Jack Mosbacher was a member of the Stanford baseball team from 2008-2011. Each week, he’ll take a look at the Cardinal’s ups and downs on its road to the College World Series.
Following a grueling nonconference schedule, the No. 2 Stanford baseball team finally has some time to breathe, as it heads into a two-week break for finals. As always, the Cardinal opened its 2012 campaign with series against some of the country’s most prestigious programs, including No. 6 Rice, No. 10 Vanderbilt, No. 13 Texas and 2008 national champion Fresno State.
Frankly, this Stanford team is better than I expected it to be. A slew of players have so far performed better than I could have imagined. The talented but largely unproven quartet of John Hochstatter, Brett Mooneyham, David Schmidt and Jake Stewart has been instrumental in helping Stanford to its most impressive start in nearly a decade.
Before the season started, I hadn’t heard much about the freshman Hochstatter. At first blush, the highly touted recruit from the East Bay doesn’t seem to have overpowering stuff. So far this season, however, Hochstatter has been a poster boy for the age-old pitching axiom, “Keep the ball down in the strike zone and mix your pitches well,” by using a good fastball and two solid off-speed pitches to keep batters off balance. It’s a good thing, too, as a College World Series-caliber team requires three good starting pitchers. Hochstatter has been more than impressive so far, and Stanford’s success this season will rely greatly on his continued performance.
Mooneyham showed flashes of brilliance in his first two years at Stanford, but the big lefty’s constant control issues led some to wonder if he would ever achieve his true potential on the Farm. To make matters worse, Mooneyham cut his finger in a fluke can-opening accident last year and eventually had to miss the entire season. So far in 2012, though, Mooneyham has been a new man, dominating opposing lineups with a more consistent motion that has led to increased command of his fastball and renewed confidence to attack batters early in the count. If he continues to pitch this way, expect the Cardinal to keep doing big things, and don’t be surprised if the lefty from the Central Valley has his draft stock skyrocket.
With the departure of first-round pick Chris Reed from the bullpen, Stanford’s early success this year has been buoyed by the performance of the freshman Schmidt, who has compiled a dominant 0.73 ERA over eight appearances as Stanford’s shutdown specialist. There are few things more entertaining than watching a pitcher mow down a lineup with a single pitch, as Schmidt has done with the almost exclusive use of his heavy 94-mph fastball. Don’t let his ever-present grin fool you: Schmidt’s bullish, “hit it if you can” attitude is perfectly suited for a closer role, which will be vital in late-season nail-biters.
Perhaps the greatest surprise of the first four weeks of the season has been the offensive performance of Stewart. A peerless athlete with huge potential, the centerfielder has been one of the country’s best defensive centerfielders over the past two years; unfortunately, his offensive output has been less than stellar. After making noticeable changes to his mechanics and approach at the plate this fall, Stewart has arguably been the Cardinal’s most valuable offensive player so far this year, pacing the team with a .404 batting average. More tellingly, Stewart has drilled three home runs in the first three weeks of the season after hitting zero in 174 at-bats last year. Moreover, with Stewart missing this past weekend’s series against then-No. 4 Rice with a minor back injury, the Cardinal had by far their worst offensive stretch of the year. Fear not, Stanford fans: Stewart should be back when play resumes against USC in two weeks. This weekend simply proved how valuable Stewart has become to the Cardinal’s offensive performance.
The performances of these four players have been key to Stanford’s early success. Most importantly, the Stanford baseball team itself seems to be allergic to losing. It has seen two games go into extra innings, winning both in dramatic fashion. It followed its first loss of the season in the series opener against Fresno State with two decisive, vengeful victories. There are even positive outcomes associated with Stanford’s loss in the series finale against Rice on Sunday, as the frustrating defeat will be motivation for improvement as the Cardinal head into this two-week break.
Granted, Stanford still has areas for improvement. On the mound, too many free bases are being surrendered through walks, and pitchers have made the offense play catch-up too often by giving up runs early. Offensively, Tyler Gaffney has yet to catch fire — boy, will the offense be intimidating when he does. Defensively, the Cardinal has been a little shaky in the infield, which I’m sure they will shore up during their time off.
Nonetheless, at 13-2, the No. 2 Cardinal has plenty to be excited about.