It’s been a pretty interesting season for the Cardinal baseball team so far. Despite a largely anemic offense, Stanford has been able to collect victories due to its rock-solid pitching staff, with the hitting and defense usually doing just enough to come out on top.
“Just enough” this season has been rather unconventional, however, as the boys from The Farm have benefited from an extra-inning walk-off, a triple play, and the ability to score four runs on only two hits, among many other things, to secure wins. Stanford (14-9, 4-3 Pac-12) will travel to Southern California over the weekend to face the USC Trojans (11-17, 4-5 Pac-12) and hope to win all-important conference games, regardless of how it happens.
In Friday night’s opener, the Cardinal knows exactly what to expect. Just like it has for the first game of every weekend series this season, Stanford will turn to its proven workhorse, star senior Mark Appel, to start the series off on the right foot.
In his final season wearing Cardinal red, the big righty has given Stanford every reason to have faith in his arm. Appel still has yet to give up more than two earned runs in any of his six starts, is averaging more than a strikeout per inning pitched, has fanned eight times as many hitters as he has walked and has pitched two complete-game shutouts to boot.
Although the performance from the bullpen has tailed off a bit since its lights-out beginning of the season, the rest of the pitching staff has also more than held its own. Boasting a team ERA of 2.54 with a batting-average-against of only .223, the Stanford pitching corps behind Appel has bailed out the offense on numerous occasions.
Freshman Bobby Zarubin, who was given the game-two starting nod in the Card’s last series against Washington State, has been a welcome addition to the pitching staff. Despite pitching in his first season of college-level ball, the righty from San Diego has dominated opposing hitters to the tune of a 1.78 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 30-plus innings.
The offense remains the question mark, however, and the inability of the Stanford hitters to consistently produce runs is holding the Cardinal back from being among the elite upper echelon of teams in the country.
The team owns a meager 2-7 record in games in which it has scored two or fewer runs, as compared to a 12-2 record in games in which it has plated three or more runners. The message is clear: run support is an enormous issue.
In seven of its nine losses, the lineup was unable to produce more than two runs. Combined with the fact that the team has only been blown out once this season in a 12-2 drubbing at the hands of UNLV, it is clear that with increased offensive production, those close losses would become less frequent.
In the heart of the lineup is rapidly emerging sophomore Austin Slater, who is making things happen with his bat. After only appearing in seven games last year, he earned playing time at the beginning of the season due to the injury to star outfielder Austin Wilson. Slater certainly made the most of his opportunity, quickly developing into one of the team’s best hitters. The results speak for themselves.
Slater’s .321 average is the best among the starters. His 13 runs scored, 26 hits, 6 doubles, 2 home runs and 14 RBI are tops on the team. The team is 7-2 in games in which he has recorded an RBI. Stanford’s offense will have to emerge as the season progresses, and Slater will be a huge part of that moving forward.
After a 9-3 start to the season, the Trojans have dropped off dramatically as of late, as they have lost 11 of their last 14 games. Unlike the Cardinal, an unreliable pitching staff has been the Achilles heel for the Men of Troy. The Trojan staff has a collective ERA of 4.89, providing the Stanford offense with a great opportunity to bounce back and use a solid series to propel itself moving forward.
Stanford, the winner of three of its last four games, will rely on its solid pitching and hope that the offense comes to life against a struggling USC pitching staff in order to claim victories over the weekend. First pitch on Friday night is at 6 p.m.