Mark Appel and Astros? Too perfect

Stanford junior Mark Appel is a proud member of that most overlooked baseball demographic: the long-suffering fans of the Houston Astros.

Appel lived in Houston until he was 12 and his father's company had season tickets, so he is well aware of the soul-crushing agonies suffered by Astros fans in the team's half-century of existence -- two excruciatingly painful National League Championship Series losses, a four-game sweep in their lone World Series, 35 years trapped inside the Astrodome, an appearance in the awful "Bad News Bears in Breaking Training'' and, of course, the worst indignity of all: rainbow jerseys.

In yet another calamity, the Astros lost a team-record 106 games last year and finished with the worst record in baseball.

As rough as that was, at least it gave Houston the first pick in this year's draft. And Appel, one of the top eligible players in the June 4-6 draft, wouldn't mind at all if the Astros used that pick to choose him.

"I've thought a little about that," the right-handed pitcher said. "I try not to think about it too much because I can't control who picks me in the draft; all I can control is how I go out and perform every week. It's just so surreal. So many things have gone right in my life, I know I wouldn't be here right now without God's hand being in my life. Just moving to California so that Stanford became an option for playing baseball. The Astros having their worst year in their history. All these things seem to have gone perfectly for me to work out this way.

"None of that means it would work out that way, but it would be a cherry on top of a dream come true. I've always dreamed of playing pro baseball and playing for the Astros would be pretty unbelievable."

That Appel is a possible No. 1 pick regardless of the team choosing is all pretty unlikely given he wasn't even a starter for his Monte Vista High School team in the East Bay, where he pitched mainly out of the bullpen. As he says, that was less a reflection of his ability than of the school's overall depth -- Oregon's Christian Jones and Washington's Steven Swift were the top two starters, and high schools generally don't need more than two.

Thanks to the surrounding talent, Monte Vista's games were well-scouted; and Appel threw hard enough in relief and the occasional start that in 2009, the Detroit Tigers picked him in the 15th round and Stanford invited him to a tryout camp. He dazzled Stanford's coaches with five scoreless innings there and was rewarded with the magic words "We'd like to see if we can get you to Stanford.''

Appel had a good fastball but not much to go along with it during his freshman season; and as a result, he was hit pretty hard. He was 2-1 with a 5.92 ERA as a reliever and spot starter.

Following that season, Appel went to the New England Collegiate Baseball League, where the Stanford student gave himself a summer course on pitching.

"I pitched as many innings as I could and started, and got a starter's mentality," he said. He also improved his off-speed pitches and gained some self-assurance, improving his record to 6-7 with a 3.02 ERA as a sophomore.

"He had a really good summer and really came back confident," Stanford pitching coach Rusty Filter said. "As a freshman, he threw it up there around 93. He got in better shape, gained some velocity and kind of learned to pitch."

Ahead of this weekend's NCAA regional tournament (Stanford will play host to Fresno State, Pepperdine and Michigan State), Appel is 9-1 with a 2.37 ERA and 116 strikeouts (against only 24 walks) in 110 innings this season. Opponents are batting .216 against him. At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, he has a great body for a pitcher. He has hit 100 on the radar gun, though Filter says he pitches most effectively around 95. He has significantly improved his slider and changeup as well.

"He's got a bright future," Filter said. "He's still got a long way to go. He's still learning -- that's the scary part. That's what makes his future so intriguing. He's still figuring some things out. I don't think we're seeing him at his best yet. He's extremely hardworking and I think he'll continue to be successful as long as he stays healthy."

If Appel is the top pick, it would mean that Stanford will have had the No. 1 pick in both the NFL draft (quarterback Andrew Luck) and the baseball draft, an unprecedented achievement. The Cardinal also had the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, Nneka Ogwumike, this year.

"It just kind of feels surreal to be mentioned in the same sentence as Andrew Luck and the No. 1 pick," Appel said. "But I try not to think about that much. I just go out and focus on pitching."

Intelligent and polite -- he said "sir'' repeatedly during an interview -- Appel is studying management science and engineering, which he calls his insurance policy in case baseball doesn't work out.

"I'm going to chase my dream of playing in the majors as long as it takes me," he said. "And when baseball ends, because I know it can't last forever, I will take my Stanford degree and get a great job."

If Houston does pick Appel, Astros fans can only hope that his engineering career is many, many years in the future, perhaps even far enough down the line that they can celebrate a world championship before then.