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Baseball: Comeback kids best Pepperdine, Fresno State to win regional

Three up, three down for the Cardinal baseball team.

Stanford swept its regional for the second straight year, beating Fresno State once and Pepperdine twice at Sunken Diamond last weekend to stay in contention for its first national title since 1988.

It took two come-from-behind wins over the Waves after junior righty Mark Appel shut down the Bulldogs on Friday night, but the Cardinal (41-16, 18-12 Pac-12) showed why it deserved to host a regional for the first time in four years with a weekend of solid play.

“We battled, and at this stage of the year you have to be able to do that,” said head coach Mark Marquess.

Besides Appel, Stanford’s starters hit some rough spots, but the bullpen gave up no earned runs in its 9.1 innings of work.

Freshman Alex Blandino (above) helped spur the Stanford baseball team to two wins over Pepperdine and one win over Fresno State to sweep through the Stanford regional this past weekend. (ALISA ROYER/The Stanford Daily)

The Cardinal did benefit from its opponents’ mistakes — a combined seven errors, 20 walks and eight hit-by-pitches over the three games, including a three-run wild pitch that proved crucial in game two — but its best hitters also showed up on a big stage. Junior catcher Eric Smith, sophomore first baseman Brian Ragira, sophomore second baseman Danny Diekroeger and junior shortstop Kenny Diekroeger were all named to the all-regional team, with Ragira reaching base 10 times in his 14 plate appearances.

“I’m just trying to get on, and we have a bunch of run-producers throughout the lineup,” Ragira said. “I know that the guys behind me . . . are going to come up big for us.”

Stanford’s team offense would have been the story of the weekend had it not been for Appel’s stellar Friday night performance.

Fresno State came in as the only team to have beaten Appel (10-1), pounding his fastball and getting two home runs from sophomore centerfielder Aaron Judge when the Bulldogs met the Cardinal in March. That wouldn’t be the case in the regional opener.

“We were pretty sure he was going to come out and make an adjustment this week,” said Bulldog head coach Mike Badesole. “The kid is fantastic. He had the answer. He had two great breaking balls to go to.

“I’m pretty sure he could’ve won a big-league game today,” Badesole added.

Appel, the eventual tournament MVP, tossed his fifth complete game of the season, striking out 11 and allowing only four hits, just three days before his name was called eighth in the MLB Draft.

“It’s difficult for the juniors that are draftable, and when they tell you they’re not thinking about it, they’re not being honest with you,” Marquess said. “You can’t help but think about it. Everybody comes at you, every which way . . . it’s just crazy. But he’s handled it well.”

The Cardinal nearly got on the board in the first frame when Ragira was robbed of an RBI double by a diving Jordan Luplow in right. The freshman appeared to drop the ball, but the umpires ruled it a catch, quickly evoking memories of Tyler Gaffney’s controversial snag in last year’s Fullerton Regional in a 1-0 Stanford win.

Cardinal runners advanced to third in each of the next three innings, but the squad was unable to bring one home. After pitching twice on short rest in the WAC Tournament, righthander Justin Haley held Stanford off the scoreboard and got two-out strikeouts with runners on third in the third and fourth.

The spark finally came for the Cardinal with two outs in the fifth. Junior leftfielder and pitcher Stephen Piscotty started the rally with a double before sophomore rightfielder Austin Wilson singled with the count full to put Stanford ahead 2-0.

“We left a lot of runners on base and had a lot of opportunities to score,” Marquess said. “But I thought Wilson’s hit, getting two runs on the board, was big.”

Haley had struck out five Cardinal batters at that point, but his luck ran out in a three-run sixth. Only one Stanford hit left the infield, but three walks, a hit-by-pitch and an infield hit extended the Cardinal cushion to five.

The Bulldogs got to Appel for the first time in the next frame, as an RBI double by redshirt junior first baseman Trent Garrison ended the shutout. The seventh inning was the first one in which Appel did not record a strikeout.

The Diekroeger brothers then turned a 6-4-3 double-play to help Appel get out of an eighth-inning jam, before two straight hit-by-pitches in the eighth scored Stanford’s sixth run and a Kenny Diekroeger single followed by an error made it 9-1.

With the win, Appel became the first Cardinal pitcher to win 10 games in a season since Jeff Gilmore in 2005.

Unfortunately, Stanford didn’t get the same starting performance on Saturday from lefthander Brett Mooneyham, who departed after just 2.1 innings. Pepperdine — which had beaten Michigan State 6-2 on Friday to enter the winner’s bracket — scored two runs to start the third and then loaded the bases to force the redshirt junior from the game.

“He got himself into trouble,” Marquess said. “He really hadn’t pitched that poorly, but to their credit, they followed it with a couple of hits.”

After junior righty Dean McArdle replaced Mooneyham, redshirt freshman Bryan Langlois blasted a double off the left-field wall to give the Waves an early 4-0 lead.

Ragira revived Stanford’s hopes with a shot to dead-center, his fifth home run of the year, to lead off the top of the fourth; the Cardinal was the away team on Saturday afternoon, so it came to the plate in the top half and commandeered the dugout on the third-base side.

