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STANFORD, Calif. – As Mark Appel sat in the Stanford dugout and glanced out at sun-kissed Sunken Diamond this week, the star pitcher reminded himself just how much it meant to return for his final college season.
An unpopular choice for some, the right one for a projected high first-round draft pick once again — a year after he turned down the Pittsburgh Pirates as the eighth overall choice to go back to school and earn his degree.
When the 6-foot-5 right-hander takes the mound for the Cardinal on Friday night to face UCLA, it very well could be his final start as an amateur — and the last in his home campus ballpark.
And, after that, he'll go through the unpredictable draft process all over again.
"I guess as ready as I'll ever be," Appel said with a smile. "I think I learned last year that a lot of things are out of my control. Things will happen, either expected or unexpected, but mentally I'm at the same position knowing I've gone out there and done everything I can to give myself the best opportunities available. Whatever happens, I'll go from there and make the decision."
Already tied with two others for Stanford's career strikeouts record, one more Friday will give Appel 364 Ks and the accomplishment all to himself.
"It's been a fun four years," he said. "I still remember my first college game when I was a freshman and we were playing Rice. I was down the right-field line and I just took like 15-20 seconds and just looked around. The stands weren't full yet, and it's one of those experiences you'll always remember."
If all goes as Appel plans, he soon will be making similar memories in new major league ballparks around the country.
In last year's draft, Appel was expected to be selected as high as No. 1 but instead dropped to the Pirates. Saying it wasn't a decision about money, Appel followed his instincts to return to school. He passed on the Pirates' $3.8 million offer in the first year of new restrictions designed to slow draft spending. Appel was the only unsigned player among 31 first-round picks last year.
"It's been quite the ride," Appel said. "Nothing's certain. Man, if I end up there ... I've seen games in some pretty cool ballparks, but getting to play there, for a team, I can't even imagine what that would be like. I can only imagine it would an awe-struck feeling, just an amazing experience."
Not that he has spent any time looking back or wishing he was already pitching professionally. Appel has said along that he isn't worried about the difference in a couple of million dollars, or slowing down his career path to the big leagues.
He earned his degree in management, science and engineering in March — among his top reasons for staying put at Stanford.
"Regardless of what decision I chose, you can always look back and say you have regrets. When you make a decision like that, you have to basically say, 'Look, I'll have no regrets,'" he said. "I think if I decided to go to sign, I might have had regrets just about what could have been with my senior year. And now I know, even though our team didn't live up to our expectations."
Appel, still driven to improve, had quite a to-do list for his senior season.
He is commanding his fastball more effectively — while still consistently hitting 95-96 mph on the radar gun — keeping the ball down in the zone and working the inside corner of the plate with better efficiency.
He is 9-4 with a 2.20 ERA, 121 strikeouts, 21 walks and two home runs allowed in 13 starts.
"More importantly the mentality has really improved as far as approaching the game and going out and attacking and having a purpose behind each pitch," said Appel, who turns 22 in July. "I think I had that last year but just improving on it and making it more so this year."
His pitching coach, Rusty Filter, has been a big part of that process.
And Filter could make some history himself during the draft. If Appel goes No. 1 next month, Filter will have mentored and coached two top draft picks after previously working with Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals while at San Diego State.
Appel considers Filter "an invaluable resource both on and off the field" and credits him for helping him find ways to limit distractions away from school and baseball.
"Any time you have someone with his ability and talent, you want to make sure that there's room for growth," Filter said. "He has worked real hard on those things and put himself in position this year to kind of be in the same position as last year. He's just a thrill to be around."
Filter keeps Appel humble, too.
Especially after the right-hander took the loss in then-No. 7 Stanford's season-opening 5-1 defeat at Rice on Feb. 15. Appel was tagged for five runs — two earned — and seven hits with three walks, three strikeouts and a wild pitch in five innings.
"You start to believe all you have to do is show up and you'll win, because everyone's saying you're good," Appel said. "But you have to go out and prove it. That was the coolest thing that I learned this year: regardless of what people say about you, it still comes down to you and putting in the work. He always calls me a donkey. Donkeys do all the work, they do all the heavy lifting. They do what they're told and they don't complain about it. I kind of see myself the same way. They never look for recognition."
For Appel, the accolades will surely come. He knows he has done all the necessary preparation, and is eager for the next stage.
Even if it is one year later than most of the baseball world expected.
"Like I've told many people, my goal is to play pro ball and be in the majors," Appel said. "Just the fact that I came out here and I gave everything I had to give our team the best chance of winning ... it's just been a great year. I don't think you can look back."