By Joseph Beyda
Eight months after making an early exit from its Super Regional in North Carolina, the Stanford baseball team will be back in action tonight, hosting No. 10 Vanderbilt in the first contest of a three-game series.
The No. 2 Cardinal faces its highest expectations in a decade, with a trio of junior preseason All-Americans set to lead the Pac-12 favorite on another deep postseason run. Projected first overall MLB draft pick Mark Appel will start on Friday nights for the second straight year, while third baseman Stephen Piscotty and shortstop Kenny Diekroeger headline a lineup that returns seven of eight position players.
The man behind it all is Mark Marquess, and 25 years after the illustrious head coach took home the first of back-to-back national championships—the only titles in Stanford baseball history—Marquess is excited to get back on the top step of the Sunken Diamond dugout against a visiting opponent.
“We’re tired of playing our own guys,” he joked. “If the pitching does well you go, ‘Oh my god, we don’t have any hitting.’ And if the hitting does well you go, ‘What’s wrong with our pitching?’ I can’t win as a coach.”
Luckily for Marquess, the Cardinal doesn’t have all that much to be concerned about in either category.
Despite the loss of starters Jordan Pries and Danny Sandbrink, as well as closer Chris Reed, to the draft, Stanford boasts one of the most powerful one-two punches in college baseball. Appel and Saturday starter Brett Mooneyham, who missed all of last year with a finger injury, are a dynamic pitching duo. Originally slated as the Cardinal’s 2011 Friday starter after leading the team with 99 strikeouts as a sophomore, Mooneyham is ready to reestablish himself in the rotation.
“Any time you get something you love to do taken away from you and there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s difficult,” he said. “I’m pretty excited to get out there on the mound this Saturday and get that year-and-a-half hiatus out of the way.”
Filling in for Mooneyham last year was Appel, who went 6-7 but posted a stellar 3.02 ERA in 17 starts.
“Everything you read about [Appel] is true: He’s a great player, he’s got a great fastball and he’s a great competitor, but he’s also a great person and a great teammate,” Diekroeger said. “We’re lucky to have him…being able to face a guy like that in these intersquads makes the entire team better.”
After his breakout sophomore season, Appel has had to deal with the attention of being considered one of top college prospects in baseball. He cites Andrew Luck as a role model in handling the national hype.
But Diekroeger and Piscotty have also received their fair share of hype, as they are also projected to go in the first few rounds of the MLB draft.
“I think it’s been great that we have other guys that are projected high in the draft, because we all keep each other really down to earth and focused on the season,” Appel said. “We don’t let our minds drift on the draft, because we can’t control that.”
Marquess will be looking to decide on a closer in the coming weeks, but he isn’t concerned that the spot hasn’t been solidified before opening day. Reed—an eventual first-round pick by the Dodgers—began as the squad’s Saturday starter last year before giving up seven runs in 4.2 innings in his first outing against Rice.
Reed was converted to a closer, and went on to post 52 strikeouts and allow only 39 hits to go along with his nine saves.
“That became the difference in our season,” Marquess said.
Stanford’s hitting wasn’t all too shabby either, and with all seven of the squad’s top sluggers returning to the lineup, opponents are going to have a hard time keeping the Cardinal off the board. Standouts include Piscotty, who led the team with a .364 average last season, and 2011 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Brian Ragira.
Even though their lineup is made up entirely of sophomores and juniors, the Cardinal has good chemistry after playing together all of last season.
“It’s hard to really explain, but just being part of that lineup, there’s just something about it; we just have a confidence to it,” Diekroeger said. “It’s a swagger you can’t measure. It’s a great feeling.”
The squad lost a leader in catcher Zach Jones, a four-year starter who spent his last three years behind the plate, and the fight to fill his spot is a still a four-horse race. Favorites include redshirt junior Christian Griffiths and freshman Wayne Taylor, a Texas player of the year in high school. Marquess indicated he was open to rotating at the catcher spot for a good chunk of the season.
If the Cardinal can pick up where it left off it has a good shot of winning the Pac-12 and hosting a NCAA Regional, a focal point after its postseason run was cut short last year.
“We realized how hard it is to go on the road in Regionals, and then go on the road in Super Regionals and still make it to Omaha,” Appel said. “[Associate Head Coach Dean] Stotz is our statistics guy, and I forgot what he said but it’s less than five percent that something like that would happen.”
Finishing first in the conference is going to be no easy task, with No. 5 Arizona and three other ranked Pac-12 foes standing in Stanford’s way. But first comes a stretch of tough nonconference series at home, including three-game sets against No. 10 Vanderbilt, No. 13 Texas and No. 6 Rice before the Pac-12 opener against USC on March 24.
“We’re No. 2 now but we won’t be ranked No. 2 in four weeks, because somebody’s going to be undefeated,” Marquess said. “I’d love to be wrong, but we’re not going to be undefeated after four weeks with the teams that we’re playing, which is good because it shows us that we need to improve and put guys in the right spots.”
And with the daunting task of living up to top-five expectations ahead, Marquess knows exactly who he’s looking to.
“When you have your most successful season it’s your older guys,” he said. “Is Piscotty going to have his best year? Is Kenny Diekroeger going to have is best year? Is Jake Stewart going to have his best year? And more importantly, is Mark Appel going to have his best year, and is Brett Mooneyham going to have the best year of his career? Then we’re good.”