by Alex Valdes
Having set a school record for consecutive victories, rising to a No. 6 ranking in the nation, and hosting a regional tournament, it's easy to forget that Stanford was once a floundering team in danger of even making the NCAA playoffs. Stanford's turnaround is thanks in large part to its pitching staff and mirrors the resurrection of ace Kyle Peterson. The sophomore started out 2-4 but won seven of eight games heading into last night's assignment against Cal State Northridge in the first round of the West Regional in Sunken Diamond.
Peterson was 4-0 during the 16-game win streak leading into the playoffs, followed by 3-0 efforts from Jeff Austin, Mario Iglesias and Chad Hutchinson.
Peterson's story is a remarkable one considering what he has experienced in his brief two-year career. He had the career year in 1995: a 14-1 record (3-0 in postseason) and National Freshman Pitcher of the Year and All-America honors.
Then came the slump, capped by a loss to USC on March 9 that dumped him to a 2-4 record, and then the revival, during which he has dominated opponents with a crisp fastball, baffling changeup and array of breaking pitches that have keyed Stanford's rebound and recharged the mound staff.
Heading into the regional, Peterson was 9-5 with a 3.69 earned-run average 91 strikeouts, and was limiting opposing batters to a .243 batting average.
That world of experience will be useful if Stanford is to emerge from the West Regional and get back to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., where the team finished in fifth place last season.
There were plenty of reasons for Peterson's early season slump, items as much technical as psychological.
In terms of the technical, "The biggest thing was that I wasn't spotting my fastball," Peterson said. "When they were hitting my fastball, it was missing. At this level, you can't get away with that. All season, I've been trying to place my fastball better. And my changeup has really improved."
Stanford coach Mark Marquess agrees with the diagnosis.
"That was the No. 1 thing--he didn't locate his fastball very well, he would get behind in the count and it would change everything he did. Once he got command of the fastball, he became more effective."
Marquess said the turning point for Peterson occurred in a 14-7 win against Cal on March 23, when Peterson earned the win and began his run of success.
"In the fourth or fifth inning, he really locked in. From that point on, he's pitched extremely well," Marquess said.
Along with the mechanics of his early troubles, Peterson perhaps had difficulties trying to follow up his freshman season.
"That could have had something to do with it," he said. "I was going out and trying to be too perfect. There were certain situations when I didn't need to be perfect.
"I came into the season with a lot of personal pressure. I was trying to recreate what happened last year, and I couldn't do it. I had to stand back and say to myself what were the things I can do, and what I had problems with I could work out in the bullpen."
Marquess said that, despite his amazing '95 season, Peterson is better now.
"When I evaluate him now, he's a better pitcher. He doesn't sneak up on anyone now, and he's always facing the other team's No. 1 guy (pitcher). Last year, he didn't. He was going against their No. 3 pitchers sometimes," Marquess said.
"It's unfortunate he had his career year as a freshman. But it happened for him and the expectation level was so high this year. That's why he's better now, because he's grown into a mature pitcher. It will be good for him next year and when he has a bad outing and has to learn how to make adjustments."
Fortunately for Stanford, its quality staff was able to help maintain equilibrium during Peterson's down time. One of the main surprises has been senior Mario Iglesias, who was 9-1 (in only nine starts) with a 2.49 ERA entering the regional. He had a 5.59 ERA and was only 5-4 in his first three seasons.
Another major surprise has been the effort of Chad Hutchinson, who was 7-1 with a 3.30 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings going into the regional. He was the probable starter for today's second-round game. He is also listed as the No. 2 quarterback on the football team depth chart.
"His breaking pitch has come around," Marquess said. "He's able to throw it for strikes. You can't look for that because his fastball is so overpowering."
Hutchinson said that it was hard to see the team and staff struggle in the first part of the season.
"All the time, we've shown glimpses of it with certain people," he said. "Only now the whole staff is pitching well. I myself wasn't pitching well the first half of the season.
"Everyone expected it (good outings), and we knew what we could do. That's what was frustrating. We knew we could win every game, but we weren't doing it."
Other top performers have been junior Tom Reimers (4-4, 2.84 ERA, 57 strikeouts) and freshman Jeff Austin (6-3, 3.63 ERA, 85 strikeouts). Those two, plus others like relievers Brendan Sullivan, John David Brammer and Tony Cogan, will be counted on for their best efforts this weekend as Stanford makes its pitch to return to the College World Series.
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