Jan. 30, 2006
Stanford may start the 2006 season a bit under the radar for the first time in a while. The Cardinal, who finished last year unranked in the final Baseball America poll for the first time since 1981, is also unranked by the publication in its 2006 preseason poll for the first time ever. Stanford does check in at No. 25 in a preseason list of the nation's Fabulous 40 released by Collegiate Baseball, and the Rosenblatt Report puts the Cardinal at No. 30. Stanford has qualified for the NCAA Championship each of the last two years but did not get out of Regional action either time after a previous school-record five-year run in Omaha from 1999-2003.
"We don't deserve to be near the top of the polls at the start of the 2006 season," admitted Mark Marquess, who begins his 30th season as Stanford's head coach. "You have to do it on the field anyway, and I think we have a chance to compete in the Pac-10 this year. Maybe we're overestimating our talent a little bit, but I think we're capable of having a good, solid team. If some guys have the years they are capable of, we could be very good."
The Cardinal has a roster devoid of any returning All-Pac-10 players and Michael Taylor is the club's only preseason All-American (Third Team - Baseball America). But Stanford does have several experienced veterans that do have the potential to reach All-American or All-Pac-10 status and may be on the cusp of breakout campaigns. Add in a large and talented group of 14 freshmen that Baseball America ranked ninth among its "Dandy Dozen" recruiting classes for 2006, and it just might make the recipe for a successful season.
"You don't know until the season starts what your chemistry or identity will be," explained Marquess. "We don't have that premier All-Conference player returning, but I think we can be a solid team."
There will be a lot of familiar faces on the field for Stanford in 2006. A quick look around the diamond reveals six position player starters returning in John Hester, Chris Lewis, Chris Minaker, Jim Rapoport, Adam Sorgi and Michael Taylor. Stanford teams with this type of experience have typically fared well.
Sorgi and Hester both earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors and shared the team's Most Improved Player award in their first season as full-time starters in 2005.
Sorgi, a junior infielder, led the team in batting average (.322), hits (77) and triples (3), while stroking five homers, driving in 41 runs and stealing three bases in 2005. He started all 59 games at third base a year ago but could also see some action at shortstop this year as he and his fellow returning starter on the left side of the infield Chris Minaker are expected to both see time at shortstop and third base in 2006. Sorgi's versatile offensive skills allow him to hit just about anywhere in the lineup.
Each of Stanford's four other returning position player starters bring their own elements to the table.
Rapoport, a junior centerfielder, is a speedster that has the potential to be one of the country's top basestealers and boasts an all-around offensive game that causes trouble for opposing defenses. Stanford's projected leadoff hitter is also expected to hit for a high average and handles the bat very well. A year ago, Rapoport finished the season at .297 after having flirted with .400 as late in the season as mid-April thanks to a career-high and team-high-tying torrid 13-game hit streak. He also stole 16 bases (#7T Pac-10) and laid down six sacrifice bunts (#9T Pac-10) to lead the club in both categories, while ranking second in walks (36, #7T Pac-10). Defensively, he is considered one of the top centerfielders in the Pac-10 with a knack for running down fly balls and an above average throwing arm. Rapoport is expected to be a highly sought after professional prospect.
Minaker puts a two-year returning starter in the mix. The team's most experienced player is coming off a solid junior season at shortstop in 2005 as he hit .291 with three homers and 37 RBI while stealing 10 bases. He showed excellent gap power with his 25 doubles that rank second all-time on Stanford's single-season list. Defensively, he gives the Cardinal an infielder who almost always makes the routine play. Incredibly, Minaker played errorless baseball for his first 25 games at shortstop in 2005 and ended up with just nine on the season. He may see time at both shortstop and third base this year. Minaker has also consistently been among the team's top students, earning First Team Pac-10 All-Academic honors in each of the last two seasons and adding an ESPN The Magazine District VIII Regional Academic All-American selection in 2005.
Taylor was named a Third Team Preseason All-American by Baseball America and may be the team's most exciting returnee in terms of potential. The sophomore rightfielder immediately found his way into the starting lineup as a college rookie in 2005, hitting .289 with four homers, 28 RBI and nine stolen bases while starting 58 and playing in all 59 of the team's games. His talent was exemplified when he hit for the cycle against San Jose State on April 19, becoming the first Stanford player to do so since 1998. Taylor had an even better summer season when he was named by Baseball America as the top prospect in the Alaska Baseball League, hitting .328 with four homers, 25 RBI and 25 stolen bases to earn All-ABL honors for the Mat-Su Miners.
