For the first time in three years, the last month of Stanford baseball’s season won’t be about fighting for a conference title or the right to host a Super Regional.
This time around, it’s about making the postseason.
The No. 25 Cardinal (24-15, 9-9 Pac-12) is at risk of missing out on a regional berth for the first time since 2009 and just the third time in the last 20 years. After being swept at No. 7 Oregon last weekend, Stanford’s RPI (No. 97) has sunken low enough that some predict that the Cardinal must win all four of its remaining series — including tilts with No. 16 Arizona State, No. 5 Oregon State and No. 11 UCLA — to just make it to the postseason.
Stanford will try to begin filling that tall order tonight in Tempe, where it faces a Sun Devil (29-12-1, 11-7) team that hits as well as any in the conference and has won seven of eight games coming into the weekend.
The Cardinal has shown it can get hot when it needs to. After starting the season 11-8, it rattled off four straight conference series wins against Pac-12 bottom-feeders to put itself back in NCAA Tournament contention.
But the four teams left for Stanford to play are a whole different level of competition, as Oregon conclusively demonstrated in Eugene last weekend.
The Cardinal was competitive in all three losses—by the scores of 2-1, 6-4 and 4-3—but good teams find a way to win close games, and the Ducks were clearly the better team on their home field.
“I think the thing that hurt us most was our defense this past weekend,” said junior catcher Brant Whiting. “We had a couple key errors in key situations, especially that Friday game, and we’re just going to try and go into this weekend and play good defense, keep pitching the way we’re pitching.”
Oregon’s small-ball, however, couldn’t be more different from the slugging Sun Devils’ approach at the plate. Arizona State leads the Pac-12 in home runs (29), slugging percentage (.450) and doubles (93) and ranks second in scoring with 6.3 runs per game. Maybe that will play right into the hands of the Cardinal, which upset the Pac-12’s top scoring team, Arizona, at home two weeks ago before falling short against the less-flashy Ducks.
The Sun Devils have a penchant for extra-base hitting. Local product Trever Allen is tied for third in the conference with seven home runs (behind Stanford’s Brian Ragira, who is second with eight) and Arizona State ranks in the top 20 in Division I in both doubles and triples.
If anyone can put a stop to that, it’s senior Mark Appel, who has made a case once again this season to be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming MLB draft. But will Appel have any defense behind him? Only 13 of the 22 runs he has allowed this season have been earned, and those other nine tallies have accounted for a large part of his 7-3 record—great for most starters, but a bit pedestrian for the ace after his 10-2 mark last season.
With sophomore John Hochstatter (3-1) back from a four-game suspension, the Cardinal will have at least two game-tested starters ready for the weekend. But should either of them falter, the fate of the series could very well rest on the right arm of freshman Daniel Starwalt, who impressed in his first career start last weekend by giving up just three hits in 5.1 innings.
For Stanford at the plate, it will be all about getting the ball in play against an Arizona State team that is one of the few in the conference with a worse fielding percentage (.962) than the Cardinal (.969). That will especially be a challenge on Saturday, when Stanford squares off against one of only four 10-game winners in college baseball, freshman lefty phenom Ryan Kellogg (10-0).
Tonight’s series opener begins at 7 p.m. and will be televised on ESPNU, which also covered the Cardinal’s walk-off loss at Oregon last Sunday. After an unusual Saturday evening start at 6:30 p.m., the three-game set concludes on Sunday at 12:30 p.m.
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.