It all began with Arizona.
Last March, Stanford baseball traveled to Tucson as the No. 2 team in the country but the No. 8 Wildcats tore the Cardinal apart in a three-game sweep. Arizona went on to become the conference co-champion en route to its fourth national title. Stanford, on the other hand, finished in a tie for fourth in the Pac-12 and couldn’t make it to Omaha.
So even though this year’s showdown between the No. 21 Wildcats (24-12, 8-7 Pac-12) and No. 17 Cardinal (20-11, 7-5 Pac-12) isn’t being billed as a showdown of West Coast heavyweights, it still could shake up the Pac-12 standing—and has the chance to, once again, throw the loser’s season off course.
“It stung…they kind of embarrassed us last year,” said junior right-hander A.J. Vanegas. “We’re pretty pumped up as a team to have them come in here and play us and hopefully get a shot at revenge.”
The Cardinal is three games behind conference-leading No. 5 Oregon State, with the Wildcats a game and a half behind their host this weekend. Stanford is coming off three straight 2-1 series victories, which is something the team hangs its hat on even though those triumphs have come against Pac-12 bottom-feeders Washington State, USC and Washington.
“We keep telling ourselves that college baseball is all about winning series,” said redshirt sophomore catcher Brant Whiting. “We have played the four worst teams in the conference so far, but I think our past couple of games we’ve played our best baseball, as far as our offense and our pitching clicking at the same time.”
Vanegas and Whiting have been two of the biggest parts of that improvement, even though neither one was expected to factor in very much a couple of months ago. Vanegas injured his back before the season, while Whiting was coming off an injury-plagued year that saw him relegated to bullpen duty.
But Whiting took over for struggling sophomore Wayne Taylor behind the dish and has kept up his hot streak ever since, now leading all Cardinal hitters with a .418 average. He is just three RBI short of the team lead, even with 30 fewer at-bats than his fellow starters, and enters the weekend having recorded two hits in each of Stanford’s last three games.
Vanegas, on the other hand, has provided solid relief work for the last month while mentoring a host of young Cardinal hurlers. Freshmen Bobby Zarubin, Logan James and Marcus Brakeman started 2013 with several dominant outings but have fallen off significantly since the start of conference play.
“A lot of people don’t see what we think out there as pitchers, but especially [when we’re] young, we sort of don’t know how long the season is,” Vanegas said. “Once we experience failure, it’s like you start panicking, you try to change yourself. We don’t realize that it’s a long season. We start getting in our heads a little bit.
“As an older guy, it’s sort of our responsibility to keep reminding them that it happens, it’s baseball, it’s a long season. It’s our job to just keep on reminding them to keep trusting the process, and hopefully the results will show.”
After senior ace Mark Appel (6-2) on Friday, Stanford is expected to start righty Dean McArdle (2-1) on Saturday and lefty John Hochstatter (2-1) on Sunday. Hochstatter is coming off a complete-game win against Washington a week ago.
Offensively, the Cardinal will look to get some of its slumbering bats going against a Wildcat pitching staff that has yet to give up double-digit runs this season. In particular, Stanford hasn’t gotten the contributions it expected in 2013 from veterans Brian Ragira (.270), Lonnie Kauppila (.229) and sophomore Alex Blandino (.238), who broke onto the scene as a freshman before falling back so far this year. Ragira and Blandino combined for five RBI in the Cardinal’s 9-2 win against Pacific on Tuesday.
Ragira also had three hits and three runs in the team’s win last Sunday, which marked the Cardinal’s first victory in a series finale since March 3.
“When you win the first two and you lose the Sunday game, you won the series, but you’re still kind of dissatisfied after the series,” Vanegas said. “So it’s kind of a good motivation tool I’d say.”
Stanford will have its hands full this weekend, however, as the Wildcats’ third starter, sophomore lefty Tyler Crawford (4-1, 2.56 ERA) has arguably had more success than any other Arizona pitcher this season. That’s saying something, given that the Wildcats will also send out to the mound a pair of juniors who have combined for 62 starts over their Arizona careers.
It’s a sign of things to come for the Cardinal, which now enters one of the toughest stretch runs in recent memory. Five of the team’s last six series are against ranked conference opponents.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for this part of the schedule,” Vanegas said. “We feel like everything’s sort of been building up to here.”
Appel takes the mound tonight at 7 p.m., with 2-p.m. matinees at the Sunken Diamond on Saturday and Sunday.
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.