With a full starting rotation returning and an elite recruiting class coming to the Farm for a second straight year, Stanford baseball will begin its season with high hopes in a three-game series at Rice this Friday through Sunday.
After finishing fourth in a strong Pac-10 Conference in 2010, the squad will try to improve on last season’s 31-25 record.
Though Stanford finished out of the final rankings after dropping its first two games in last year’s NCAA Regionals at Cal State Fullerton, the Cardinal begins the season ranked No. 16 nationally in the USA Today Coaches Poll.
The team is not quick to buy into the high preseason marks, however.
“I think that this early in the season, it’s hard to tell which teams are going to be good,” said senior catcher Zach Jones. “The worst season that we’ve had since I’ve been here, we were ranked in the top 10 [before the season], and ended up not even making the playoffs.”
This year’s optimistic ranking is in part due to Stanford’s incoming freshman class, which Baseball America considers best in the country. Among the highly touted newcomers are outfielder Austin Wilson, utility man Brian Ragira, pitcher A.J. Vanegas and infielder Danny Diekroeger, whose older brother, sophomore Kenny Diekroeger, led the Cardinal in batting average (.336) and RBIs (41) last year.
At Bay Area Media Day on Feb. 3, head coach Mark Marquess indicated that Ragira and Wilson will have opportunities to play in starting roles early on.
Despite the new group of impact players joining the team, Jones doesn’t expect chemistry to be an issue.
“We mesh really well together,” he said. “The nice thing about Stanford is that everyone lives on campus, so we see a lot of each other on the field and off the field. We’ve gotten pretty close over these past five or six months that we’ve been together.”
The incoming freshmen will help fill a strong lineup that consists almost entirely of returning sophomores, a group Baseball America ranked as the second-best recruiting class before last season.
Because of the Cardinal’s skilled younger players, Jones will likely be Stanford’s only upperclassman position player on the field.
“I’ve had to take more of a leadership role this year and lead by example,” Jones said. “A lot of the guys coming in didn’t know the system, and how we play, and what the coaches expect of us.”
The Cardinal pitching staff is also fairly young. Alex Pratcher, who led Stanford with six wins in 25 relief appearances in 2010, joins reliever Danny Sandbrink as one of only two seniors. Stanford’s starting rotation does boast two juniors, Brett Mooneyham and Jordan Pries, who pitched exclusively as starters last season.
Marquess expects experience to be key, as pitching is bound to be a large factor in the tightly packed Pac-10.
“There’s one strong favorite, and that’s UCLA, and that’s basically because of their Friday and Saturday pitchers,” Marquess said at Media Day. “[Juniors] Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer are as good as they get. Nobody’s going to match them on Friday and Saturday. They’re the two best college pitchers in the country and they’re on the same team.”
In the preseason coaches’ poll, Stanford was picked second behind UCLA in the Pac-10, which featured eight different teams in the postseason last year.
“We were all deserving — we were all ranked number-one or number-two seeds for the most part,” Marquess told the media. “We had two teams in the College World Series: UCLA and Arizona State. It was as strong as the league has ever been, and to be honest with you, it’s probably as strong, if not stronger, this year.”
Stanford won’t start playing Pac-10 games regularly until the beginning of April, but the Cardinal will face arch-rival Cal in the home opener next Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.
The Cardinal went 3-1 against Cal last season, sweeping the Golden Bears in a three-game series at Sunken Diamond in April. But this year’s Cal team — likely in its final season after budgetary issues have forced the athletic department to cut baseball as a varsity sport — is determined to make the most of its opportunities in 2011.
“They’re going to have a lot of motivation to play this year, for good reasons,” said sophomore pitcher Dean McArdle, who is slated to start on Sundays for the Cardinal. “I think we all feel here that it’s terrible what happened to their program. But we have a lot of motivation to succeed as well.”
This weekend’s opening series at No. 17 Rice is also going to be a challenge. The defending Conference USA champions are led by junior Anthony Rendon, who won last year’s Howser Trophy — the Heisman of college baseball — and was first in the conference in homers (26), runs (83) and RBIs (85).
Even though the Stanford pitchers haven’t specifically discussed Rendon, McArdle explains that the key will be facing him with the same attitude as with other hitters.
“I think if you really change your mindset, that’s when you’re going to get hurt,” he said. “You’ve got to attack him like any other hitter, and be careful — but not overly careful.”
Though Rendon is coming off an ankle injury in the offseason and the Owls lost eight-win starter Jared Rogers to the draft, Rice brings in Baseball America’s ninth-ranked recruiting class.
In last year’s season opener, Stanford swept the then-No. 5 Owls at Sunken Diamond, winning all three games by a combined score of 27-15.
After the rivalry matchup against Cal, Stanford will travel to Vanderbilt for a three-game series, face Santa Clara once at Sunken Diamond, and then play another weekend trio of games at Texas.
The Cardinal won’t have a multi-game set at home until it faces Michigan on Mar. 18 and 19.
“I don’t know who does the scheduling,” Marquess joked at Media Day. “I like to blame it on [Assistant Coach Dean] Stotz, but I did it . . . [We have] nine of the first 11 on the road, so if it doesn’t kill us, we’ll be better.”
Stanford will face its first pitch of the season against Rice tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 p.m.