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Jaffe: After dominant weekend, Stanford baseball should be seen as an imposing force yet again

Well that’s more like it.

After a woeful stretch where runs seemed to come with the frequency of Halley’s comet, the Stanford baseball team found its offense this weekend in a much-needed sweep of Arizona State.

I’ll be the first to admit that I did not see this coming. I honestly did not think the Cardinal would be able to even scratch out one win against the Sun Devils this weekend. Think about it: Stanford had gone just 3-7 in its past 10 conference games, and if the Cardinal couldn’t beat San Jose State, how could it hope to beat perennial College World Series contender Arizona State? And despite the fact that ASU is banned from postseason play this year, the 2012 Sun Devils are still formidable. Arizona State had won five in a row and eight of nine coming into the game and sat just six spots below Stanford in the national rankings.

Well, the Cardinal proved me (and a whole lot of people) wrong by winning all three games. And these weren’t just lucky bounces. These were we’re-every-bit-as-good-as-you-thought-we-were wins. Which, for the rest of the nation and particularly the rest of the Pac-12, is very unwelcome news.

In Arizona State’s first 15 conference games of the year, the Sun Devils allowed only 38 runs while going 9-6. In just three games against Stanford, the Sun Devils allowed 34 runs while going 0-3. Arizona State came in with a team ERA of 2.65, putting ASU in the top five pitching staffs in the country. After one series with Stanford, that ERA is up to 3.53, meaning ASU is no longer even in the top five pitching staffs in the conference.

It all started on Friday, when the Cardinal had to match up against Sun Devil righthander Brady Rodgers, whose sparkling numbers gave him a case for being the best pitcher in the nation. Rodgers had an incredible 55-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio and the sixth-best ERA in the country, an unbelievable 1.13. He had allowed nine earned runs in nine starts and had gone at least eight innings in each of his past seven outings.

Stanford smacked Rodgers around to the tune of eight runs, six of them earned, in a season-low 5.1 innings. So naturally, Arizona State head coach Tim Esmay took him out, allowing the bullpen to give up another nine runs in the next 2.2 innings. Yep, after scoring eight runs total in its past four games, the Stanford offense scored 17 in one game against one of the best starters in the nation and some of the top relievers in the conference.

Any team can have a good game every so often (although few could have that good of a game against those guys), but what is really heartening for Stanford fans is how the Cardinal followed up the big blowout on Friday with two more wins.

On Saturday, Stanford was locked in a close duel with the Sun Devils. The game was tied 2-2, 3-3 and 7-7, the last of which came in the ninth inning. But with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Alex Blandino came through with a clutch RBI single to give Stanford the walk-off win.

Blandino, a freshman from a stone’s throw away in Palo Alto, has gone from occasional late-inning fill-in to occasional starter to major contributor to big-time star in the past few weeks. And although this weekend’s sweep was a team effort, Blandino was undoubtedly the star of the show.

Thanks to injuries to Lonnie Kauppila and Jake Stewart, Blandino found himself starting the week at third base. And despite entering the week with only 44 collegiate at-bats, Blandino made the most of his playing time. On Tuesday he had a two-run homer, his third of the season, to account for Stanford’s only two runs in a loss to San Jose State. In the demolition on Friday, he hit two monster homers to left, driving in four runs and scoring four himself. On Saturday, he hit another home run to go with his walk-off hit. And on Sunday, he was the only Cardinal player with more than one hit as he led Stanford to the sweep. Oh, and he also made the defensive play of the game with a diving stop down the third-base line. In total, he was 9-for-16 with eight runs scored, 11 RBI and four home runs for the week.

Sunday’s game was close throughout, but with Stanford’s recent swagger, you could just feel that the Cardinal would come through in the clutch. And that’s exactly what Stanford did, winning 9-5 in front of a season-high crowd of over 3,000 people to put the finishing touches on the team’s first sweep since February.

Looking forward, it’s hard to predict what Stanford will do considering the team’s recent inconsistent history. But I’m inclined to think that this series proves that the Cardinal will be ready come playoff time. Stanford desperately needed wins this weekend after falling to 5-7 in Pac-12 play, and the opponent was daunting. It would have been easy to roll over and continue the lull. Instead, the Cardinal ripped out its most impressive three-game stretch of the season, pounding a top team to get back over .500 in conference play and back in the mix for a top-eight national seed.

I don’t think there’s a team in the country that could have matched up with Stanford this weekend, and the way the team played, no one wants to see the Cardinal on its schedule any time soon.

Unlike Alex Blandino, Jacob Jaffe didn’t quite hit three home runs this weekend. Send him some “hitting” pointers at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Jaffe.