Freshman Freddy Avis always wanted to come to Stanford. He never thought he’d play college baseball with Mark Appel.
But that all changed when Appel passed on $3.8 million from the Pittsburgh Pirates last July and decided to return to the Farm, making him the only first-round pick in last year’s MLB Draft not to sign a contract. Appel’s return as the Friday starter for a third straight year became the dominant story of the Stanford baseball offseason, but it’s the Avises on the field that fans should keep their eyes on as the season begins at Rice tonight.
That’s because the Cardinal’s 2013 College World Series bid could have a lot more to do with its fresh-faced fastballers than its seasoned starters.
Eight months after a second straight Stanford season stagnated in the Super Regionals, the preseason No. 7 Cardinal will move forward with a mix of veterans and new blood that could finally get it over the hump and to Omaha.
“Last year we had a lot of guys who were pretty talented, superstars, but we kind of didn’t really get to click as much,” said junior centerfielder Austin Wilson, one of only two returning position players who started both on opening day and in the postseason in 2012. “I feel like this year we have guys who can click more and can help us move on and get through hard times.”
At the heart of the lineup alongside Wilson is fellow third-year starter Brian Ragira, but in stark contrast to this time a year ago, when Stanford returned seven of eight position players, the bulk of the Cardinal’s at-bats will be taken by players who were not regulars throughout 2012.
Juniors Lonnie Kauppila, who missed half of 2012 with a knee injury, and Danny Diekroeger, a midseason replacement, are back to anchor the middle infield; sophomores Alex Blandino and Dominic Jose will start at third and in left, respectively. But each of those four players started in fewer than half the team’s 2012 contests.
Sophomore Wayne Taylor will take over behind the plate for the departed Eric Smith, whose breakout junior campaign earned him a late-round draft pick, while speedy freshman Jonny Locher will start in centerfield in place of ninth-rounder Jake Stewart.
If you’re looking for experience, you’ll find it on the bench, where senior Justin Ringo and juniors Brett Michael Doran and Brian Guymon will make Stanford one of the Pac-12’s deepest squads.
“We have guys on the bench who are honestly great players who would start anywhere else,” Wilson said.
That flexibility will be crucial for head coach Mark Marquess as he prepares to start a lineup that is somewhat less proven than the one that finished 26th in the nation in runs scored last season.
“We have a good offensive team, and I think that’s critical,” Marquess told GoStanford.com on baseball media day. “At the same time, when it’s all said and done, it’s all about pitching.”
Stanford’s pitching will again start with Appel, who turned in a 10-2 junior campaign a year ago. The righty was beyond dominant, striking out 10 on eight occasions and pitching a clutch four-hitter in his regional win against Fresno State.
Sophomore John Hochstatter will step in on Saturdays after a rocky freshman campaign that saw him win his first three starts before going 0-3 in his final six, including a 1-0 loss to this weekend’s opponent, Rice.
“He pitched very well for us early in the season, and then I think he kind of wore down and tailed off a little bit the second half,” Marquess said. “But he’s really been pitching well in the fall for us.”
Stanford’s only other tested starter, junior A.J. Vanegas, is recovering from back surgery and won’t return until midseason, likely as a closer. So the Sunday spot could rotate as the season progresses—which worked to the tune of a 9-4 record in series finales last season.
The local favorite, Avis, grew up coming to Stanford games and called it “surreal” to finally play with the Cardinal in Sunken Diamond. He’s working on locating his pitches and tuning his changeup, learning all the while from Appel, the All-American righty he never thought he would have the chance to play alongside.
“We’re going to have a lot of guys, a lot of great freshmen and veterans who are going to contribute,” Avis said. “Whether or not it’s me who’s pitching, I think we’re going to be successful either way.”
Though Avis has certainly impressed the coaching staff, it’s senior Dean McArdle who has been given the nod to take the mound on Sunday. Stanford’s staff will face a Rice lineup that returns just four starters, though one of those is star second baseman Christian Stringer, a .343 hitter in 2012. The No. 17 Owls, meanwhile, are led on the mound by preseason second-team All-American Austin Kubitza, who is coming off back-to-back 15-start seasons.
The Cardinal took two of three from Rice last season to cap its impressive 13-2 preseason. However, after a lengthy finals break, Stanford staggered into Pac-12 play and eventually finished in a three-way tie for fourth in the conference. As it hopes to avoid that fate and host a Super Regional this time around, it will be putting its faith in inexperienced talent: Jose, Hochstatter, Avis and others.
“If we start clicking, working together as a team, I think a national championship is not out of the question,” Appel told GoStanford.com.
The potential is there. Now all that’s left is baseball.
Contact Joseph Beyda at email@example.com.