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."
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? 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? 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 upper-classmen. "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."