Thud. That’s perhaps the only way to describe how the Stanford baseball team ended its season.
The Cardinal got beat by a No. 3 Florida State team that flat-out deserved its national seed. But 17-1? 18-7? What a way to go, especially when a Mark Marquess-coached team hadn’t lost by 10 or more runs once—much less twice—since April 2009.
Stanford’s bats fell silent for 10 straight innings and 21 Cardinal runners were stranded over the course of the Super Regional, but you can’t reasonably expect a team to come back from the kinds of deficits the squad faced in Tallahassee. This one was on the pitchers.
The humidity and raucous crowd surely played their part, but above all, the Seminoles brought out weaknesses in Stanford’s pitching staff that had been lurking all season long—the same weaknesses that led to a fourth-place finish in the Pac-12 and kept the Cardinal from hosting a Super Regional of its own.
The unexpected disappointment of the weekend was ace righty Mark Appel. By the time he escaped a seven-run fourth inning on June 8, the Super Regional opener was, for all intents and purposes, over.
But can you really blame Appel, who still finished with a 10-2 record and a 3.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio, for a lost season?
I’m not one to target the guy that Marquess had faith in all year long. That faith, however, kept Appel in the fateful fourth inning through four hits, three walks, a hit batter and a wild pitch. Why didn’t Marquess yank Appel when he was clearly off his game?
It wasn’t the first time that Appel was on a surprisingly long leash—he threw 149 pitches in a Friday-night start against Oregon—but that inning revealed just how little Marquess had going for him in the bullpen. Freshman lefties John Hochstatter and Spenser Linney struggled for much of the season, while rookie righty David Schmidt just wasn’t ready for the full-time closer role. Redshirt sophomore Garrett Hughes and junior Sahil Bloom had some impressive outings, but both went flat in the Super Regional, combining for six earned runs and only four outs.
The loss of senior righthander Brian Busick, who posted a 2.79 ERA in 2011 despite the elbow injury that would eventually limit him to two innings this season, seems pretty significant in hindsight, considering that only one Cardinal reliever posted a better ERA this season.
And that reliever, sophomore righty A.J. Vanegas (2.62), probably should have been a starter in the first place.
After Hochstatter lost the Sunday job, Vanegas started in the series finales against Washington and Oregon, giving up just two earned runs in 11.2 innings. Stanford won both games.
Then Marquess began experimenting with Hochstatter and Bloom on Sundays—admittedly with some success—before settling on traditional third baseman Stephen Piscotty as Stanford’s final starter.
Purely in terms of pitching, the move made sense. Piscotty had gutted out some tough wins in long relief and deserved a shot at the starting job, where he excelled, winning all four games. It seemed that Stanford’s best slugger would be its saving grace on the mound.
That added responsibility, however, took its toll on Piscotty’s hitting numbers. As a pure fielder he started his season on a tear, hitting .334 with 24 RBI in the team’s first 18 games. In games 19 through 45—when Piscotty came out of the pen—he actually hit .355, with his run production dropping down to a more human one RBI per game. But in the 15 games between Piscotty’s first start on May 12 and the end of the season, he went a pedestrian 17-for-62 (.274) with a measly six RBI.
Marquess really had no other choice but to start Piscotty; he needed Vanegas in the bullpen, where the sophomore shined in the second game of the regional. Still, Stanford could’ve used Piscotty’s missing offense in a series loss to Cal (2-for-17) and two close regional games against Pepperdine (2-for-8).
Meanwhile, the Cardinal’s second starter, lefty Brett Mooneyham, had a tough redshirt junior season. A 5-0 start gave way to a two-month winless streak between March 26 and May 13, and two dominant showings against Washington State and Utah gave way to three outings that didn’t last into the fifth inning.
If the bullpen and Mooneyham had each earned Stanford two more conference victories (see one-run defeats in series losses to Arizona, Oregon State and Cal), it would have won the Pac-12 with two games to spare and hosted a Super Regional. With those arms going you’ve got to think the Cardinal would have made it to Omaha, or, at least, contended on its home field in going out.
So here we are in the first week of July, already almost a month removed from Stanford baseball, looking back at another potential championship season thrown away.
Emphasis on the “thrown.”
Joseph Beyda has been practicing his unhittable knuckleball in the hopes of making the team next season. He’ll put R.A. Dickey to shame. Give him your support at firstname.lastname@example.org.