If you were to take a quick glance at Stanford baseball’s nonconference schedule before the season started, the trio of early home series against highly ranked teams would catch your eye instantly. This weekend’s three-game set at Fresno State would pale in comparison with the preseason No. 2 Cardinal’s matchups with then-No. 12 Vanderbilt, No. 5 Texas and No. 7 Rice.
A lot of things have changed in the last two weeks, not the least of which is Stanford’s 8-0 surge to claim the No. 1 spot in this week’s coaches’ poll. And even though the Cardinal’s weekend sweeps of the Commodores and Longhorns look less impressive now that those two squads have both fallen well below .500, there hasn’t been much of an answer for Stanford’s high-octane offense and stellar pitching in the early going.
But as the Cardinal prepares to head out on its first major road trip of the season for a three-game stint in Fresno, I’d be surprised if the team escapes the weekend with its perfect record still intact. Stanford was a dominant 18-7 playing on the Farm last season–that’s equivalent to taking two of three over the weekend as well as the midweek game–but a mediocre 15-15 on the road. The squad’s one sweep last year was at home, although it was in position do the same at Cal to close the regular season before the third game was called due to rain.
This Cardinal team sure looks a lot better than last year’s in every area. Its bats have been on fire since opening day. Its defense has made less than half as many errors as opposing squads. Its top two starting pitchers are allowing a hit just every other inning, and talented freshman John Hochstatter has looked like a veteran in the Sunday slot. And, of course, a lineup that consisted almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores last season is now full of experienced sophomores and juniors with a Super Regional run behind them.
Yet will any of that translate to the road, where Stanford struggled to pull out a 9-7 win in extra innings over unranked Pacific last Tuesday?
With that question in mind, this weekend’s series is probably the most important for Cardinal baseball, at least before the squad heads to Arizona to face the projected Pac-12 runners-up Wildcats in a month’s time. In the long run, it’s more important than either next week’s showdown with No. 4 Rice or Stanford’s two dominant series wins over Vanderbilt and Texas.
The reason is simple: Sunken Diamond isn’t in Omaha.
If the Cardinal meets its preseason expectations it will host a regional, and if it keeps playing the way it has to open the season, it could host a Super Regional as well. But no matter what, the Cardinal is going to have to leave the Stanford bubble, stay in a hotel and remain competitive in a foreign ballpark if it wants to compete for the national title.
A weekend series at Fresno State might not compare to the grueling 12-day marathon that is the College World Series. A 170-mile bus ride to the Central Valley isn’t the same as a 1,700-mile plane flight to the central United States. And the Bulldogs–who received the 34th most votes in this week’s coaches’ poll–aren’t exactly the type of team you expect to be playing in late June.
But home success can only take you so far, and this weekend Stanford has its only chance to establish itself as a road warrior before the highly competitive Pac-12 season gets into full swing. After taking two of three from Rice in Houston to open the 2011 season, the Cardinal lost five of its next seven road games. It can’t afford to let that happen again, with projected 2-4-5 Pac-12 finishers Arizona, UCLA and Oregon State hosting Stanford later this season.
So even though the Cardinal is off to an impressive start, it can’t afford any letdown at Fresno State. There’s more than the squad’s No. 1 ranking or perfect record at stake. Stanford has an opportunity to prove to itself and the rest of college baseball that it can dominate on any diamond in the country, and that’s an opportunity the Cardinal can’t let slip through its fingers.
Joseph Beyda hopes that the Stanford baseball team fares better on the road than the Stanford men’s basketball team did at Utah last weekend. Calm his nerves at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu.