STANFORD -- Stanford opened the 2013 baseball season Feb. 15 at Rice with a familiar towering figure on the mound.
The 6-foot-5 pitching sensation Mark Appel is back for his senior season, a scenario few could have predicted after Florida State eliminated the Cardinal last year in an NCAA super regional series.
Appel, considered by some analysts to be the top overall pick of the 2012 draft, was expected to pursue a professional career even after the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him at No. 8. But the right-hander from Monte Vista High School stunned the baseball world by rejecting a $3.8 million offer for a chance to return to Stanford to earn a degree and help lead the Cardinal to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
"The best situation possible for me was to come back to Stanford," Appel said. "I believe it from the bottom of my heart."
He won't get arguments from Stanford coaches and teammates. The pitcher with a 95 mph fastball makes the Cardinal a legitimate top-10 team with enough pieces to reach the College World Series for the first time since 2008.
Appel was 10-2 last year with a 2.56 ERA. He struck out 130 batters over 123 innings. His 2013 campaign got off to a rocky start, though, as he gave up five runs -- two earned -- with three strikeouts in five innings. Stanford lost 5-1, and lost the three-game series 2-1.
"He always gives us a chance to win," Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. "That won't change."
Marquess compared his ace's decision with that of quarterback Andrew Luck, who turned down a chance to be the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL draft to play one more season at Stanford.
"It's very refreshing," Marquess said. "It's good for college baseball. A lot of times they just can't do that because the money is so ridiculous. They have to go."
Appel isn't motivated by money, so he kept options open. The pitcher leaned on Scott Boras to advise him on the business side of baseball but didn't sign with the agent in order to remain eligible for college.
Appel will complete credits for a degree in management science and engineering next month. After that, he will focus every fiber of his being on getting Stanford to Omaha.
"I don't think someone that hasn't played college baseball can understand the importance of going to Omaha and getting to experience that," Appel said.
Furthermore, he didn't like the way his season ended last year -- a 17-1 shelling against Florida State. "I don't want my last game at Stanford to be that game," Appel said.
Fellow senior pitcher Sahil Bloom understands the sentiment. Appel's recruiting class of 2009 has dedicated the season to playing in the College World Series, he said.
Even playing in college wasn't a consideration for Pat and Sondra Appel when Mark was a child in Houston. The Appels didn't push their kids into sports, though Mark and brother John were tall for their ages.
The brothers gravitated toward basketball when the family moved to Danville when Mark was 12. John Appel eventually became a 6-10 center for Washington University in St. Louis.
Mark played on a Monte Vista basketball team with Zach Ertz, a Stanford football star headed to the NFL. At the time, both teens dreamed of futures in basketball.
It would be difficult to fault Appel, who was overshadowed on the Mustangs baseball team behind aces Christian Jones and Steven Swift. Jones is expected to lead Oregon this year and Swift is on the staff at Washington.
"Mark was focused on academic performance to get him into a good school," said his father, Pat, a senior counsel for Chevron oil company.
Baseball wasn't on the radar until Darrin Nicholson of the Danville Diablos developmental team suggested to Pat that his son had a future in college.
But the deeply religious Appel sees all of the success as just a fraction of his life's work. His main purpose is to "try to make a difference in people's lives."
Appel already has done that for Stanford, just by coming back.
Follow Elliott Almond on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.