For this year’s Stanford baseball team, Valentine’s Day will be more than just a day of romance; it will be a day of rejuvenation, of a clean slate and of the chance to make a statement at the beginning of a long campaign.
That’s right — baseball is back on the Farm.
On Friday, Sunken Diamond will arise from its eight-month slumber as the No. 25 Cardinal hosts the No. 20 Rice Owls for a three-game weekend bout.
Stanford has opened the season against Rice in three out of the last four seasons, holding a 6-3 record in those opening-week contests. The Card dropped last year’s opening series in Houston, only winning one game during the three-game set.
While the same team will be in the opposing dugout, this year’s matchup against Rice will feel very different, as the Cardinal replaces last year’s opening-day starter — first overall 2013 MLB Draft pick Mark Appel ’13 — with right-handed pitcher Cal Quantrill, a freshman making his first ever collegiate appearance — let alone start.
Fittingly, in a season that figures to be defined by change, the Cardinal will send out a new face in Quantrill in the Friday evening slot that Appel had locked down for so long. Tonight’s showdown will mark the first opening-day start by a Cardinal freshman in at least 20 years.
Despite his lack of collegiate experience, the hard-throwing freshman from Port Hope, Ontario, who was drafted in the 26th round in 2013 by the New York Yankees, certainly has the talent to begin filling the gargantuan shoes of Appel, the program’s all-time strikeout leader.
But the Cardinal youth movement on the mound won’t end on Friday. The projected starters for games two and three of the series, righties Brett Hanewich and Chris Viall, are also freshmen making their first collegiate starts.
Stanford pitching coach Rusty Filter has tabbed Hanewich, a Bradenton, Fla., native and brother of Cardinal softball senior Corey Hanewich, as the starter for Saturday’s contest. Meanwhile, Viall will pitch in the final game of the series, which will be held either Sunday afternoon or Saturday evening, depending on the weather. Viall, who stands at 6-foot-9 and weighs in at 230 pounds, boasts a fastball in the mid-90s and was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in last year’s MLB Draft. He will look to add a tremendous arm to the Cardinal starting rotation.
Ultimately, the starting pitching situation for Stanford will come down to a tradeoff between talent and experience as the Cardinal’s highly touted starters clash with one of the top programs in college baseball.
In contrast, the Owls will most likely counter with the experienced junior Jordan Stephens, who led all Rice hurlers with 118.2 innings pitched last season. While the Cardinal did get the better of Stephens in the second game of last year’s series, the right-handed pitcher improved markedly as the season progressed and will look to be, in the words of Rice head coach Wayne Graham, “one of the top ‘Friday night’ guys in the country.” Stephens possesses a reliable fastball coupled with a lethal off-speed pitch, which will certainly pose a challenge for the Cardinal lineup.
In addition to Stephens, the Owls also field one of the top relief pitchers in all of college baseball in junior Zach Lemond, a third-team All-American last season who serves as a dangerous weapon for Rice out of the bullpen. The Owls have yet to announce their starters for the remaining games in the series.
The Owls also appear to have the edge in experience in the batter’s box, as they return seniors Shane Hoelscher and Michael Aquino, the latter of whom was a second-team all-conference performer last year. Hoelscher was on pace to have one of the best statistical seasons in all of college baseball before an injury in March halted his pace.
Meanwhile, the Cardinal will be looking for someone to step up and add power to the lineup with the departures of outfielder Austin Wilson and first baseman Brian Ragira. Stanford will look for its offensive firepower to come from more production out of the established starters who return: junior third baseman Alex Blandino, senior first baseman Danny Diekroeger, junior center fielder Austin Slater, senior catcher Brant Whiting and junior designated hitter Wayne Taylor.
In a matchup between two of the most successful college baseball programs in the last 15 years and two coaches in Graham and Stanford’s Mark Marquess who have combined for over 2,400 wins, this weekend’s opening series will kick off a new season at Sunken Diamond and provide an indication of where the Cardinal stands coming out of the gate.
The season opens Friday at 4:30 p.m. with the weekend games, if the weather holds, scheduled for Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at noon.
With the high hopes and dreams that come with opening day, maybe it’s fitting that Stanford opens its season on Valentine’s Day. As Brad Pitt’s character asks in the movie Moneyball, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.