For the No. 10 Stanford baseball team, the best pitching squad in the conference couldn’t be coming to Sunken Diamond at a worse time.
Hitting just .168 over the past week, the Cardinal (22-10, 5-7 Pac-12) will need to turn things around quickly if it wants to stay competitive against Arizona State (24-13, 9-6), which did not receive votes in the coaches poll due to NCAA sanctions, but was ranked No. 20 by Baseball America this week. The Sun Devils have allowed five runs just twice in their ten games in April, making for a 2.57 ERA on the season that ranked third in the country as of Monday.
As a result, Stanford will be hard-pressed to raise its sinking batting averages this weekend. Junior outfielder Tyler Gaffney is hitless in his past three games in the leadoff spot, unable to utilize his prized speed on the basepaths. Junior shortstop Kenny Diekroeger is also hitless in his past three, though his average remains at .305 after a strong start.
Diekroeger is one of just four Cardinal hitters still above .300. Arizona State, which ranks 71st in batting average in the country, has seven batters in that category.
A week after floundering against Oregon’s one-two pitching punch of Alex Keudell and Jake Reed, Stanford will have to deal with a pair of stud starters yet again. Righthander Brady Rodgers (6-1) has put up an obscene 1.12 ERA his junior season, with sophomore Saturday starter Trevor Williams (7-2) not far behind at 1.41.
The Cardinal will be looking to jump on Arizona State freshman Darin Gillies (1-3, 3.67) on Sunday if it wants to end the series on a strong note.
“Any time you lose the first two—even if you win the first two—that third game is always a huge game,” said junior reliever Sahil Bloom before Stanford won the series finale against Oregon last weekend, having dropped the first two contests.
The Cardinal will clearly need improved play from its best juniors, not just against Arizona State but also for the remainder of the season. Third baseman Stephen Piscotty’s batting average has fallen to a pedestrian .301, while his .859 fielding percentage is clearly a step in the wrong direction for the preseason All-American. Diekroeger will also need a strong second half to return to the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year form he brought to the table in 2010, as he moves back from second base to shortstop in the absence of sophomore Lonnie Kauppila, who is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury.
Junior catcher Eric Smith is surprisingly still the team-leading hitter at .345, and was recently added to the watch list of the Johnny Bench Award for college baseball’s top catcher.
“I just try and take every pitch as its own and cherish every moment that I have up there with these guys,” he told The Daily last week. “I just look for a continual goal I can [accomplish] at the plate, whether it’s moving a guy up, getting a sac fly or trying to get a hit.”
Smith is tied for second on the team with 10 doubles, and don’t be surprised if both squads come up with some extra-base hits this weekend. Stanford and Arizona State are the top two doubling teams in the Pac-12—with 77 and 69 respectively as of Monday—while Diekroeger’s 13 two-baggers on the season is second in the conference only to the 14 netted by Arizona State senior Abe Ruiz.
If the Sun Devils have one exploitable flaw, it’s their streakiness. Though Arizona State comes to the Farm on a five-game win streak and having won eight of their past nine, it lost four in a row to Cal-State Fullerton and Oregon. Struggling to put up runs against the Ducks, much like the Cardinal, the Sun Devils were swept in Eugene, adding to another three-game losing streak earlier in the season.
Whether Stanford can end Arizona State’s current hot streak remains to be seen, but Cardinal fans will be happy to hear that the Sun Devils have not fared well on the road; Arizona State’s 4-7 record away from Tempe includes series losses on both its weekend road trips in Pac-12 play.
On the other hand, Stanford has gone 15-5 at Sunken Diamond this season, but if last weekend’s series loss to Oregon was any indication, that record probably won’t stand up as conference play progresses.
The Oregon series also served as a reminder that the Cardinal bullpen will prove instrumental in Pac-12 showdowns. Head coach Mark Marquess can’t leave in junior ace Mark Appel for 149 pitches—the amount he threw in the series-opening loss against the Ducks—week after week. Stanford relievers were by and large effective against Oregon, with Bloom throwing 4.2 scoreless innings on Saturday and freshman righthander David Schmidt getting the third save of his career after 3.1 innings of two-hit work to cap the series.
Arizona State has its own weapons in the pen, such as junior righty Jake Barrett, who has six saves in 19 appearances and has allowed just a .143 opponents’ batting average as the Sun Devils’ closer.
Tonight it will be Rodgers and Appel taking center stage, however, and don’t be surprised if Appel puts up another deep-inning battle like his nine-inning effort against Keudell last Friday. The opener is set for 5:30 p.m. at Sunken Diamond, with a pair of 1 p.m. starts scheduled for Saturday and Sunday afternoons.