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Colton Hock, Stanford

Breaking Down Stanford-CSF Arms

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There will be many “lasts” to come in 2017 for Mark Marquess. But this weekend is a big one: Marquess’ last opening day in the Stanford dugout, and his last regular-season series against longtime rival Cal State Fullerton.

This series means a lot in college baseball, and Marquess — entering his 41st and final season as Stanford’s head coach — means a lot to college baseball. So maybe it’s appropriate that the Stanford-Fullerton series will have center stage during opening weekend — because it’s the only matchup between two Top 25 teams in Week One, and because the NCAA gave the teams permission to start their season a day early due to a wet forecast this weekend. So Stanford-Fullerton is one of a small handful of series that will get the national stage to themselves on Thursday night.

“And Augie’s gonna be there,” Stanford pitching coach Rusty Filter said, referring to former Titans coach Augie Garrido, whose tenure at Texas ended last year. “Just watching the two of them interact and then converse, that’s a lot of years and experience and knowledge. It’s just great. We love playing Fullerton, really respect their program a lot. They play hard, a really good test out of the chute. They do a lot of things to challenge you offensively. They probably feel the same way about us, a different style. I can remember being young and college baseball seemed to kick off every year with Stanford vs. Fullerton. When (Rick Vanderhook) got the (Fullerton) job he said we’ve got to get this thing going again.”

So one of college baseball’s best traditional rivalries was revived, but it won’t feel the same without Marquess in the Cardinal dugout next year. Vanderhook said he will savor his final matchup against Marquess.

“It makes me humbled that I get to actually coach against him again,” Vanderhook said. “I couldn’t guess in my career — I would say I have played against coach Marquess like 60 times. Almost like he was in my league as a league coach. Just the way that he’s always treated everyone, and I can’t speak for everyone but I can speak for Rick Vanderhook — him and (former Marquess lieutenant) Dean Stotz from the 1980s to today have treated me no different from one decade to the next. That is kind of different in our business.”

Vanderhook said he expects the Cardinal to have a little extra edge about them “because it’s Mark’s farewell tour,” but Filter insisted it has been business as usual around the Farm.

“As far as coach’s last year, nothing’s changed, man,” he said. “The guy’s work ethic is unbelievable, energy is through the roof. The daily practice is the same, nothing’s changed. We don’t talk about it much.”

Marquess said in the fall that he thinks this Stanford team is his deepest group in years, and that depth is already proving critical, because the Cardinal will be without preseason All-America ace Tristan Beck for the first several weeks of the season due to a back injury. But Stanford should be just fine on the mound without him. The pitching storylines in this series are very interesting, so let’s take a deep dive into the mound situations of both teams.

In Beck’s place tonight, the Cardinal will start sophomore lefthander Kris Bubic, who made six starts as a freshman and posted a 3.26 ERA in 21 appearances overall. Filter acknowledged that it would have been fun to see a marquee matchup between Beck and Fullerton ace Colton Eastman (a fellow preseason All-American), Bubic is more than capable of giving the Cardinal a chance to win, and he has been outstanding in the fall and spring preseason.

“Kris Bubic has has really, really pitched well,” Filter said. “He’ll come out of the chute probably 92 (mph). He’s not overpowering, but he can really pitch and defend his position and the run game … He’s got to keep the ball down, when he does he’s got some depth to the sink, when it’s up it’s flat, like most guys. He can locate to both sides of the plate. Good changeup, good breaking ball, can throw any of them at any time, so that’s a real strength for him. I think what makes the curveball good is the command of the change and the fastball, that’s kind of what gives him that ability to mix, that makes them all better. He’ll pump in a 92, then sit 89-91 until his pitch count gets up. He’s been working on his approach and his gamesmanship, those type of things, mentally staying strong.”

