By Jacob Jaffe
Well, the Stanford baseball team wasn’t a one-week wonder. The second weekend series of the year was just as impressive as the first, and after seven games, the Cardinal looks unstoppable.
For the second straight series, Stanford capped a strong weekend with an offensive explosion, following last week’s 18-run outburst with a 13-run fourth inning Sunday afternoon.
This season, seven of Stanford’s nine regulars are hitting over .315 — the other two have combined for 25 RBI — and the squad is averaging over 10 runs per game.
So naturally, the story of the season is…pitching.
Going into the season, everyone knew that the team’s strength would be its hitting. Seven of eight position players returned from last year’s squad, and the highly touted recruiting classes of hitters had finally gained enough experience to approach their potential.
But what about the pitching staff? Last year, Stanford had to scramble a little, with senior Danny Sandbrink stepping into the starting rotation late in the season, and two of the most reliable pitchers for Stanford were starter Jordan Pries and closer Chris Reed.
Now those three are gone, leaving Stanford’s pitching staff in a state of flux. Junior Mark Appel returned to anchor the rotation, but after him, things were a little more in question. Redshirt junior Brett Mooneyham has been a strikeout pitcher in his time on the Farm, but he came into the year as a question mark after missing all of 2011 with a finger injury. Junior Dean McArdle returned after some starting experience, but he appeared to fit more as a long or middle reliever. The closer and Sunday starter roles were up in the air, leaving most of the pitching staff in doubt heading into the season.
Seven games into the season, there is a whole lot less doubt on the Farm. Of course, when you’re 7-0, it’s easy to feel good about how your staff has been pitching.
It’s a whole lot easier to feel confident in pitchers with a 3.32 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 65 innings. The overall numbers have been very solid so far, as only Pacific has been able to score more than five runs in a game against Stanford. And five runs is nothing in college baseball, particularly with a lineup that averages more than a run per inning.
However, the overall numbers don’t tell the full story of the Stanford pitching staff. The Cardinal appears to have found a weekend rotation consisting of Appel, Mooneyham and freshman John Hochstatter. And that trio has gone above and beyond expectations for Stanford’s pitchers this year.
Appel has looked every bit the number one MLB Draft prospect he’s been touted to be, baffling Vanderbilt and Texas hitters in his two starts. He has allowed a single run in each of his two appearances, pitching seven strong innings both times. A three-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio and only two extra-base hits in 14 innings show just how dominant he has been.
Mooneyham has been just about equal to Appel in his first two starts, closing out one of the best one-two punches in the country. The redshirt junior has matched Appel with 15 strikeouts in 14 innings, allowing just four runs in his two starts. His eight-inning gem against Texas on Saturday was one of the best performances of his career, and if he pitches like that for the rest of the season, it will be almost impossible to win a series against Stanford.
Appel and Mooneyham have been extremely impressive, but the best Cardinal pitcher so far has been Hochstatter. The freshman came on in relief for his first collegiate appearance, and promptly got 19 Vanderbilt Commodores out without allowing a hit. This performance earned him a start against Texas, and Hochstatter took the opportunity and ran with it, going 6.1 innings and allowing just a single run.
The trio has been unstoppable, giving up 18 hits in 40.2 innings for an unreal .129 opponents’ batting average. And yes, their 6-0 record and 1.45 ERA aren’t too shabby either.
There are still questions left to be answered, though. The rest of the staff has an ERA of 6.29, and roles in the bullpen have yet to be completely fleshed out. At some point, the weekend starters will have a bad day, and it will be up to this shaky bullpen to step up. Stanford also needs to find a weekday starter, as its worst performance by far was an extra-inning squeaker last Tuesday at Pacific.
You can always find something to nitpick, but the early results for Stanford’s pitching staff have been overwhelmingly positive.
Jacob Jaffe is considering a career holding the radar gun at MLB ballparks, given his infatuation with top-tier pitching. Send him tips for a steady hand at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Jaffe.