There are no easy weekends in Pac-12 baseball, but you would be hard-pressed to schedule a home stretch with more chances to make up ground than No. 12 Stanford’s final three weeks.
With Stanford (29-14, 11-10 Pac-12) staring up at conference leader No. 10 Oregon (34-14, 16-8), the Cardinal’s upcoming series against the eighth-, 11th- and ninth-place teams in the Pac-12 are an opportunity that the squad can’t afford to let slip away. Stanford’s quest to improve its playoff positioning begins tonight at Sunken Diamond against a Washington State (23-20, 9-11) team that has lost its last two Pac-12 series.
To catch the Ducks—who finish their season by hosting 10th-place USC and travelling to No. 19 Oregon State—the Cardinal will probably need to win at least eight of its last nine conference games, barring an Oregon collapse. However, the Cardinal isn’t spending much time pondering the seemingly endless scenarios surrounding its Pac-12 finish.
“It’s our goal to go and win every game, and it’s kind of out of our control whether Oregon wins or loses,” said freshman third baseman Alex Blandino. “I just know that we need to go out and win as many games as possible. I think if we go out and take care of business the next couple of weeks, everything will work itself out.”
Blandino did take care of business at Oregon State last weekend, going 5-for-12 and hitting three RBI doubles, but his team fell behind against the Beavers in all three games. Despite furious late-inning comebacks the Cardinal could only claim a victory in the series opener, with its hopes for winning the series coming to an end in 10 innings on Sunday after a game-tying hit by junior shortstop Kenny Diekroeger.
Even though the Cougars have fared worse than the Beavers this season, Stanford can’t afford to overlook Washington State, which beat Oregon in two of three games in Eugene just a week after the Ducks knocked off the Cardinal at home.
Offense will likely be Stanford’s main concern after the disappointing trip to Corvallis. Thirteen of the Cardinal’s 14 defeats have come when it failed to score five runs, and the squad has yet to lose when leading after the first or second inning.
“This weekend we were in every game, but we were coming from behind and it was tough,” Blandino said. “It’s good to see that the team has that fight and that capability, but…it’s definitely more beneficial for our team and our pitching staff to get those runs early. It’s something we’re going to need to improve on looking forward.”
Drawing first blood was not an issue for the Cardinal when these two teams met last year, as Stanford opened the scoring in all three games and returned from Pullman with a series win. But an eight-run rally from the Cougars in the eighth inning of the series opener dealt the Cardinal a 10-8 loss—the type of loss it just can’t afford this time around.
Stanford’s effort the following afternoon is much more akin to what the squad will be looking for this weekend. Paced by then-freshman Brian Ragira’s grand slam and seven RBI, the Cardinal jumped out to a 9-0 lead through two innings and didn’t look back, capturing a dominant 22-3 win.
Stanford’s high-powered offense is still around for this year’s showdown with the Cougar pitching staff, but the same can’t be said for the Washington State hurlers. None of the Cougars who started five or more games on the mound are still around this season, and the squad’s four-man rotation consists of two freshmen, a sophomore and a junior college transfer. That group has produced predictably poor results for Washington State, which as of Monday ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in hits allowed per nine innings (10.58) and last in strikeouts (5.3).
The Cougars might only be a middle-of-the-pack squad offensively in such a loaded conference, but they will be facing a Stanford rotation that in its own right has been struggling to find an identity as of late.
Little has been certain over the last few weeks besides star righty Mark Appel, who went seven innings for the win last Friday in Corvallis. Junior lefthander Brett Mooneyham was a late scratch with the flu against Oregon State and is still coming off a three-week slump that saw him post a 9.00 ERA.
And if the series comes down to a Sunday rubber game, there’s not going to be a clear answer on the mound for head coach Mark Marquess. Freshman John Hochstatter, sophomore A.J. Vanegas and junior Sahil Bloom have all gotten looks in the Sunday spot, but none of the righties have distinguished themselves in that role recently.
Vanegas’ 2.44 ERA is the best among Cardinal pitchers with at least five appearances, and he threw 5.1 combined innings of one-hit baseball in two relief stints last weekend. But he allowed 10 baserunners in his last start, a four-inning affair at UCLA on April 29 that Stanford eventually won behind strong pitching from Bloom.
Tonight’s opener is scheduled for 6 p.m., with the Saturday game set for 2 p.m. and the finale on Sunday to be played at 1 p.m.