Those mental elements are major strengths for Fullerton’s rotation, which is stacked with mature, competitive, polished veterans. Eastman is the youngest of the three — he’s just a sophomore but is advanced way beyond his years, as his freshman statistics attest (8-3, 2.24, 100-20 K-BB in 100.2 innings). With an 89-92 mph fastball, a sharp swing-and-miss slider and a 79-83 changeup that he can throw against righties and lefties alike, he’s got the best combination of stuff and command on the staff, and perhaps in all of the West (although a healthy Beck has a similar package).

The second game of the series features a matchup between Connor Seabold — who has taken over the mantle of college baseball’s premier strike-throwing machine from former Titan Thomas Eshelman — and Stanford senior Brett Hanewich, who has electric stuff but has battled command issues over the course of his career. It’s a fascinating contrast in styles.

Seabold’s 96-9 strikeout-walk mark in 83.1 innings last year ranked second in the nation (behind only Houston’s Andrew Lantrip). And while it’s not huge stuff, it is very crisp stuff — an 87-90 fastball that can bump 91, quality curveball and splitter — and it plays up because of his impeccable command.

“I watched the guys pitch in the CWS last year, and the best guys were the guys who were pitchers. Not who threw the hardest,” Vanderhook said. “The guys that pitch, they know the less amount of pitches they throw, then the more innings they pitch. So if you don’t walk guys, that cuts down on your pitch count. And if your pitch count is 90 then you’d better get a decent amount of guys without striking guys out or throwing 10 pitches to get that out so you can go farther into the game.”

Efficiency has been Hanewich’s bugaboo in the past, but he has turned an important corner since last spring. Hanewich naturally throws across his body and has some effort in his delivery, two things that have led to his inconsistent command in the past. He worked hard to improve his alignment, but finally he arrived at a point where he could felt comfortable in his strike-throwing ability even without textbook alignment.

“When you look at him the first thing you’d say is the reason he’s not successful is because he’s across his body. We’re not talking a foot and a half, we’re talking maybe 4-5 inches,” Filter said. “The foot plants and stays. People will often say if you clean up that direction, your command will improve. He spent a lot of time working on that, and now it’s to a point where it’s a non-factor and he’s not worrying about it … A lot of guys face some adversity and don’t know how to climb out of it. He really went to work in the summer and made a commitment to get things back in order. We try to create habits and routines for everybody, but this one seems to be working pretty well for him.”

Filter said that as Hanewich gained more confidence, his stuff got better as well. He generated some real buzz among scouts in the fall by running his fastball up to 98 mph and pitching comfortably in the low to mid-90s. He’s really developed his changeup, and he can mix in both a curveball and slider. The main thing is he’s aggressively attacking the strike zone more. If he can continue the progress he’s made in the offseason, Hanewich could have a monster season for Stanford and get himself drafted fairly high as a money-saving senior sign with real upside.

The series finale pits a pair of bulldog lefthanders who lack overpowering stuff but really know how to pitch: Stanford’s Chris Castellanos and Fullerton’s John Gavin. Castellanos is a senior like Hanewich, and he’s coming off a strong junior year (8-2, 3.41 in 14 outings, 12 of them starts). Filter called him “the epitome of the crafty lefthander who will keep you in ballgames.” He pitches at 80-81 with his fastball, but it has excellent sink, and his slow 68-70 curve has big 12-to-6 depth. He also has very good feel for his changeup.

Gavin (6-3, 2.09 in 86 innings) has firmer stuff, with an 85-87 fastball, a quality changeup and a swing-and-miss splitter. He can’t match Eastman and Seabold when it comes to control (his 31 walks last year were more than Eastman and Seabold combined), but he nonetheless has very good pitchability, and he’s been outstanding this fall and spring.

“I would say for the last three weeks, Gavin has been the best guy,” Vanderhook said. “He’s done it and he’s done it good. I thought in January he was the most efficient, he did the best job.”

