DURHAM, N.C. -- Last summer, it was a dress rehearsal for Ryne Stanek. This time, he's ready for the real deal.
Stanek, the ace of the University of Arkansas staff, pitched in the inaugural Prospect Classic here in 2011. But his stay with USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team was short-lived. The right-hander pitched in the first game against the 18-and-under trial squad and went 6 1/3 innings of shutout ball to get the win.
Then he was done, as the college squad went on to win Game 2 of the Prospect Classic and then go 4-0-1 in a series of exhibitions against Japan. This time, though, Stanek pitched in the Prospect Classic and will stick around to be a major part of Team USA, after tossing 3 2/3 scoreless innings on Saturday night.
"It's awesome," Stanek said about his bigger role in 2012. "I got a taste last year, what it represents. This is what people should be proud of. I'm happy to be here."
Stanek's USA Baseball invite was a cap to a very successful sophomore season at Arkansas. He pitched his way onto the Golden Spikes Award Watch List and finished the season 8-4 with a 2.82 ERA, striking out 83 in 92 2/3 innings and holding hitters to a .229 average in the ultra-competitive SEC.
Stanek saved his best pitching for the end of the year, tossing seven shutout innings to beat Rice in NCAA Regional play and finishing off by beating South Carolina in the College World Series in Omaha. Scouts raved about his pure stuff, even if there was some small concern about his delivery.
"He has top-of-the-Draft stuff," said one scout who saw his start against South Carolina. "The only question is his arm action. But he has the chance to be a No. 2 starter, a Mat Latos type."
Most who saw Stanek pitch in last year's Prospect Classic thought they'd be having those kinds of discussions -- what Stanek's upside was, where he should go in the Draft -- prior to this past June's Draft. The prevailing thought was Stanek would be a Draft-eligible sophomore, so the extra look last summer, albeit against high schoolers, was a bonus.
It turns out that was just a dress rehearsal as well. Stanek, who was a third-round pick of the Mariners in 2010, missed being eligible by less than a week. So Stanek will have to wait one more year to re-enter the Draft, and while he thought this would be his year, he seems at peace with how the calendar played out.
"Would it have been cool? Sure. Would I have liked to have been drafted? Why not?" Stanek said. "But I get to come back. We made a decent run in Omaha and we have the chance to get better. I came to college so I could go to Omaha. The Draft will come and take care of itself as long as I keep improving."
And he has done that. Coming out of high school, Stanek was more arm strength than anything. He still has the plus fastball -- he hit 95 mph a few times during his Prospect Classic outing -- but his breaking ball is now a plus and he's working on improving a changeup he didn't need in high school. Stanek continues to strive to improve his overall command, something he knows is essential for success as he moves ahead with his baseball career.
Stanek is also the first to admit he's more mature, both on and off the mound. In high school, especially with scores of scouts in attendance, he would sometimes just try to light up the radar gun. At that level, it worked. But Stanek has learned that just throwing hard won't lead to success. He's become a more complete pitcher, one who understands that the scouts at the Prospect Classic and into 2013 will be watching him very carefully as a potential early first-round selection.
"You get kind of used to it, but never fully get used to it," Stanek said. "I think you're more able to ignore it, not getting caught in the hype.
"It happened a little bit in high school. It was easier then to just throw a fastball by a guy, get away with a mistake. But here's an example [from the Prospect Classic]: I was 3-1 to D.J. Peterson, I threw maybe a 95-mph fastball, he turned on it. In high school, that's blown by a guy and you're 3-2."
Following the Classic, Stanek and Peterson, the University of New Mexico corner infielder, will be teammates. On Saturday, they faced each other as USA Baseball implemented a new format, mixing the college and high school players on the two rosters. Games 3 and 4 on Monday and Tuesday will go back to the 18U vs. College Team format.
"This was a lot of fun," Stanek said about the mixed rosters. "I got to interact with a lot of guys. It was good for the younger guys. They were shy and quiet at first, but by the second day, they started talking. They were more comfortable and wanted to talk.
"It's an experience thing. We know where they are coming from and they know we are where they want to be."
Stanek is about to add another experience to his growing resume when he gets to see firsthand what international competition is all about. The Collegiate National Team will go to Cuba for five games against the Cuban National Team, then on to the Netherlands for a week of games against a number of different nations.
"It's going to be so much fun," Stanek said. "I've never been out of the country. We will remember this for the rest of our lives. It will be a good test for us."