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Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - February 15, 2013

Season opener begins quest for trip to the CWS

by Rick Eymer

Stanford's leading hitter, first baseman Brian Ragira, had a decision to make about his baseball future. He narrowed his college choices to Stanford and Rice.

"I grew up around Rice," Ragira said. "I know the coaches. But I always wanted to go to Stanford."

Ragira returns to Rice this weekend as the No. 7 Cardinal baseball team opens its season with a three-game series against the No. 18 Owls beginning today.

Stanford (48-18 last year) lost in the NCAA Super Regional at Florida State in 2012, one step from the College World Series in Omaha.

With a large group of returning players, the most significant being right-hander Mark Appel, the Cardinal has set its sights on even bigger goals.

"Our goals never change," Ragira said. "We reached the Super Regional but we want more than that. Having the best pitcher in the country back is huge. He leads by example. He exemplifies what a work ethic looks like."

Ragira hit .329 with four home runs and 50 RBI. Only right fielder Austin Wilson drove in more among returning players.

Menlo School grad Danny Diekroeger earned the starting nod at second base, after hitting his way into the lineup toward the end of last year.

"That guy works," Ragira said. "He loves the game and he has a nice swing."

Diekroeger, who hit .354 in 96 at-bats, recorded a .512 slugging percentage.

He's joined by fellow Menlo School grad Freddy Avis, a freshman who is in the mix as a possible weekend starter. Stanford coach Mark Marquess said he's one of three freshmen from whom he must pick to start Sunday. The others are Logan James and Daniel Starwalt.

Sophomore left-hander Josh Hochstatter will start Saturday. Dean McArdle, Sahil Bloom, David Schmidt and A.J. Vanegas give Stanford depth in the bullpen or in the rotation.

Vanegas, who finished last year as the team's closer, is recovering from a herniated disc and will not be available until the end of March. Schmidt, who recorded three saves last year, makes the loss a little easier to take.

Garrett Hughes, Spenser Linney and Sam Lindquist also pitched last year, while newcomers Avis, James, Starwalt, Marcus Brakeman, Gabe Cramer, Jordan Kutzer, Tyler Maxwell and Andrew McCormack give the Cardinal one of its strongest staffs in a long time.

Appel is, by far, the ace of the staff.

"He's a high-profile player and he leads by example," Marquess said. "No one works harder than Mark and that's a real benefit."

In addition to Ragira and Diekroeger, the starting infield will be comprised of shortstop Lonnie Kauppila, who missed half of last year with a knee injury, and third baseman Alex Blandino, perhaps the biggest surprise from last year's freshmen group. Blandino, a Palo Alto resident, hit .294 with eight home runs and drove in 40. He can also pitch a little bit.

Wilson, who led Stanford with 10 home runs and 54 RBI last year, anchors an outfield that will also include Dominic Jose, a productive player in a limited role last year and the son of former major leaguer Felix Jose.

Freshman switch hitter Jonny Locher is the most likely candidate to start in center field and lead off. Junior Brian Guymon and freshmen Matt DeGrew and Zach Hoffpauir will add depth in the outfield.

Other infield candidates include Brett Michael Doran, Justin Ringo, Drew Jackson, Geo Saba, Austin Slater and Bobby Zarubin.

Sophomore Wayne Taylor will start at catcher. He'll be backed up by Austin Barr, Luke Pappas and Brant Whiting.

"We have a lot of experience," Ragira said. "Jonny is a great leadoff hitter and I'm excited about our defense and pitching."

Marquess echoed his junior first baseman.

"A lot of guys returning, a lot of good, solid freshmen. We have a lot of high hopes," he said.

The Pac-12 remains one of the top conferences in the country. Arizona, one of the best hitting teams in the nation, is the defending national champion. UCLA returns its entire pitching staff and Oregon State had one of the best young staffs in the conference last year.

Oregon also had an impressive pitching staff, Arizona State, USC, Washington and California are all solid programs.

California is adding lights to Evans Diamond as part of an overall makeover. The lights are expected to be installed in time for the Bears conference opener.

The Cardinal has won each of its past five season-opening contests and as many series. Since 2000, Stanford has won 12 of 13 opening weekend series, including three-game sets at No. 17 Rice (2011) and against No. 10 Vanderbilt (2012). This will be Stanford's third season-opening series against Rice since 2010, and its fourth in as many seasons against a top-20 team.

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