'd like to see what he can do against other teams."

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