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Coaches always say that playing the best often brings out the best in position players and pitchers alike. That certainly was the case with the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Kubitza on opening weekend; he twirled an absolute gem against the Cardinal, a team that features arguably the nation's sexiest arm in senior right-hander Mark Appel, who turned down the Pittsburgh Pirates as the eighth overall pick in the major-league draft last summer.
"He's older and bigger, and he's up to about 225 pounds right now with that tall frame of his," Rice coach Wayne Graham said about Kubitza. "He's been through the mill, and he actually pitched well enough in the NCAA Regional last year to beat Arkansas. He looked pretty good out there."
Rice RHP Austin Kubitza Puts on a Show in His First Start
With approximately 30-40 major-league scouts in attendance to see the two right-handers duke it out, Kubitza created some buzz in the first inning against the Cardinal when he touched 92 with his fastball. It's not so much that Kubitza doesn't have the potential to throw at that high of a velocity, but reports throughout fall workouts had Kubitza between 86-88, and sometimes getting up to 89.
Just a couple of weeks ago, 92 seemed like a pipe dream, but from the Owls' standpoint, there's a perfectly logical reason for that dip in velocity.
"I asked him two days ago why he wasn't throwing that well in intra-squad games. Well, he's a humanitarian out there. He was afraid to hit one of our guys," Graham said with a laugh. "He didn't get above 89 during any of our practices, now he's doing this."
Graham's Owls would be ecstatic to have the Kubitza that showed up against Stanford the rest of the season. The right-hander was terrific against a very potent Stanford lineup. He consistently sat 89-92 with his fastball, even touching a 93 or two on the gun in the second inning.
However, though Kubitza was impressive in his ability to throw strikes with his fastball while moving it around the zone last Friday, his slider was the headliner.
Kubitza's arm motion and a very-well executed slider confused Stanford's strong offense. The righty was able to move his slider around the zone, throwing strikes on both sides of the plate with movement and sharp break. The slider sat 82-85 with almost pinpoint command, while Kubitza also showed a changeup—which led to a couple of strikeouts—that consistently sat 80-82 mph.
"We had an opportunity to get him to him early, but his breaking ball was very good. He was able to cross-count you and throw his pitches in any count," Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. "He had good stuff and that made him tough to hit. I thought he did a great job."
Kubitza's performance isn't difficult to put into perspective. He was a much different pitcher than what I saw much of last season. When Kubitza faced difficult jams last season, more often than not, he'd get into even more trouble by thinking too much and deviating from his mechanical plan.
That wasn't the case against Stanford. When Kubitza got into jams, he showed poise and was simply masterful. His highest strikeout total in a game last season was nine. The righty reached that plateau by the fifth inning against one of the nation's elite offensive lineups. He finished the contest with 12 strikeouts, four walks, and allowed just four hits in six innings of work.
"That slider from his angle is devastating because it breaks show sharply," Graham said. "Last year, I didn't think he was being overly closed on the mound. He wasn't closing himself off. You didn't see that today."
Kubitza felt good about his start as well.
"I felt pretty good, I had the adrenaline pumping because we were playing Stanford," he said. "The main difference with me is mechanics. I'm making sure I repeat my mechanics well. I worked on that a lot in the fall and this spring. Just staying on line and working well across my body. That's the main thing that worked pretty well tonight."
The look on Mark Appel's face following his first performance of the season told the story. As I approached Appel, he had a very frustrated and sarcastic smile on his face, obviously trying to process the outing he had against the Owls.
As someone with elite status in college baseball, the expectations placed on Appel are sky-high entering this spring. So, when he took the mound against the Owls, scouts and fans alike expected to see some serious heat on his fastball, along with some domination. That didn't happen.
"Knowing what I can do and not being able to perform well, I'm just frustrated I couldn't give our team a chance to win," Appel said. "I left a lot of balls up and was unable to get the changeup going. I got a little wild with the fastball and this wasn't my typical stuff. With that said, you have to give Rice much credit for really hitting my pitches."
Though Appel struggled against the Owls, striking out just three, walking three, and allowing five runs (two earned) on seven hits in five innings of work, his velocity was present. Appel consistently sat 93-96 with his fastball, hitting a few 97s on the radar gun as well. But while his fastball had velocity, his command and ability to miss bats weren't there. The righty worked hard during the fall and early this spring to improve his command of the fastball, specifically focusing on pitching more inside than last season.
The right-hander tried pitching inside on several occasions against the Owls, but he just didn't seem comfortable in doing so.
"I think it was a little uncomfortable," Appel said. "I was good pitching inside during the winter, so maybe it was nerves or something getting to me. I just wasn't my usual self on the mound today, that's for sure.
"Sometimes you just have bad games."
As for the rest of his stuff, Appel sat 82-84 with his slider and displayed a changeup on a few occasions that sat 80-81 mph. The slider was a solid pitch at times, while Appel never truly got into a groove with his changeup.
"I thought he was all right. He had good velocity and his slider, a lot of the time, wasn't as sharp as usual," Marquess said. "Give them a lot of credit, though; they really did a great job of hitting some breaking balls down in the zone. He pitched all right. Not great for him, but again, give them some credit."
Despite the average nature of Appel's first start of 2013, don't look for his status as a prospect to decline. Appel, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound hurler, is still has a pro-like and physical frame with premier stuff when he's clicking on all cylinders.
"He throws three pitches, all plus in my opinion," Graham said. "His fastball is way, way plus, and he has a good changeup. It's all there for him. He's locked in. He'll still be a top pick in my book, at least."
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