STANFORD, Calif. - The expectations are the highest in years for a Stanford baseball team that returns seven starting position players and its Friday starter from an NCAA Super Regional team.
But 36th-year head coach Mark Marquess, Stanford's Clarke and Elizabeth Nelson Director of Baseball, cautions that this team still has some question marks and that its No. 2 ranking by Baseball America is not going to last.
"I'd say they're not a great team, they're a good team," Marquess said. "That has to do with pitching. If I had two great starters returning, and they won 10 games apiece, it would be a great team. It's a good team."
As for the ranking, Marquess is certain it won't survive the first four weeks of the season when the Cardinal plays series against No. 6 Rice, No. 10 Vanderbilt, and No. 13 Texas, as well as 2008 College World Series champion Fresno State. Stanford's schedule, including the typically brutal Pac-12, was ranked by Baseball America as the nation's toughest.
"We're going to take our lumps," Marquess said. "There is a greater expectation, which you're a little bit concerned about. But if we're overconfident, we'll get knocked down a peg after the first four weeks."
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Marquess, speaking at the Bay Area college baseball media day on Tuesday at Kissick Auditorium, identified closer as the team's biggest question mark.
The Cardinal has been somewhat spoiled in recent years with Drew Storen, now with the Washington Nationals, and Chris Reed, a 2011 first-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The prime contenders are sophomore righthander A.J. Vanegas (1-0, 3.35 in 2011) and Piscotty, who pitched in high school and as a freshman. Vanegas and junior righthander Dean McArdle (7-4, 4.21) are slated for the Sunday slot following Brett Mooneyham, who was lost for the 2011 season with a finger injury.
"If you're going to be a dominant team and you want to get to the postseason, you're going to have to have one of your better pitchers in the bullpen," Marquess said.
"There are a lot of arms," Marquess said. "That's OK, but we better find one if we're going to be competitive against the people we're playing early."
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Stanford's 6-foot-5 junior right-hander Mark Appel is the consensus projection as the No. 1 pick in the June amateur draft, and, with fellow Houstonian Andrew Luck expected to go No. 1 in the NFL Draft, Stanford could have top picks in two major sports.
"It says a lot about those two athletes," Marquees said. "Both are very humble, strong academically, very impressive young men. We're very proud of that. Again, a lot can happen with baseball, but the thing that doesn't change -- whether he wins 12 games or four -- is 97 or 98 mph. That's the thing. Whether he'll be the first one or not, he'll be the top three or four."
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A change in attitude helped turn Appel around after a disappointing freshman year in which he had a 5.92 ERA - albeit against the more powerful bats - and a 2-1 record in mostly a relief role.
"Looking back, I was worrying about everything - what the coaches thought about me, whether I could get people out, why can't I throw my changeup for a strike?" he said. "The pressure got to me. I've learned from that. Now, I just worry about the stuff I can control."
Appel said he took a different approach that summer when he took the mound in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. He went 6-1 with a 1.87 ERA over 43.1 innings.
"I went out there and tried to have fun, tried to get back to the basics of the game and pitched the best I've pitched in my life until then. I took that momentum right into my sophomore year."
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Appel has worked an effective changeup into a repertoire that used to consist mainly of a fastball and slider. He throws it to righthanders and lefthanders. The pitch is more effective because Appel has been more aggressive with his fastball, causing a lot more swing-throughs when he goes offspeed.
"That's probably been my most effective pitch," he said.
"I'm really using the fastballs in the right situations and then working off the fastball," Appel said. "I'm getting ahead, 0-1, 0-2, and then going offspeed. Also, my control with the offspeed is effective if I'm behind in the count, because I can flip over a changeup for a strike."
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Junior third baseman Stephen Piscotty also is projected as a first-round draft pick, as is shortstop Kenny Diekreoger, according to Baseball America's preliminary list. Lefthanded starting pitcher Brett Mooneyham, leftfielder Tyler Gaffney and centerfielder Jake Stewart also are projected to be selected in the first three rounds.
With that kind of talent, plus an outstanding sophomore class that includes returning starters Austin Wilson in center, Lonnie Kauppila at second and Brian Ragira at first, no wonder the expectations are so high.
"Obviously, that's a lot of talk," Piscotty said. "Honestly, when you have guys who are just studs around you, that takes the pressure off each player. It almost diminishes the pressure, knowing that you don't have to carry the team that day because somebody's going to step up.
"Having confidence in your teammates like that is so important. In that sense, I don't sense that there is any added pressure."
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Mooneyham has earned his spot as the Saturday starter despite missing last season with a career-threatening finger injury suffered in al kitchen accident.
Mooneyham was a weekend starter his first two seasons until he severed a finger tendon on his throwing hand heading into the 2011 season.
"There was a question mark if he'd ever pitch again," Marquess said. "But he came in and did a great job. A lot of rehab. I think he started throwing over the summer. In the fall, he got started competing in games. He's fine now. We're thankful. He was very fortunate."
Appel and Mooneyham had some heart-to-heart talks during Bible study.
"We always talk about, if for some reason God takes away baseball from us, would we be all right with that?" Appel said. "I think Mooneyham would be. His attitude is great. He did everything he needed to do to get back into the starting role for this season and help our team succeed."
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HOME EVENT OF THE WEEK
Women's Tennis Sunday, noon Stanford vs. Florida, at Taube Family Tennis Stadium One of the most competitive national rivalries in any sport in recent years is Stanford against Florida in women's tennis. They have met in the past two NCAA team finals, with each team winning a title in dramatic fashion. The two renew their rivalry Sunday. Defending champion Florida is ranked No. 1 and 2010 champ Stanford is No. 2.
Other weekend home highlights: Women's lacrosse at Laird Q. Cagan Stadium: Stanford vs. Northwestern, Friday, 7 p.m. Women's Swimming and Diving at Avery Aquatic Center: Stanford vs. Cal, Saturday, 1 p.m.