Minaker and Taylor have both been put on the College Baseball Foundation's 2006 Wallace Award Watch List that annually honors the top player in collegiate baseball.
Lewis is set to move back to a natural position at second base for his senior season after the Cardinal moved him to left field last season in an attempt to get his potent bat in the everyday lineup. Lewis was at times spectacular offensively, tying for second on the club with eight homers, including his first career grandslam and two long balls in four postseason games to earn NCAA All-Regional honors. Lewis also hit .266 and drove in 35 runs while hitting from mostly the bottom of the order. This year, he is expected to move up in the lineup and is poised for a breakout campaign.
Stanford has another regular back in sophomore Brendan Domaracki, who saw much of the team's designated hitter action a year ago. Domaracki struggled through most of the campaign with a .208 batting average, one homer, 14 RBI and two stolen bases in 42 games, before an injury late in the regular season ended his rookie year early. He is expected to play in the outfield this season, possibly as the starter in left field with the move of Lewis to second base.
The only two positions that seem to be wide open are first base and designated hitter. There are a multitude of potential starters at both places, giving Marquess the flexibility to try different players in the positions early in the season with the hope of solidifying the spots as the season goes on. Junior Ryan Seawell (.250, 2 HR, 9 RBI) is a returnee that has a good shot to start at one of the two on opening day, while two other sophomores in Brian Juhl (.000) and Randy Molina (.167) are also looking to break into the lineup. Molina can play first base or designated hitter, while Juhl would be more likely to be the DH than start at first base.
Incoming position players include a trio of two-way players that also may see action on the hill this season in LHP/DH/1B Jeremy Bleich (Metairie, LA/Isidore Newman School), OF/LHP Sean Ratliff (Longmont, CO/Niwot HS) and INF/RHP Austin Yount (Paradise Valley, AZ/Chaparral HS). Bleich and Ratliff both played for the USA Junior National Team in the summer of 2005, while Yount is the nephew of former MLB great Robin Yount.
Jason Castro (Castro Valley, CA/Castro Valley HS) and Brent Milleville (Wichita, KS/Maize HS) are a couple of intriguing players that could see action behind the plate, at first base or as the designated hitter.
Other incoming position players include OF Joey August (Salem, OR/South Salem HS), INF Stephen Brown (Visalia, CA/Redwood HS), INF Matt Cano (El Segundo, CA/El Segundo HS), 1B/LHP Grant Escue (Washington, IL/Washington Community HS), INF J.J. Jelmini (Fresno, CA/Clovis West HS), INF Cord Phelps (Gaviota, CA/Santa Barbara HS) and OF Jeff Whitlow (Southfield, MI/Detroit Country Day School).
Milleville (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 39th round), Castro (Boston Red Sox, 43rd round) and Whitlow (Detroit Tigers, 50th round) were selected in the 2005 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Although Stanford has seven of nine pitchers who saw action on the hill a year ago returning, the biggest question for the Cardinal to answer is who will be in its rotation after the loss of the team's top two starters from a year ago in righthander Jeff Gilmore (10-3, 3.76 ERA, 117.1 IP, 80 SO) and lefty Mark Romanczuk (5-6, 4.24 ERA, 108.1 IP, 83 SO). The duo combined to win 48 games during their illustrious Stanford careers with Romanczuk winning 28 and Gilmore 20.
Junior righthander Greg Reynolds (2-3, 5.08 ERA, 51.1 IP, 51 SO) may be the top prospect to take over the No. 1 starter role despite limited success in his first two seasons. A talented pitcher with a huge upside, Reynolds has the eyes of professional scouts with his low 90's fastball and classic power pitcher body frame (6-7, 225). Reynolds displayed his talent in the championship game of the 2005 Waco NCAA Regional when he pitched a career-high 11.0 innings and struck out a career-high 10 batters in a gutwrenching 4-3 loss to host and eventual CWS participant Baylor in 12 innings.
After pitching primarily out of the bullpen for his first three seasons, senior righty Matt Manship is also expected to move into the rotation in 2006. Manship ranks tied for second on Stanford's all-time save list with 17. Last season, he was 2-0 with five saves (#6T Pac-10) and had an 0.80 ERA that was the lowest for a Stanford pitcher with at least 10.0 innings pitched since 1996. He was outstanding during Stanford's doubleheader sweep of Texas-San Antonio and TCU at the NCAA Waco Regional on June 5, picking up saves in both games and retiring all 17 batters he faced.
