The Arizona Wildcats will open a three-game series tonight at Stanford, and the best pitcher in the nation will be there to greet them.

Cardinal senior Mark Appel was the No. 8 pick in the 2012 MLB draft, but turned down $3.9 million from the Pittsburgh Pirates to return to school. He'll throw his fastball at 93 to 97 miles per hour and his slider anywhere from 85 to 88.

"We're facing a guy that throws 97, is a top-five guy in the nation and decides to go back to school," coach Andy Lopez said. "Lucky us."

On Sunday, the Wildcats will send the anti-Appel to the mound in sophomore left-hander Tyler Crawford.

Crawford's fastball is about the same speed -maybe a few ticks slower than Appel's slider.

He's not physically imposing at 6 feet 1 inch and 180 pounds, but he's been just what the doctor ordered for the Wildcats the past three weeks.

After searching for a Sunday starter early in the season, Crawford has locked down the job. He's given up just five earned runs the past three starts - spanning 20 2/3 innings - and is coming off a complete game at Washington State last weekend.

"He doesn't throw the ball hard, he doesn't have a nasty breaking pitch, he's not 6-7, he's just kind of a guy that shows up and throws strike after strike after strike with three pitches," Lopez said. "I'm sure there are guys that go back to the bench and say, 'He's not very good,' and they're 0 for 4."

Crawford started the season as a mid-week starter. He's 4-1 with a 2.56 ERA on the year.

The Star recently chatted with Crawford about his recent surge, joining the weekend rotation and how he likes to attack hitters.

On the keys to his recent success: "I've been doing a pretty good job of pounding the strike zone, mixing speeds and making adjustments. Some of the teams were sitting back on my curve and this past week I was able to throw more fast balls and it was effective."

On getting the opportunity to join the weekend rotation: Pitching coach Shaun Cole "told me before the start, 'If you want it, don't lose it.' I've been focusing on that. I haven't changed much. I have the same game plan that I did in those midweek starts."

On his 86-pitch complete game at Washington State after giving up three runs in the second on a chilly day: "In the second inning, I was up in the zone and leaving balls at the waist and they were sitting back on the offspeed and I wasn't locating. As the game went on, we started throwing more fastballs and getting them down in the zone and they were hitting the ball on the ground and popping up the balls and that kept my pitch count down.

"Anytime you win a series on the road, it's a great feeling. I didn't know what to do after that ninth inning. I started walking toward the dugout and then was like, 'oh, wait the game is over.' It was a great feeling especially to get out of that weather."

On his goals coming into the season: "I wanted to improve on last year. I didn't know what my role was going to be. I wasn't too worried about it. It's a real deep staff. I knew I'd fit in somewhere. I just wanted to get outs when it was my turn."

On having to wait until Sunday to pitch: "You get that anxiety, but I like it. You get to watch those hitters for two days. I like throwing Sundays. It's the decisive game. You're either going for a sweep, a series win or trying to salvage a game."

Inside pitch

• Sophomore catcher Riley Moore is expected to be back behind the plate this weekend after serving as the DH the past four games. Moore experienced right shoulder tightness last weekend at Washington State, and received a cortisone shot this week.

• Sophomore second baseman Trent Gilbert is still recovering from an ankle injury he suffered against Cal, but will continue to play in the field. Lopez said he's been limited in practice, but it is getting better.

The Series

• Who: Arizona at Stanford

• When: Tonight at 7 (Pac-12 Arizona); Saturday at 2 p.m. (no TV); Sunday at 2 p.m. (Pac-12 Arizona)

• Radio: Games on 1290-AM

Contact reporter Daniel Berk at or 573-4330. On Twitter @DSBerk