After a dominant three-game sweep of then-No. 10 Vanderbilt and a surprisingly close escape from Pacific on Tuesday, the Stanford baseball team will need to bring its A-game to Sunken Diamond again this weekend against No. 12 Texas.
The No. 2 Cardinal (4-0) and the Longhorns (2-2) are each looking to bounce back from disappointing midweek performances. Texas fell to unranked UT-Arlington 7-5 at home Tuesday, while Stanford needed an 11th-inning home run from junior third baseman Stephen Piscotty to knock off winless Pacific in Stockton by the score of 9-7.
Piscotty has quickly emerged as one of several Cardinal bats to be reckoned with, driving in a team-high 11 runs through just four games. At that rate, he’s set to quadruple his 2011 total of 40 RBIs and surpass last year’s national leaders by more than 70.
Piscotty is also pacing Stanford hitters with three of the squad’s five home runs, a category in which the Cardinal seems likely to exceed last year’s mark of 27 by a wide margin. That total—the lowest for Stanford since 1969—was in large part due to new standards set by the NCAA to reduce the power of composite bats before last season, a change that reduced scoring across the nation.
If the Cardinal’s 44 runs so far are any indication, though, that’s probably not going to be the case this year.
“I think it’s safe to say that we’re starting to get used to [the new bats],” Piscotty said. “We’re just having fun hitting the ball around.”
Another Stanford standout at the plate on Tuesday was junior left fielder Tyler Gaffney, who came up with three hits against Pacific after having his 24-game hit streak snapped on Sunday. First-year starter Christian Griffiths has also fulfilled his designated-hitter duties impressively, as the redshirt junior’s .750 slugging percentage is second only to Piscotty’s after the two-hit night at Pacific.
The one possible area of concern for Piscotty so far has been his fielding. The preseason All-American has accounted for four of the squad’s five errors—making for a disturbingly low .500 fielding percentage—but given the 16 errors committed by Stanford’s opponents through just four games, the Cardinal can still take pride in its team defense.
“I think we have one of the best defenses in the whole country, and it’s a good feeling knowing that if you give up a long fly ball into the gap [junior center fielder Jake] Stewart is probably going to run it down,” said redshirt junior starter Brett Mooneyham.
Texas will be hard-pressed to throw off Mooneyham and Friday starter Mark Appel, the duo that conclusively shut down the Commodores last weekend to win the Cardinal the series by Saturday night. But beyond the two junior standouts, Stanford looks like it still has questions to answer on the mound through four games. Sophomore A.J. Vanegas and senior Elliot Byers—who got the starting nods on Sunday and Tuesday, respectively—were both chased in the second inning of their outings, while senior reliever Brian Busick also struggled in his one appearance of the weekend.
Instead, a pair of freshmen in righthander David Schmidt and lefthander John Hochstatter have stepped up as lockdown relievers for the Cardinal, allowing just one earned run in 11 combined innings and each already notching their first collegiate wins.
Schmidt in particular has turned some heads as a possible replacement for closer Chris Reed, who was drafted in the first round by the Los Angeles Dodgers after last season.
“Not many freshmen can [begin as closers]—Drew Storen could do that as a freshman,” said head coach Mark Marquess, referencing the eventual 2009 Washington Nationals first-round pick. “Schmidt’s never been a relief guy. The thing is that all the better pitchers are starters; there are no relief pitchers in high school so you don’t really know who can do that.”
The Longhorns have pitching concerns of their own to address, with their returning hurlers accounting for just over a third of the squad’s innings pitched in 2011. Texas’ rotation has only one player with significant starting experience in junior lefthander Hoby Milner, who pitched in relief when the Longhorns took two of three games against Stanford a year ago.
Closing out both of those Texas wins was then-freshman righthander Corey Knebel, an eventual first-team All-American and winner of the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association’s Stopper of the Year Award.
The Longhorns will get a boost from the return of senior second baseman Jordan Etier, who missed the first four games of this season with a suspension. In his stead, sophomore right fielder Mark Payton has grabbed the reins as Texas’ top hitter with a .538 batting percentage, making him the only Longhorn slugger currently batting above .300. Etier and Payton combined for three RBIs in Texas’ 4-3 series-opener win a year ago.
The three-game set kicks off tonight at 5:30 p.m. at Sunken Diamond, with 1 p.m. starts on Saturday and Sunday to follow.