What a difference a week can make.
Last Friday, few people thought that the Stanford baseball team had a shot at making the postseason. But after sweeping archrival Cal and dominating Pacific 11-2 on Tuesday, the Cardinal may be just a series win away from clinching a regional berth as it hosts No. 11 UCLA at Sunken Diamond this weekend.
Over the last three seasons, the NCAA Tournament selection committee has chosen 19 Pac-10/12 teams, an average of more than six per year. Despite its struggles this season, Stanford (30-21, 14-13) is currently in fifth place in the conference, one game ahead of Washington—a team with such a poor overall record (22-31) that it is unlikely to make the postseason regardless of its Pac-12 finish—and two games ahead of defending national champion Arizona (31-21, 12-15). So if the Cardinal can win two games against the Bruins (38-15, 20-7), it would be guaranteed at least a fifth-place finish, with the possibility of passing Arizona State (34-18-1, 15-12) and sneaking into fourth.
“If we play three good baseball games with pitchers throwing strikes, our defense playing well behind them, our bats competing at the plate and putting a few good at-bats together,” sophomore Alex Blandino said, “I think we have a good chance of completing that goal.”
To do that, Stanford’s bats will have to stay hot from its last four games against a UCLA squad that boasts one of the best pitching staffs in the Pac-12—and the country. The Bruins’ 2.76 team ERA is 17th in Division-I baseball and third in the conference behind Oregon and Oregon State, two teams that went a combined 6-0 against Stanford this season.
UCLA’s three-man rotation of junior righties Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig and sophomore lefty Grant Watson was dominant in its sweep of archrival USC last weekend. With saves in all three games—plus a fourth in the Bruins’ midweek win against UC-Santa Barbara—sophomore righty David Berg also set UCLA’s single-season saves record with 17. Berg’s 0.58 ERA in 39 appearances is the lowest in college baseball.
The Cardinal will counter with a much more front-heavy rotation when senior ace Mark Appel takes the mound tonight in his last start at Sunken Diamond. He needs just one strikeout to set Stanford’s career record, which he tied last week with his 363rd in Berkeley.
Appel (8-4), however, is coming off two uncharacteristic outings in which he allowed a combined nine earned runs in 12 innings of work. That’s an unwelcome sign for Cardinal fans who remember the way his junior year ended, a seven-run shelling at Florida State in the Super Regional, and a strong outing tonight would not only end Appel’s 2013 season on a better note but potentially extend his senior campaign as well.
“Mark’s one of the most unbelievable pitchers I’ve ever played behind, if not the best pitcher I’ve ever played for,” Blandino said. “We’re going to be back there rooting for him, and I think we have full confidence that he’s going to give us a great start on Friday.”
Head coach Mark Marquess will likely turn to sophomore John Hochstatter on Saturday and freshman Bobby Zarubin on Sunday, but the Cardinal’s rotation has been unstable all season long.
Neither team is particularly imposing at the plate—the Bruins’ .253 team batting average is the worst in the Pac-12, with none of UCLA’s regular starters hitting above .300—but Stanford has put on a late onslaught. Over its four-game winning streak, the Cardinal has averaged 13 hits per game, with juniors Lonnie Kauppila, Brian Ragira and Danny Diekroeger recording hits in all four contests.
Appel goes for the strikeout record tonight at 7 p.m., followed by a rare Saturday night game, also at 7 p.m. The Cardinal’s regular season concludes at 3 p.m. on Sunday.
The NCAA Tournament participants will be announced on Monday at 9 a.m. PDT.
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.