The No. 12 Stanford baseball team entered the weekend with major questions on the mound, slumbering bats and an unimpressive 11-10 record in a conference that it was once a near-unanimous favorite to win.
It leaves the weekend with three dominant pitching performances, a revitalized lineup and a sweep of Washington State behind it.
The Cardinal (32-14, 14-10 Pac-12) tried some new things against the Cougars (24-23, 9-14), and they paid off tremendously in the third-to-last weekend of conference play. Star hitter Stephen Piscotty took the mound for his first career pitching start on Saturday, and Stanford got some of its biggest contributions at the plate from a pair of underclassmen — sophomore Danny Diekroeger and freshman Dominic Jose — who saw nearly no playing time at the start of the season.
“We’ve had some guys who hadn’t got a chance to play early really come in and [make] a difference for us and help us win some games,” said head coach Mark Marquess. “That’s really going to serve us well as we go down the road, [getting] contributions from a lot of guys.”
Though none of the teams above the Cardinal in the Pac-12 standings made a major misstep this weekend, the squad has climbed to fourth in the conference and is within striking distance of third-place UCLA (15-9) and second-place Arizona (16-8). Conference-leader No.10 Oregon (18-8) won the first two games of its series against USC and will remain three and a half games ahead of Stanford if it finishes off the Trojans tonight.
But a Cardinal team that lost two very winnable games at Oregon State last weekend will take the sweep nonetheless.
Nearly 4,000 fans showed up for Fireworks Night on Friday, but both teams’ offensive sparks took a while to materialize. Washington State righty Tanner Chleborad held Stanford scoreless into the fifth and junior ace Mark Appel allowed only six Cougar hits.
Five of those hits were of the extra-base variety, however, and senior rightfielder Derek Jones set himself up to score the first run of the game when he doubled off Appel to lead off the fourth. Appel struck out the next batter but the ball got through to the backstop, putting Jones in position to score on a groundout by senior second baseman Tommy Richards.
“There were a lot of two-strike hits, which usually I try to bear down [on],” Appel said. “They were sitting on off-speed pitches with two strikes, and we figured that out after the fourth inning or so and started pitching backward…It seemed to be effective.”
Appel was dominant with two strikes the rest of the way, punching out 10 for the fifth time this season. Stanford erased the one-run lead in the fifth inning, getting two straight hits to lead off the frame before Danny Diekroeger made it 2-1 with a bases-loaded single.
Washington State got a runner to third in the sixth after another leadoff double and a passed-ball strikeout, but Appel escaped the inning with his seventh punchout of the night. Two straight doubles from first baseman Brian Ragira and rightfielder Austin Wilson in the bottom half of the frame extended the Cardinal’s lead to 3-1.
That insurance run would come in handy in the eighth, when the Pac-12’s leading home-run hitter in Cougar junior Taylor Ard sent a solo shot sailing over the left field fences. Though Washington State mounted an eight-run comeback to take in its series opener against Stanford a year ago, the Cardinal held on to its lead this time around to win 3-2.
“Getting that Friday win is huge for the weekend,” Appel said. “It kind of sets the tone, and it’s very tough to come back, down 1-0, and win the series.”
Stanford was still unsatisfied with its dipping production at the plate, though, as the Cardinal had put up five runs or fewer for the third straight game. The squad has only lost once when scoring more than five runs.
“We hit some balls hard today [but] didn’t quite put up the runs we want,” Danny Diekroeger said Friday night. “We’ve just got to keep bringing it and hopefully the bats will pick up.”
And pick up they did on Saturday, when the Cardinal’s 15 hits were more than enough to take the series in an 8-3 victory. But the story of the afternoon was Stanford’s pitching, not its slugging.
Piscotty (3-2), making his first career start after several successful relief appearances this season, dazzled on the mound by giving up just one earned run in 6.1 innings. In the meantime, he compiled a three-hit, two-walk day at the plate — through five innings, he had allowed just three baserunners and reached base three times himself.
“We hadn’t tried Piscotty [as a starter], and obviously he was fantastic,” Marquess said. “He didn’t throw many pitches, and he kind of does it all for us.”
The Cardinal broke the game open with two outs in the third. Danny Diekroeger doubled and Piscotty walked before a Ragira single opened the scoring, and a three-run shot from Wilson — his ninth home run of the season — made it 4-0.
Piscotty singled to lead off the fifth and was pushed across on a triple by freshman third baseman Alex Blandino, but the Cougars quickly got that run back on a sixth-inning double by Jones.
Junior shortstop Kenny Diekroeger responded by leading off the bottom half of the sixth with a full-count double. Jose singled him home and later came around to score on a sac fly by Danny Diekroeger, increasing the lead to six runs.
Two unearned runs by Washington State in the seventh made it 7-3 and forced Piscotty from the game, but redshirt sophomore lefthander Garrett Hughes easily finished off the last 2.2 innings, striking out three and improving his team-leading ERA to 2.21. A sac fly by junior centerfielder Jake Stewart was icing on the cake for the Cardinal, which clinched its fifth Pac-12 series win of the season with the victory.
There was still work to be done on Sunday, however, and one game in the highly competitive Pac-12 could quite possibly mean difference between hosting a Super Regional and having to go on the road at the end of the season.
Enter redshirt junior lefthander Brett Mooneyham, who has been struggling over the last month and missed his start last weekend with the flu. Making his first appearance in a series finale this season, Mooneyham got out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning and turned to his defense to make several huge plays: a leaping grab by Blandino to strand a runner at third, two acrobatic catches in deep right from Wilson that inspired a standing ovation and a diving stab by Piscotty in left field to save a run. Wilson also nailed a runner at the plate to help quash the Cougars’ first-inning rally.
Mooneyham pitched well on his own part, going seven scoreless innings and striking out three.
“I ironed out some mechanical difficulties; with the week off I was able to really focus on them,” he said. “I’m not really where I want to be yet, but [I took] a good step in the right direction today against a team that has some weapons.”
Ragira gave him an early cushion with a leadoff double in the second that turned into a 1-0 lead on a Smith single. With the bases loaded and two outs, Stewart sent a shot to left that was caught at the wall, just feet from a grand slam.
As it turns out, Mooneyham would get that grand slam in his favor just a few innings later. After Danny Diekroeger singled home a second run in the fifth, the Cardinal put runners at second and third in the sixth and Washington State elected to intentionally walk Kenny Diekroeger in favor of Jose.
“We have this deal where pitchers who are on the bench each get a bomb card each game, and throw it once,” Mooneyham said. “And I threw mine on that at-bat because Dom’s been hitting well in batting practice and stuff, and he’s probably getting some confidence now, getting a start this weekend. He made me look good.”
Jose ripped the fourth pitch in relief from Spencer Jackson over the left-field fences — his first career home run — to all but guarantee Mooneyham’s sixth win of the season, his first since March 25. Mooneyham had compiled four straight losses since that victory over USC.
Stanford has a great shot at continuing its push up the Pac-12 standings next weekend at Utah (13-34, 7-19), the only team in the conference with a sub-.500 record besides the 22-23 Trojans. Before making the trip to Salt Lake City, the Cardinal will host San Francisco at Sunken Diamond at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday.