Things seem to be clicking for the No. 9 Stanford baseball team at just the right time, with a key Pac-12 series against No. 11 UCLA (27-10, 11-7) in Westwood, Calif. kicking off tonight.
Going a perfect 4-0 and scoring at least eight runs in all four of its games this week, Stanford’s bats finally seem to be coming together again with five weekends of conference play remaining. But it hasn’t been preseason All-American juniors Kenny Diekroeger and Stephen Piscotty leading the charge; instead, the Cardinal (26-10, 8-7 Pac-12) has been getting much of its production from players who have been making some of their first starts of the season due to injuries to centerfielder Jake Stewart and shortstop Lonnie Kauppila.
“Those younger players have really worked hard and weren’t starting to begin with, but they’ve gotten the opportunity,” said head coach Mark Marquess. “We’ve needed them, and they’ve come up big for us, so that’s huge.”
Though neither Danny Diekroeger nor Brett Michael Doran has more than 30 at-bats on the season, the two sophomores currently lead the team with their respective .429 and .375 batting averages, with freshman Alex Blandino not far behind at .328. Nine of the Cardinal’s 10 runs in the squad’s nailbiter of a win over BYU on Friday were driven in by underclassmen.
Sophomore rightfielder Austin Wilson led the charge with five RBI, including a line-drive solo homer, and says that the team’s discipline at the plate has been a major contributor to its recent success.
“We’ve been seeing the ball very well, I’d have to say, cutting our strikeouts down,” Wilson said. “[If we] just keep on doing that, don’t go out of the zone, don’t chase pitches, and just be able to get our pitch and don’t miss it, I think we’ll be fine.”
On the other hand, the Bruins’ strength is in their upperclassmen, with catcher Tyler Heineman hitting an impressive .405 and four other juniors batting .346 or better. That’s a far cry from last season’s UCLA squad, which had just two starters hitting above .300 and relied on the likes of righties Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer—chosen first and third in last year’s MLB draft, respectively—to bring in wins.
Stanford topped that Bruin team in a whirlwind series at Sunken Diamond a year ago, taking the rubber game with a four-run, two-out rally in the bottom of the ninth. And UCLA’s pitching staff isn’t quite the imposing force it was in 2010, with its 2.44 ERA from last season up almost a full point. The Bruins’ all-sophomore rotation of righties Adam Plutko, Nick Vander Tuig and Zach Weiss is untested and could be exploited by Stanford’s top-tier hitters.
That bodes well for the Cardinal, especially given the Bruins’ struggles in a series loss at No. 21 Oregon State last weekend. But UCLA is in second place in the conference for a good reason, and Marquess knows that his team doesn’t have much margin for error.
“If you don’t play well on a given weekend, Oregon beats us two out of three and beats UCLA two out of three, and then they go home and play Washington State, who’s not that highly ranked, and they lose two out of three,” he said. “If you don’t play well on a weekend, no matter who you’re playing in our conference, you’re going to get beat. We just have to worry about playing well.
“UCLA is very good, is playing very well—offense, defense, and their pitching—it’ll be tough for us,” he added. “But they’re all tough.”
The Cardinal will be looking to junior righthander Mark Appel and redshirt junior lefthander Brett Mooneyham to shut down the Bruins’ bats, if Stanford wants any chance of leaving Los Angeles with a series win.
If everything goes right for Stanford this weekend—meaning a sweep of UCLA, three losses by Arizona and two losses by Oregon—the squad could conceivably be at the top of the Pac-12 come Monday, which would be huge after the Wildcats and Ducks dominated Stanford in their respective series with the Cardinal. But even if Stanford can make up just a little ground in the competitive Pac-12, the weekend will have been a success.
Tonight’s opener is scheduled for 6 p.m., with a 2 p.m. start time on Saturday and a 1 p.m. start time on Sunday.