Returns have been mixed for the No. 15 Stanford baseball team this season. The unexpected dominance of the Cardinal’s young pitching staff, which has allowed a mere seven earned runs in four games, has more or less counteracted the slumbering bats in its seasoned lineup, which have managed just six extra-base hits.
But in a rematch of one of the highest-scoring series Stanford played in last season—the teams combined for 38 runs in three games—look for both of those trends to regress to the mean as Fresno State (1-2) visits Sunken Diamond this weekend.
Though the Cardinal (2-2) will be without junior slugger Austin Wilson for at least a few more weeks because of an elbow strain, its lineup is just too powerful to stay silent for very much longer. Stanford still lacks a home run—it had five through the first four games in 2012—and cleanup hitter Alex Blandino is only 2-for-12 on the young season.
Those numbers have a lot to do with Rice’s pitching on opening weekend. The Cardinal struggled against the Owls’ breaking balls while plating just four runners in the series loss.
“They attacked us very well and had really good breaking balls, and early in the year we hadn’t seen that,” said head coach Mark Marquess. “I wish we would’ve won a couple more games, but it was good [for us].”
Stanford’s early growth was evident in Wednesday’s win against Cal. The Cardinal jumped out to a 2-0 lead with five productive at-bats—four singles and a sac bunt—to lead off the game, and though Stanford batters only had three more hits on the evening, their patience at the plate yielded four walks and four hit-by-pitches.
The squad’s best hitter to this point, junior second baseman Danny Diekroeger, kept up his consistent production and came around to score twice, but a new face led the charge against the Bears. Sophomore designated hitter Austin Slater registered the first two hits of his career and knocked in a run, signaling at least a short-term solution in the order as former designated hitter Justin Ringo takes over outfielding duties in place of other struggling hitters.
“I waited a while to get my chance and finally got it,” Slater said of his first hit. “It felt good.”
Stanford’s pitching success has also come from unexpected sources. Freshmen relievers Bobby Zarubin, Daniel Starwalt and Marcus Brakeman have allowed no earned runs and only seven hits in 10 combined innings of work, though their classmate, lefty Logan James, allowed all three Rice runs in the Cardinal’s loss on Sunday. Solid outings by sophomores John Hochstatter and David Schmidt are also encouraging, but both of those hurlers started strong in 2012 before tailing off by season’s end.
Senior Mark Appel will be looking to shake off his uncharacteristic loss in Houston. Though Appel only gave up two earned runs, Stanford will need its star righty to last longer than the five innings he got through in his hometown if it expects to have any success in the long run this season.
Of course, Appel’s only loss of the 2012 regular season—and the first defeat of last season for the top-ranked Card—came against the very same Fresno State team that will be in town this weekend.
The Bulldogs are led on offense by a duo that accounted for three hits and four RBI against Appel a season ago. Veterans Aaron Judge and Austin Wynns each earned preseason All-America selections, and both homered in Fresno State’s series against UC-Santa Barbara last weekend.
Against those sluggers, snagging a quick lead will be bigger than ever for the Cardinal.
“Anytime the bats come around and we open up an early lead, that’s big for the pitching staff,” Schmidt said. “It just lets us go out there, relax and make pitches. You want to do it for your teammates. When they’re putting runs up on the board, you know, you realize you’ve got to pull your weight, so it kind of motivates us.”
Stanford failed to score quickly when these two teams met in last year’s Regionals but prevailed 9-1 regardless behind 11 strikeouts from Appel and hits from eight of nine spots in the order.
The Cardinal has a chance to get that same top-to-bottom production this weekend against a young Bulldog rotation. Fresno State started two sophomores and a freshman on the bump last week, and despite those pitchers’ decent success—14 hits in 17 innings—facing Stanford’s talented hitters will be another challenge entirely.
Tonight’s series opener is at 5:30 p.m. at Sunken Diamond, with 1 p.m. matchups following on Saturday and Sunday.
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.