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 junior righthander Dean McArdle (7-4, 4.21). Whoever is not chosen should become the Sunday starter.
"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."