Several scenarios could play out for the third starter role, a spot the Cardinal doesn't often solidify until the beginning of Pac-10 action. Junior righty Matt Leva (5-2, 4.12 ERA, 1 SV, 59.0 IP, 45 SO) jumps to the top of the list with his experience. He is Stanford's active career win leader with an 11-4 all-time mark and has been excellent in postseason starts each of the last two seasons, going 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA. Other returnees that could garner serious consideration for a spot in the rotation include sophomore righty Nolan Gallagher (2-5, 2.93 ERA, 3 SV, 55.1 IP, 60 SO), junior lefty Blake Holler (6-3, 3.48 ERA, 1 SV, 54.1 IP, 51 SO) and sophomore righty Erik Davis (2-1, 4.31 ERA, 39.2 IP, 28 SO). Holler was in the team's regular rotation for a while as a freshman in 2004 and has 10 career starts, while Davis and Gallagher both started four contests as rookies in 2005.
Jeff Stimpson (0-2, 5.62 ERA, 8.0 IP, 2 SO) is also hoping to return to the form of his freshman season when he saw extensive action (1-2, 4.68 ERA, 1 SV, 32.2 IP, 23 SO) out of the Cardinal bullpen.
In addition to the trio of two-way players in Bleich, Ratliff and Yount, other incoming pitchers include LHP/1B Grant Escue (Washington, IL/Washington Community HS), RHP Max Fearnow (Omaha, NE/Westside HS), LHP Blake Hancock (Kingwood, TX/Kingwood HS) and LHP Tom Stilson (Ozark, MO/Ozark HS).
Stanford will face a difficult and familiar schedule in 2006, playing 19 of the 20 opponents it squared off with during the 2005 regular season schedule and not adding any different teams to its slate. In addition to its always difficult Pac-10 calendar, the Cardinal once again has traditional non-conference series lined up with defending national champion Texas (February 17-19) two weeks after opening the campaign with perennial national contender Cal State Fullerton (February 3-5). The good news is that Stanford has its first 10 contests at home, including its pair of three-game series versus the Longhorns and the Titans, teams that the Cardinal lost a combined five-of-six games to on the road to last season. Kansas (February 10-12) also comes in for a three-game set in between Cal State Fullerton and Texas, while Nevada (February 20) rounds out the season-opening 10-game homestand.
The Cardinal finally hits the road with a three-game set at Fresno State (February 24-26) and stays there over a month, playing non-conference series at the homes of Pac-10 colleagues California (March 3-5) and USC (March 10-12) sandwiched around a contest at local rival San Jose State (March 7) before taking its annual March break for finals.
After 12 days off, Stanford returns to Sunken Diamond to start Pac-10 play against Washington State (March 25-27) before hosting USC (March 31 - April 2) in a conference series and Sacramento State (April 4) in a non-league game to complete a seven-game homestand.
The Cardinal stays busy through a Pac-10 bye week with games at Pacific (April 5) and Santa Clara (April 10) before hosting San Francisco (April 11).
Stanford plays its next two conference series on the road against a pair of teams in Oregon State (April 13-15) and Arizona (April 21-23) that made the College World Series in 2005 and 2004, respectively, with OSU also winning the 2005 Pac-10 title. A non-conference road contest at Sacramento State (April 18) is sandwiched between the two series to make it seven straight away from home.
The Cardinal returns to the The Farm for an eight-game homestand beginning with local rival Santa Clara (April 25). Conference opponents Arizona State (April 28-30) and California (May 5-7) then come into Sunken Diamond for a pair of Pac-10 series with a non-conference game against San Jose State (May 2) fit in between the two league tilts.
Stanford will spend most of the remainder of the regular season on the road with its final two conference series at Washington (May 12-14) and UCLA (May 19-21), as well as non-conference games at Santa Clara (May 9) and UC Davis (May 27). The Cardinal will host three non-conference games during the span versus Santa Clara (May 16), Pacific (May 23) and UC Davis (May 26).
Stanford is vying to extend its school-record string of appearances in the NCAA Championship to 13. The tournament begins with Regional play hosted by campus institutions at 16 sites around the nation June 2-5. The winners of the 16 Regionals will move on to Super Regional action June 9-12 with those eight winners advancing to the 59th College World Series in Omaha from June 16-26. ESPN will televise every Super Regional and College World Series game for the third consecutive season.