A few inches can be the difference in a weekend of baseball. If freshman right-fielder Austin Wilson’s two-out eighth-inning groundball had been hit just a few inches farther left, it would have ended up in Arizona third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean’s web, and the heartbreak would have continued for Stanford.
But the ball bounced off the tip of Mejias-Brean’s glove, allowing sophomore left-fielder Tyler Gaffney to score the game-winning run all the way from second and giving No. 25 Stanford (30-19, 12-12 Pac-10) a series victory over No. 27 Arizona (33-19, 12-12 Pac-10).
The game up until Wilson’s single had been absolute torture. Other than a solo shot in the second inning, junior pitcher Jordan Pries was masterful. The righty pitched seven innings of one-run ball, allowing seven hits and striking out six. Yet the offense blew opportunity after opportunity.
“I threw a ton of changeups,” Pries said. “Normally I’m mixing everything, but today I was focusing on getting first pitch strikes and staying ahead of batters.”
Despite several hard-hit balls right at Wildcat defenders, Stanford could not deliver the key hit. The Cardinal stranded two runners in the second, and sophomore shortstop Kenny Diekroeger hit into an inning-ending double play in the fifth.
In the sixth, though, it became apparent that the baseball gods simply weren’t on Pries’ side. Senior catcher Zach Jones singled to lead off the inning, and senior designated hitter Ben Clowe sacrificed him over to second on the first of his two sacrifice bunts in the game. Gaffney then scorched a line drive up the middle that would have gone into center field and surely plated the speedy Jones. But in a cruel twist of fate, the ball ricocheted off Arizona starter Konner Wade’s thigh, forcing Jones to stop at third. One pitch later, sophomore third baseman Stephen Piscotty hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning and prolong the suffering.
“Being a junior, I’ve had plenty of outings where I haven’t had much run support,” Pries said. “You can’t really let that get to you. Whether you get the win or not, it’s not something you can control. Just have to focus on throwing another zero on the board.”
In the seventh, the Cardinal’s offensive ineptitude simply became comical. After freshman first baseman Brian Ragira and Wilson led off the inning with singles, it looked like Stanford could finally make a winner out of Pries. Once again, the Cardinal found a new way not to score. Freshman second baseman Lonnie Kauppila failed to get down a sacrifice bunt, flying out to center on a two-strike count. Ragira and Wilson did not advance, as sophomore outfielder Jake Stewart and Diekroeger flied out quietly into the sunny afternoon.
Finally in the eighth, Stanford broke through. After Jones advanced to second on another Clowe bunt, Gaffney brought him home with a single through the left side to tie the game. Two batters later, Wilson found just enough room to send the Sunken Diamond faithful home with a win.
Junior closer Chris Reed recorded the final six outs — including a perfect ninth — to preserve the victory.
Stanford took the first game of the series Friday night in another nail-biter highlighted by more dominant Cardinal pitching, this time by sophomore Mark Appel, who threw eight shutout innings and tied a career-high with nine strikeouts.
Once again, Stanford could not find a way to score until extra innings. In the bottom of the eleventh, tied 0-0, pinch hitter Brett Doran stepped to the plate with the bases loaded after a walk, a hit-by-pitch and another walk. The freshman showed no nerves, blasting a single off the left field wall for a walk-off hit.
Arizona tied the series on Saturday, taking advantage of uncharacteristically sloppy Cardinal baseball with a 7-3 victory. Wildcat starter Kyle Simon outdueled Stanford senior Danny Sandbrink, scattering eight hits over 7.1 innings and striking out four. Simon baffled Cardinal hitters with off-speed and breaking pitches throughout the game, getting into a bit of trouble in the eighth before reliever Matt Chaffee closed things out and earned the save.
Wilson and Stanford would have the last laugh, though, winning by the narrowest of margins on Sunday. Stanford closes out its regular season in the Bay Area, heading to Cal Poly on Tuesday and facing Cal for a three-game series next weekend.