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Baseball: Postseason run ends in Chapel Hill

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After blasting its way through the first round of the postseason, the Stanford baseball team’s season ended just one step short of the College World Series when it dropped two games to North Carolina in the Chapel Hill Super Regional in early June. Despite finishing short of its ultimate goal–a chance to play for a national title in 2011–the Cardinal’s run to the Supers for the first time since 2008 showed that the young, explosive team looks primed for a run to Omaha in 2012.

The Cardinal started seven (and sometimes eight) underclassmen for the majority of the 2011 season, and the prevailing question at the outset of spring was if the team could develop from a highly ranked recruiting class into a force to be reckoned with on the national scale. During the regular season, the Cardinal cruised past substandard foes but didn’t dominate against high-quality opponents en route to a fifth-place finish in the Pac-10.

Junior reliever Brian Busick, pitching above, will likely replace junior Chris Reed in the closer role next season. Reed was drafted 16th overall in the MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers. (JOHN SCHOECH/The Stanford Daily)

But by the time Stanford entered the postseason, the young Cardinal suddenly looked like a group of veterans on a mission, dominating the Fullerton regional from its spot as the No. 2 seed. Behind sophomore starter Mark Appel, who pitched a complete nine innings in the first game of the regional, Stanford bashed Kansas State 10-3 to take the opener.

The pressure racked up against Cal State Fullerton in game two of the regional, but Stanford got more excellent pitching from two juniors–Jordan Pries and Chris Reed–and critical plays from two sophomores–outfielder Tyler Gaffney and third baseman Stephen Piscotty–to slip past hometown Fullerton, 1-0.

Pries was perfect on the mound until he allowed a single to lead off the fifth inning. After a sacrifice bunt and a strikeout, Titan second baseman Greg Velazquez clubbed a shot into the outfield that looked like it would end up as an RBI double, but Gaffney made a diving catch to end the inning and keep the game tied at zero.

While replays showed that the ball bounced off the turf before ending up in Gaffney’s glove, the favorable call kept the momentum going Stanford’s way, and Piscotty crushed a fastball over the left-field fence to give the Cardinal a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the sixth inning.

Reed then came in and made sure that was the only run Stanford would need by getting the final out with a runner on third base in the eighth inning. He then pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning to close out the most intense, pressure-packed game of the season and secure his ninth (and most important) save of the year.

After grinding out the win over Fullerton, Stanford once again unleashed its offense to secure a trip to the Super Regionals, defeating Illinois 14-2 behind two home runs from senior Ben Clowe and another bomb from freshman right fielder Austin Wilson. The 14 runs were the most Stanford had scored since a 22-run performance against Washington State back on April 2.

But upon arrival in North Carolina, the heat, humidity and postseason pressure (as well as outstanding Tar Heel pitching) ended Stanford’s season.

In the first game of the best-of-three series, Stanford could hardly muster any offense off Tar Heel senior Patrick Johnson, who struck out seven and only allowed one run in 7.2 innings. After an early UNC run, Stanford looked like it was in position to finally break Johnson in the top of the seventh when senior Dave Giuliani almost knotted the game up with a shot to the warning track that was chased down at the last moment by centerfielder Ben Bunting, but the Tar Heels swung the momentum in their favor with a two-run home run in the bottom half of the seventh to knock Stanford starter Appel out of the game.

The Cardinal answered right back with two runs in the top of the eighth on an infield single from freshman Brian Ragira, but the bullpen promptly gave up two runs in the bottom half of the inning to seal Stanford’s fate in game one, a 5-2 loss that left the Cardinal in a do-or-die position.

Pries got the call to try and square the series up at one game apiece, but the junior never quite found command of the strike zone and gave up three runs early on before he was bounced from the game in the fourth inning with Stanford trailing 3-1.

Meanwhile, UNC freshman Kent Emanuel strode through the Cardinal lineup by only giving up one run in six innings of work, which looked like it would be more than enough to secure a victory when Stanford relievers Brian Busick and Reed–who was battling a flu-like illness–gave up three more runs in the seventh inning to extend the Carolina lead to 6-1. That was partly due to a costly throwing error from Piscotty, his third of the weekend.

But instead of whimpering through the end of the game, the Cardinal suddenly stormed back in the bottom of the eighth inning when, after an RBI from Ragira scored Gaffney, Wilson rolled a bases-loaded double all the way to the wall in left-center to score three runs and make the game 6-5. Giuliani reached on a walk after Wilson’s double, but senior catcher Zach Jones promptly grounded into his second double play of the day to end the scoring in the eighth and leave the Cardinal down one run headed to the ninth frame.

After Reed got two outs in the top of the ninth inning, the sky quickly turned dark with rain, leading to a three-and-a-half-hour delay. When play resumed, Reed came back out to the mound, but he was unable to prevent another run from scoring, making the Tar Heel lead 7-5 when the Cardinal came to bat with its season on the line.

Clowe and freshman pinch hitter Danny Diekroeger both struck out before Piscotty grounded out harmlessly to second base, sending the Tar Heels into a frenzy on the field and leaving Stanford scratching its head, looking for answers as to how it possibly could have been bounced from the postseason so unceremoniously.

Looking Ahead

All in all, the story of the 2011 season appears to be that Stanford looks like a looming giant for 2012 and beyond: the Cardinal will most likely lose just seven players from a team that had only four seniors. Reed’s breakout year prompted the Los Angeles Dodgers to take the Southern California native with the 16th pick in the MLB Draft, following in the footsteps of former Cardinal closer and current Washington National Drew Storen, who was the 10th overall pick in the 2009 draft.

In 2012, Stanford will bring back several top prospects, including Appel, who logged a team-high in innings while pitching against top-flight competition all year, as well as junior lefthander Brett Mooneyham, who missed all of 2011 after having surgery on his pitching hand. The bullpen will be a bit of a question mark with Reed moving along to the pros, but Busick looks fit to step into the closer role after returning from injury to finish out 2011 with solid numbers, including a 2.79 ERA.

On offense, the Cardinal will return the team’s top nine hitters, including Piscotty, who hit .364; Gaffney, who takes a 22-game hitting streak into 2012; Ragira, the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year; Wilson, the team’s leader in home runs; and sophomore shortstop Kenny Diekroeger, who slumped slightly this year after hitting .365 as a freshman in 2010. Defensively, the squad must find a way to replace Jones, who started every game behind the plate in 2011, but every other position player returns to the field.

Altogether, it appears that the Cardinal’s excellent postseason groomed a young, potent team to be ready for the chance to return to the College World Series, and it appears that Stanford’s goal–the one word chanted after every game–looks like it might be on the horizon, closer than ever: Omaha.