At this point of the season, the mission is simple for the No. 7 Stanford baseball team: three games to gain, four weeks to go.
And though the Cardinal (28-12, 10-8 Pac-12) will play the last month of its conference season against the bottom half of the Pac-12, a major slip-up this weekend at No. 20 Oregon State (28-14, 9-9) would all but end Stanford’s chance of winning the best conference in college baseball, which it was a near-unanimous favorite to capture in the preseason.
With No. 12 Oregon and No. 16 Arizona going head-to-head in Tucson this weekend, the Cardinal will be the beneficiary of some top-tier infighting that could draw it closer to the respective first and second-place teams in the Pac-12. But the Beavers lurk just one game behind Stanford and three-and-a-half out of first place, so there’s going to be a lot at stake for everyone involved in the three-game set starting tonight in Corvallis.
Having won its last two Pac-12 series against squads that have better conference records than Oregon State, the Cardinal has the momentum it needs for a big weekend to make up for a frustrating start to conference play. The Beavers had a much streakier month of April than Stanford, being swept at Arizona State—a team that lost all three games to the Cardinal at Sunken Diamond—before winning four straight against the likes of No. 14 UCLA, Oregon and USC. Losses to the unranked Trojans last Saturday and Sunday, however, have left the Beavers plenty to think about before the Cardinal comes to town, with no midweek game on their schedule last week.
Stanford players must be shaking their own heads after Tuesday’s perplexing 8-5 loss at San Jose State. The only team to top the Cardinal in a midweek contest this year, the Spartans went a perfect 2-0 on Tuesdays against Stanford last month, most recently roughing up freshman righty John Hochstatter for three first-inning runs before Cardinal pitching could even record an out.
Hochstatter’s fall from early-season grace has paved the way for sophomore righthander A.J. Vanegas to claim the Sunday starter spot, and he has given up just under one hit per inning in his last two weekend starts. Vanegas (3-0, 2.77 ERA) will be the likely choice to go up against fellow sophomore righty Dan Child (4-3, 2.65) this Sunday as well.
As always, Stanford will have stalwart junior righty Mark Appel on the hill for the Friday opener. Appel is averaging nearly eight innings and as many strikeouts per start, with opponents hitting just .218 against the future first-round draft pick. On the other hand, the Cardinal will be looking for redshirt junior lefthander Brett Mooneyham to break out of a midseason slump, as he has now allowed 14 runs in as many frames over the last three weekends, going 0-2 over that stretch.
Statistically, Oregon State’s Friday-Saturday rotation of lefties Ben Wetzler and Jace Fry doesn’t stand out against some of its elite Pac-12 counterparts. The Beavers’ 3.48 team ERA puts them squarely in the middle of the 11-team league, and the squad ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in both hits (8.82) and walks (3.44) allowed per nine innings as of last Sunday.
But the Beavers do boast one of the best hitters in the conference in freshman phenom Michael Comforto. The leftfielder is hitting .356 and has driven in 54 runs this season, tied for fourth best in the country and the highest total for a freshman, though he went just 1-for-6 at the plate in Oregon State’s two losses last weekend.
Stanford has gotten its own fair share of underclassman production in recent weeks, though freshman third baseman Alex Blandino has gone a bit cold after a .563 week in late April that earned him National Player of the Week honors from National Collegiate Baseball. Sophomore Austin Wilson, on the other hand, has been on a tear, and two home runs against the Spartans made it four long balls in the last five games for the rightfielder.
The one area in which the Cardinal will have trouble matching up is defense, with the Beavers recording three double plays for every two by Stanford and ranking 44th in the country in fielding percentage. The Cardinal is over 100 spots lower in that category, though many of those errors came during that troubling stretch at the start of Pac-12 play.
In the weeks since the squad lost sophomore shortstop Lonnie Kauppila for the season to injury and head coach Mark Marquess had to shift his infield around, there haven’t been many of the fielding problems you might expect from the relatively inexperienced lineup. But Stanford committed three errors—all in the infield—in that Tuesday loss at San Jose State, so defense will continue to be of particular emphasis for this team going forward.
When all is said and done, the Cardinal likely won’t be in first place in the Pac-12 come Monday but Stanford has a good chance to leapfrog No. 14 UCLA, which is just a half-game ahead in third place and traveling to Seattle this weekend to face Washington.
Tonight’s opener at Goss Stadium in Corvallis is set for 5:35 p.m., and the Saturday and Sunday games will both start at 1:05 p.m.