The starting rotation was supposed to be the foundation of this year’s Stanford baseball team as new pitchers settled into bullpen roles and new bats cultivated themselves at the plate.
Sophomore ace Cal Quantrill was coming off of a stellar freshman season and, with a newly-added curveball in hand and his already-plus changeup and fastball ready to go in his arsenal, was expected to make a serious push for first-team All-America consideration this year.
John Hochstatter was coming off of a 10-win season, and Marc Brakeman had a tremendous offseason in the Cape Cod league and earned the Saturday spot in the rotation.
With such depth and talent, what could possibly have gone wrong?
Well, none of them have pitched since the third weekend of the season — the end of February.
“Obviously that’s not how we anticipated the season playing out, having three of our starting pitchers go out, especially three guys like that who were probably the best starting rotation in the Pac-12,” said junior Gabe Cramer.
When so many injuries strike a pitching staff at the same time, it’s often easy to point fingers at this or that — maybe they’re throwing too much, lifting too much, stretching too little — but the players are adamant that it’s simply been one of those freak seasons in which Stanford has unwittingly upset some higher power.
“I really think that it truly is an anomaly,” Cramer said. “I really think it just comes down to, pitching is hard on your arm, and sometimes your body just breaks down a little bit. I think it’s important for people to know that it’s not anybody’s fault and that it’s just the way the game goes sometimes.”
It’s not like anybody really has time to point fingers anyway. Regardless of the reason for the injuries, Stanford has been forced to cope quickly in any way that it can amidst one of the most unforgiving schedules in the nation.
Cramer was one of many less experienced pitchers that have had to scramble to fill the void left by the three veterans, with freshman Quinn Brodey, junior Logan James, sophomore Brett Hanewich, freshman Colton Hock, sophomore Chris Viall and freshman Keith Weisenberg also having had to step into starting roles at various points.
It’s a revolving door — and not even the pitchers themselves know when their entrances and exits will be.
Neither do the coaches, for that matter.
During the Arizona State series last weekend, only the Friday night starter was announced before the series, and that wasn’t because they were trying to be deceptive — it was because they had an idea of who they wanted to start on Saturday and Sunday but didn’t know whether those pitchers would be needed for bullpen duty or not.
Cramer was always preparing to make his first career start last Saturday, but he acknowledged that there’s always a degree of uncertainty to be dealt with in the pitching staff right now.
“I prepared for that series as if I was going to start,” Cramer said. “On Friday night, I said to myself, ‘If I need to come into this game, I need to be ready to do that.’ You’ve just got to be ready to go at any time, because you never know when you’re going to get in at this point.”
It’s a rather ad-hoc way of moving forward, and the team’s record has reflected that: The Cardinal, after starting the season in the top 25, dropped the first six conference games of their season in sweeps to Arizona and Arizona State. The sweep by Arizona was the Wildcats’ first at Sunken Diamond in program history.
But the team is resolute that it’s not time to hit the panic button — in fact, it doesn’t even recognize the existence of a panic button.
“We still have the same mindset, the same goals,” James said. “We can’t really change everything because a couple guys are getting hurt. We still have to go out there and pitch.”
Although the goings have been tough, the team is treating this recent downswing as an opportunity for the younger members of the pitching staff to get valuable collegiate innings, letting them mature much more quickly than they otherwise would have.
Throwing guys like Hock and Weisenberg right into the fire of a Pac-12 schedule has certainly not been as successful as it would have been if they had been eased into the collegiate game, but at this point, the coaching staff doesn’t have much of a choice. And to their credit, the young guys are taking full advantage.
“Because of how things are right now, if you fail, you’re probably going to get another shot at it,” Cramer said. “Normally, that might really affect somebody’s confidence, but at this point, you’re going to get back on the mound really quick, because we’re playing a lot of teams in a small amount of time and we’re short on the mound. I really think it can only help you.”
“This is some of the most pressure that they’ll face and being able to face that pressure early relieves pressure later on in their careers,” James added. “For me, I got put into a lot of those situations as a freshman and I think that helped me develop mentally more so than anything.
“It’ll be good for them in the long run.”
To many outside the program, it might look like the team is trading short-term success for long-term security by giving its pitching staff a chance to grow up quickly this season. But that’s not how the Cardinal see it at all. They have a history of being resilient against all odds, after all.
“We faced a situation last year, we faced a situation a little bit the year before,” James said. “Fortunately, last year we were able to make a better run than the year before. The goal’s still the same — we still know that we can win it. There’s more of a sense of urgency, but that’s not a bad thing.”
Admittedly, last year’s situation was a bit different. That wasn’t an injury situation so much as the team being on the brink of effective postseason elimination after a rough regular season. When the team lost to San Jose State 10-8 on May 13, it looked like it was all over.
“Most of us thought after we lost to San Jose State last year, that was it,” James said.
Of course, we all know how that ended — Stanford won six of its next seven games and then stunned Indiana in the NCAA Bloomington Regional before losing to eventual national champion Vanderbilt in the Super Regional.
“We kept fighting, kept winning and we made the playoffs, made a run and it was a great year,” James said. “It ended up being a great year.”
Although this year’s problem is different at its core, last year taught the team to never say die. If the Cardinal could ever use that spirit, now’s the time.
And everybody’s still buying in.
It all starts with this weekend’s series against Washington, when the Cardinal welcome the Huskies to Sunken Diamond for a three-game set to flip their fortunes.
Just like last week, Hanewich has been the only announced starter — he started last night, in the series opener. But for the Cardinal, that’s fine — they’re just biding their time.
“I just think we have to keep the same approach and keep the winning mindset and not give up,” James said. “If we don’t give up, we’ll always have a chance.”
“I think we can do it this year. I think we will do it this year. We’ll be able to make a run.”