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Baseball: Blandino the catalyst as Stanford grabs surprising sweep over ASU

This weekend couldn’t have been much more successful for the No. 10 Stanford baseball team, which swept the No. 20 Arizona State Sun Devils thanks to strong hitting from freshman third baseman Alex Blandino.

Freshman third baseman Alex Blandino, once a rarely used alternate, solidified his position in the lineup this weekend with three home runs and nine crucial RBI. Blandino now has a team-leading .350 batting average, though he has only half the at-bats of most of his fellow starters. (CASEY VALENTINE/Courtesy of Stanfordphoto.com)

Blandino led Stanford (25-10, 8-7 Pac-12) by going 8-for-13 with three home runs and nine RBI on the weekend. The Palo Alto native is now hitting .350, and for Sunday’s game head coach Mark Marquess had Blandino in the cleanup spot, showing that he has become one of the most clutch and capable hitters in an extremely talented lineup.

“I’m just trying to hit good pitches, react, not do too much,” Blandino said of his recent approach at the plate. “I’ve been trying to get on pitches up in the zone and get the ball up.”

The other story for the Cardinal was its revived offensive prowess. Prior to this series Stanford had scored just eight times in its past four games, but in the three games against the Sun Devils the team put up a staggering 34 runs.

“It really just came down to our approach,” Blandino said. “We weren’t chasing balls early in the count or forcing it. We were in a lot of hitter’s counts.”

“This is the first weekend that we hit like that in league play,” Marquess added.

Friday’s game seemed like it would be a low-scoring pitching duel between aces Brady Rodgers for Arizona State and Mark Appel for Stanford. Coming into the matchup, Rodgers had an impressive 1.12 ERA, and each pitcher had lost just one game all season.

Appel looked solid from the beginning; his fastball came in at 97 miles per hour and his slider was working the plate beautifully. But in the fourth inning the Stanford righty hit a rough patch, giving up two hits, two walks and three runs.

“What really hurt me were the two walks to lead off the inning,” Appel said. “After that I just tried to settle down. They got a few hits, but I really just have to take it pitch by pitch.”

After the fourth Appel did settle down, tossing two more scoreless innings.

Stanford’s bats really started to come alive in the fifth. Tyler Gaffney hit a bloop single to tie up the game at three apiece, and after a walk, an error and a sac fly the Cardinal was up 5-3. In the sixth, Gaffney walked with bases loaded, and a passed ball by Sun Devil catcher Max Rossiter and a base hit by Brian Ragira extended Stanford’s lead to 9-3.

Stanford scored four runs in seventh inning — with three of them coming on Blandino’s second home run of the evening — and four more in the eighth, and the contest ended with the Cardinal in front 17-5, its greatest margin of victory since a 19-6 win at Cal on April 9.

Saturday’s game was much more competitive than Friday’s blowout. Redshirt junior starting pitcher Brett Mooneyham went six solid innings, giving up three runs to the Sun Devils.

In the bottom of the sixth Blandino hit another three-run homer and the Cardinal was up 7-3 going into the seventh. But Arizona State knotted things up at seven with a three-run top of the seventh and a game-tying double with two outs in the ninth.

In the bottom of the ninth a pair of juniors came through for Stanford, as catcher Eric Smith and shortstop Kenny Diekroger hit a pair of one-out singles. A fly ball by Wilson advanced Smith to third, and Blandino sent a single down the third-base line to win the game for the Cardinal.

Sunday’s game did not start off as well for Stanford. Arizona State’s first two hitters got on base and leftfielder James McDonald drove in a run.

Despite the early deficit, Stanford bounced back. With the bases loaded in the bottom of the third, recently converted leftfielder Stephen Piscotty singled, sending home Wilson and sophomore second baseman Brett Michael Doran.

In the top of the fifth, the Sun Devils put together a rally of their own, scoring three runs. The Card’s defense looked extremely shaky in that half-inning, as the newly retooled Stanford infield, which lost sophomore shortstop Lonnie Kauppila to a season-ending knee injury last weekend, missed plays that have normally been very crisp.

But in the bottom half of the inning, Stanford answered the Devils’ attack. Piscotty and Blandino got on base with no outs, and a Ragira single tied up the game at 4-4. Later in the inning Wilson sent Ragira home on a base hit and Stanford took a one-run lead. A wild pitch in the sixth increased the Cardinal’s advantage to two.

In the top of the seventh Arizona State scored, cutting Stanford’s lead to 6-5, but sophomore lefty Garrett Hughes got the Cardinal out of the inning before any more damage could be done.

Sweeping the Sun Devils was huge for Stanford, which prior to this weekend had been 5-7 in the Pac-12. Stanford had recently lost two out of three to Oregon and had been upset at home by San Jose State on Tuesday.

“League play is difficult,” Marquess said. “Everybody is capable of beating anybody else on a given weekend. You’ve just got to get timely hitting, and you can’t make errors or give them a lot of bases on balls. If you do that then you have a chance to win any series.”

The one cause for concern for Stanford going forward may be its fielding. The Cardinal committed seven errors over the weekend. Fortunately, Arizona State committed six errors and also played poorly in the field, but the team will have to improve its fielding if it hopes to have success the rest of the season because it cannot afford to give teams extra baserunners and extra outs.

Next up for Stanford is BYU. The Cardinal will face the Cougars on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at Sunken Diamond.