That quirk would come to the forefront in the sixth, when, still down 4-1, Stanford loaded the bases for Gaffney with one out. Sophomore righthander Scott Frazier then bounced a curveball several feet in front of the plate and over the head of catcher Miles Silverstein.

Ragira came around to score while freshman third baseman Alex Blandino moved to third and Smith advanced to second. Silverstein then tried to pump-fake to third, but the ball squirted out of his hand and toward the Cardinal dugout.

“Next thing I know, the ball is rolling around and the pitcher is around me,” Ragira said. “We were hustling, and the ball rolled our way.”

With Ragira and his teammates celebrating in foul territory and Blandino racing down the third-base line, Frazier and Silverstein chased after the loose ball, but it rolled through the mass of humanity and into the Stanford dugout.

After a quick discussion between the umpires and an argument with Pepperdine head coach Steve Rodriguez, Smith was awarded another base and the game was suddenly tied at four.

“My only problem was the crowd control around the dugout,” Rodriguez said. “When their whole team is out there and the pitcher goes out there for the ball — that was probably the only thing I could say was an issue.”

McArdle would go scoreless into the sixth before Marquess turned the game over to sophomore righty A.J. Vanegas with a runner on third. Freshman centerfielder Matt Gelalich chopped one to second, and Danny Diekroeger nailed Langlois at home to save a run.

That run would turn out to be the difference, with Kenny Diekroeger coming through late again on an eighth-inning RBI double that made it 5-4 for Stanford.

Then it would be up to Vanegas (4-0), who came up with a career outing at just the right time. In his 3.2 innings he struck out eight batters, including five of the last six he faced and four in a row swinging to end the game.

“It was an unbelievable job by A.J.,” Marquess said of the all-regional team selection. “He had great stuff and won big spots all evening.”

With Fresno State having knocked out three-seed Michigan State that afternoon, the Cardinal knew it was set for a rematch with either the Bulldogs or Waves in Sunday’s late game, where Pepperdine redshirt senior designated hitter Matt Forgatch kept his career alive with a grand slam to snatch an 8-5 advantage that the Waves would not relinquish.

It was a short turnaround for Pepperdine before its 6 p.m. elimination game with Stanford. Because they had burned their top three starters, the Waves’ chances seemed slim, especially given their unreliable bullpen.

But it would be the Cardinal’s starter that was beat up early. Senior rightfielder Tony Cooper slapped a two-out, RBI single off Stephen Piscotty in the first before Pepperdine loaded the bases. Blandino then dropped a tricky flyout in foul territory that would have ended the inning, and the error led to the second 4-0 lead for the Waves over Stanford in as many evenings.

“I thought it was going to be a long night,” Marquess said. “The key for us was Piscotty settling down.”

“This is probably the biggest game I’ve ever played in my life,” Piscotty said. “And I got knocked down, but I wasn’t going to give up.”

He went on to retire 11 straight batters and put up five scoreless innings in a row, giving Stanford more than enough time to mount a response.

A leadoff double by junior centerfielder Jake Stewart got things going in the first, before Piscotty got the Cardinal on the board with a single off the glove of sophomore lefty Matt Maurer.

A Ragira double with two on in the third made it 4-2, and Wilson nearly tied it on a line drive just foul of the leftfield line.

Blandino flew out to the warning track to bring home Stanford’s third run in the same inning, but with two on and two out, third baseman Austin Davidson made an acrobatic catch in foul ground, in the same place that Blandino had dropped one earlier, to end the frame and preserve Pepperdine’s lead.

Just an inning later, Stanford would complete the comeback — and on top of that, do some more damage. Wilson singled with the bases loaded to grab a 5-4 lead for his team, bringing Blandino to the plate with two on and two outs. The freshman blasted a 1-0 pitch over the leftfield wall to give the Cardinal a four-run advantage, its first comfortable lead over the Waves all weekend.

Pepperdine wasn’t done, however, and four straight hits in the top of the seventh spelled three Waves runs and the end of Piscotty’s night.

Junior righty Sahil Bloom cleaned things up and got through an uneventful eighth before leadoff hitter Zach Vincej came to the plate to start the ninth. With the count at 2-2 and the Cardinal’s lead at 8-7, the junior shortstop hit a high fly ball down the leftfield line that cleared the fences, but just a few feet foul.

“It started to hook [foul] a little bit, and then it kind of went straight,” said Blandino, who had perhaps the best view of anyone from third base. “I knew it was going to be foul, but I definitely held my breath there for a couple of seconds.”

Vincej would eventually ground out to second, and three batters later Stanford was headed to a Super Regional.

The Cardinal will travel to Tallahassee, Fla. to face No. 3 Florida State, which also swept its home regional. The series kicks off Friday night at 4 p.m. PDT and continues Saturday at 3 p.m., with the fourth game to be played at 4 p.m. if necessary. All the action will be televised on ESPN2.

 

About Joseph Beyda

Joseph Beyda is the executive editor of The Stanford Daily. Previously he has worked as the football editor, a sports desk editor, the paper's summer managing editor and a beat reporter for football, baseball and women's soccer. He co-authored The Daily's recent football book, "Rags to Roses," and covered the soccer team's national title run for the New York Times. Joseph is a junior from Cupertino, Calif. majoring in Electrical Engineering. To contact him, please email jbeyda "at" stanford.edu.