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Major League Rotation With three aces, Stanford has the most dominant pitching staff--again

March 06, 2000
March 06, 2000

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March 6, 2000

Baseball
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Major League Rotation With three aces, Stanford has the most dominant pitching staff--again

Jason Young, he of the 93-mph fastball and the Leonard Nimoy
changeup (more on that later), grew up in the shadows of the
University of California. He worshiped the Golden Bears and
often dreamed of pitching for the home team. There was this
thing, though, about the school down the road, Stanford. Sure,
it was the enemy. But, in 1963, it had produced a pitcher by the
name of Jim Lonborg. Four years later came Sandy Vance. There
were more: Steve Dunning, Al Osuna, Jack McDowell, Andrew
Lorraine. In 1990 the Cardinal's one-two rotation punch was Stan
Spencer and Mike Mussina. Thereafter came Rick Helling. All
would be or are major leaguers. "That's the top draw for coming
here," says Brian Sager, the Cardinal's hard-throwing sophomore
and No. 3 starter. "Anyone who's anyone would want to pitch for
Stanford. Just look at what the school has produced."

This is an article from the March 6, 2000 issue Original Layout

What Stanford has produced this year is the college equivalent
of the starting rotation of the Atlanta Braves. The baby-faced
Sager is only 20, but he is already, by virtue of a Popeye right
arm, part of the Cardinal legacy. He and juniors Young and
Justin Wayne make up not only the best three-man college
rotation in the country but also arguably the best one in the
history of Stanford baseball. "When we had Spencer and Mussina
at the same time--well, that's a tough top two to beat," says
Cardinal coach Mark Marquess, whose team opened the season a
consensus No. 1 in the nation. Spencer pitches for the San Diego
Padres. Mussina is the Baltimore Orioles' ace. "But three guys
of this caliber? I'm not sure it's happened before."

The cornerstone is Young, a sure-shot Top 10 pick in the June
draft who last season was 12-3 with a 3.43 ERA and 10 complete
games. The team phenom is Sager, a Branford, Conn., native and
high school basketball star who turned down a $1 million offer
from the Arizona Diamondbacks two years ago to enroll at
Stanford--where, as a freshman, he went 6-0 with a 4.17 ERA. The
oddball is Wayne, a location pitcher from Honolulu who, through
the magic of Zen (he says a recent course on Buddhism has helped
him relax on the mound), has put together a remarkable 20-1 mark
over three seasons.

"Take your pick who's gonna be the best of the three," said one
major league scout on a recent outing to Stanford's Sunken
Diamond in Palo Alto. "Young is an amazing talent. Wayne always
wins. Sager is raw, but his ability is unbelievable. I can't
think of many coaches who've had so much talent at one time, on
one staff."

Marquess recruited the trio to Stanford with his patented "Would
you like to follow in [fill in the ace]'s footsteps?" Tom Kunis,
the Cardinal's first-year pitching coach, feels like the kid who
got his driver's license one day and--congrats!--was immediately
handed the keys to a Porsche. Last year at this time Kunis held
the same position at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, a nice school
with a respectable baseball program. Last summer he was working
at a Stanford summer camp when Tom (Colonel) Dunton, the
Cardinal's legendary pitching coach, retired after 25 years. One
day Marquess asked if, ahem, Kunis wouldn't mind taking over.
Wouldn't mind? Wouldn't mind!

"I couldn't believe it--I hit the lottery," says Kunis. "I knew
what the Colonel had going here. I just didn't want to mess it
up."

He hasn't, although the team's early results are admittedly
underwhelming. Stanford opened the season 5-0, including a
three-game sweep of No. 2 Cal State- Fullerton, but then lost
three of its next four to drop to No. 3. At week's end the
Cardinal was 11-4 and ranked second.

Young has been uncharacteristically inconsistent, having allowed
13 hits and six earned runs over his first three starts. Sager,
however, no-hit Cal through six innings in his last start and
was 2-1 through Sunday, with a 3.32 ERA. Wayne was 4-0 with 39
strikeouts and a 2.02 ERA over 35 2/3 innings. "It's gotten to a
point where I don't think Justin knows how to lose," says senior
catcher Damien Alvarado.

Wayne's family moved to Hawaii from the Bronx before he was
born, and while Justin has a certain New York City swagger about
him, it is his status as a 50th-state prodigy that gives him the
most pride. He easily ticks off a list of Hawaii's top baseball
progeny ("I guess Sid Fernandez has to be Number 1") and makes
no secret of his hopes of joining the gang. When he returns to
Honolulu for the holidays, Wayne regularly speaks to Little
Leaguers about the appeal of mainland baseball. "I want to be
the proof for kids back home that it is possible for a guy from
Hawaii to make it," he says. "There are a lot of talented young
players coming up. It's just a matter of being noticed."

All three pitchers were drafted out of high school, and they
insist their abilities have been developed more by pitching for
Marquess than they would have been by throwing in the minor
league environs of, say, Bluefield, W.Va. Young, more than the
others, has come of age. As a freshman two years ago he pitched
all of 22 2/3 innings, allowing 21 runs with a 6.35 ERA. He was
hot-tempered and, at times, distracted. But he listened to the
lessons offered by Jeff Austin and Chad Hutchinson, Stanford
aces at the time, who would become first- and second-round
picks, respectively, in the 1998 draft. Young also observed the
two upperclassmen. "I saw the way those guys worked, their
dedication," he says. "They were always in the weight room and
watching their diets. I know they learned that from guys before
them--from [current Milwaukee Brewers starter] Kyle Peterson and
others."

At the time, Young had two passable pitches. One was a fastball
in the low 90s that he couldn't always control. The other was a
big-time curveball. Marquess and Dunton have long required their
pitchers to have three options, so Young picked up a changeup.
After much experimentation he settled on a split-fingered grip,
which spreads his ring and middle fingers apart. It looks much
like Mr. Spock's famed Vulcan salutation. Hence, Young has taken
to calling the pitch the Vulcan.

"It's deadly, that Vulcan," says Kunis. "When a batter faces
Jason, he gets all geared up to hit a mid-90s fastball. Then the
Vulcan comes in 12 to 15 mph slower. How do you hit that?"

The answer, Cardinal opponents will agree, is simple. You don't.

COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN

Top Five College Pitching Staffs

1. STANFORD. Junior Justin Wayne (left) is 20-1 over three
seasons--and might not even be the Cardinal's best starter.

2. RICE. Senior righthander Jeff Nichols is 13 wins shy of
breaking the NCAA career mark of 51, and junior righty Kenny
Baugh should be a first-round draft pick.

3. CAL STATE-FULLERTON. Nine juniors, a freshman and a redshirt
freshman make up a staff protected by closer Kirk Saarloos,
owner of one of the NCAA's deadliest sliders.

4. TULANE. It would be hard to find a more dependable rotation
than Henry Bonilla (11-1, 3.34 last season), Dan O'Gara (8-2,
4.59) and Jared Berkowitz (13-3, 3.78).

5. FLORIDA. Imports Jimmy Ramshaw (Australia) and Craig Mosher
(Canada) need sophomore Alex Hart, a high school whiz from
Marion, Pa., to reach their level.

Kunis feels like the kid who just got his license and was handed
the keys to a Porsche.