MALIBU — Pitching and defense win games at any level, including 200 feet above the sea.
On a crisp late-winter afternoon looking out over the Pacific Ocean from Pepperdine's Eddy D. Field Stadium, sparkling plays and shutout innings are easy for Coach Frank Sanchez to envision.
The starting rotation is anchored by three pro prospects and there are experienced pitchers in the bullpen.
The defense has few leaks, despite losing All-American catcher Dane Sardinha to the Cincinnati Reds and third baseman Duke Sardinha to a hand injury.
Offense is another matter, and might level the playing field.
All this is the status quo at Pepperdine, which makes Sanchez the envy of Division I coaches who find recruiting top pitchers and accomplished fielders more difficult than bringing in potent hitters.
The No. 18-ranked Waves (36-23 last season) open at home today against Cal State Fullerton. Sanchez will give the ball to Dan Haren, a 6-foot-4 right-hander and preseason All-American. Haren, a junior, was 8-5 with a 3.08 earned-run average last season.
Waiting their turn will be senior Jay Adams and junior Noah Lowry, both of whom will draw as much attention as Haren from major league scouts.
Adams, the West Coast Conference pitcher of the year and an All-American in 1999, was 5-4 with a 3.27 ERA last season after missing two months recovering from shoulder surgery. His fastball was clocked over 90 mph during the fall.
Lowry, a left-hander from Nordhoff High and Ventura College, was 6-2 with a 4.47 ERA last season. Lowry was drafted in the 18th round by the Texas Rangers in 1999 and he should go higher with a strong season.
The ability level of the trio is so similar that Sanchez won't rank them in order.
"I try not to get into this ace business," he said. "I don't like to hurt somebody's feelings. These guys are all excellent pitchers with good futures."
Eric Valenzuela might not attract the same attention from scouts, but Sanchez values his ability to fill the role of mid-week starter. The senior right-hander changes speeds well and was 5-4 with a 4.20 ERA last season.
Greg Ramirez, a sophomore from Rio Mesa High, might be the most improved pitcher. After going 1-3 last season, the 6-4 right-hander flourished in the Jayhawk League last summer and pitched in the National Baseball Congress World Series.
Among four freshman pitchers, Jason Barrack of San Diego Vista High appears first in line to contribute.
The entire staff will be backed by a solid defense that features shortstop Tony Garcia and second baseman Danny Garcia.
Tony Garcia, a junior three-year starter, has exceptional range. Danny Garcia, also a junior, has made a smooth conversion from the outfield.
Danny is the better hitter and will bat third in the lineup. He was All-WCC last season after hitting .338 with eight home runs and 52 runs batted in. Tony batted only .181 last season after batting .308 as a freshman.
Injuries have shuttled personnel through the corner infield positions for several years. Duke Sardinha, a sophomore, established himself at third base last season, but will miss six to eight weeks after undergoing surgery on his hand last week.
Ed Montague, a sophomore transfer from San Mateo College whose father is a major league umpire, will play third until Sardinha returns.
Senior Jared Pitney returns for his fourth season. However, he missed all but 22 games last season because of a broken hand, batting .304.
Woody Cliffords, a junior from El Camino Real, was the first baseman in Pitney's absence after playing left field as a freshman. Cliffords, a 6-2 left-handed hitter, will move to center field and bat leadoff.
Cliffords batted .346 last season and .330 as a freshman.
"Woody is a very versatile, savvy player and an excellent hitter," Sanchez said.
The corner outfield positions are up for grabs. Mike Falco, a sophomore power hitter from Agoura High, is recovering from back surgery and will miss at least a month.
Haren will be the designated hitter.
Replacing Dane Sardinha, the nation's best defensive catcher, will fall to transfers Rock Mills and Matt Harvick. Mills was a reserve at Alabama who batted nearly .400 in the Great Lakes Summer League. Harvick played two years at Bakersfield junior college.
The Waves open with five home games. Sanchez believes his team can improve on last season, when a slow start and disappointing finish obscured a strong WCC record. Pepperdine opened 1-5, bounced back to go 22-8 in WCC play and win the West Division title, then lost a best-of-three series to Loyola Marymount with an NCAA tournament berth on the line.
"We've got some strong pitching and veteran players at key positions," Sanchez said. "Questions will be answered the first two months, then we'll see where we are."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
PEPPERDINE BASEBALL ROSTER