With that kind of quality starting pitching on both sides, you can expect a low-scoring series at Goodwin Field. The Cardinal has a clear advantage in the bullpen, where Colton Hock returns as one of college baseball’s most accomplished and talented closers. The Cardinal took it easy with him in the fall, having him focus on working with his two-seamer instead of lighting up radar guns with his fastball, but he has come out strong in January, showing the ability to bounce back Sunday after throwing Friday and still hold 94 mph heat. Hock worked as a starter for most of last summer in the Cape, with solid results, and Stanford knows he is capable of working in the rotation if needed. But he’s such a weapon in the bullpen, with the ability to pitch multiple innings at a time and rack up strikeouts in tight spots with his filthy breaking ball, that the plan is to keep him in that role for now.

It helps that the Cardinal have no shortage of starting options; blue-chip freshman Erik Miller has also pitched very well in the fall and early spring, and Filter acknowledged that he wouldn’t be surprised if Miller winds up forcing his way into the Friday or Saturday starter roles by the time conference play gets going. Built like an NFL tight end, Miller pitches at 89-93 with tremendous sink, and he has advanced command of his changeup as well. Stanford’s hitters just haven’t been able to square him up. He’ll likely start Monday at Cal Poly, but don’t expect him to remain outside the weekend rotation for long.

So with four very good starting options even with Beck sidelined, Stanford has the luxury of keeping Beck in the pen, where Keith Weisenberg, Tyler Thorne, Jack Little, Zach Grech and lefty Andrew Summerville (another potential starter) form a strong supporting cast. Weisenberg is something of an X-factor once again; a highly touted recruit out of high school, he struggled with mechanics and command early in his career, but Filter said he “has come into his own.” He’s throwing strikes down in the zone with a low-90s fastball with sink, and a simplified slide-step delivery has done wonders for him.

Fullerton has big shoes to fill in the bullpen after the departures of its three big guns — Chad Hockin (1.05 ERA), Dylan Prohoroff (1.05) and Scott Serigstad (1.22). But Vanderhook pointed out that this time a year ago, that was largely an unproven group and the bullpen was a question mark heading into the season.

Fullerton’s emerging weapon heading into this spring is junior Scott Hurst, who has played exclusively in the outfield over his first two seasons. Hurst’s rifle arm has always been his best tool — it drew 70 grades from scouts coming out of high school, helping to make him a well-known prospect. Vanderhook said he’s been pitching at 94-95 and touching 96 this month — and it’s easy.

“When Scotty was in high school, he pitched the state championship game, I went up to him and said, ‘That’s the last time you’re going to pitch.’ He came up to me at the end of the fall and said, ‘If you need me to pitch, I’ll pitch.’ In January we started messing around when we got to individuals, let him pitch a couple games,” Vanderhook said. “We haven’t played a game yet, so we don’t know. But it works. And he doesn’t practice pitching — he’s pretty athletic, we’ll see what happens. He’s batting third, so he’s really had a good January, February. Is that too much to handle? I don’t know. But he wants to do it and he’s the best fit for it. So we’re going to close him.”

Sidearm lefthander Maxwell Gibbs has made big strides and looks like the other key bullpen option. He has improved his command of his splitter, which was almost an automatic wild pitch every time he threw it last year, the way Vanderhook describes it. His 83-85 mph fastball has a lot of movement from a tough slot, and he’s able to throw both of his pitches around the strike zone. Righties Brett Conine and Gavin Velasquez have also improved, and both have the ability to work multiple innings in the middle of games or work as spot starters. The physical Conine also has arm strength, with a fastball that touched 92 late last spring. Juco transfers Jack Pabich and Joe Wills look like other key pieces; Pabich has good command of an 88-92 fastball that can bump a little better, and Wills can bump 93 with a good curveball. And Vanderhook is excited about freshman Dillon Brown, a polished sinkerballer who just knows how to gets outs and has uncommon poise for his age.

So the Titans have plenty of options, and they have a history of developing strong bullpens just about every year, so this year’s unit certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt. Any lingering questions will be answered soon, once the games start counting for real. For both of these teams, the first weekend will present a welcome chance to test themselves against high-end competition.

And the college baseball world will be watching closely.

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