By Joseph Beyda
The top-ranked Stanford baseball team opens a series at Fresno State tonight in what will be a weekend of firsts for the 8-0 Cardinal.
This is the squad’s first three-game set on the road after losing five of its eight away series a year ago. This is the first time this year that Stanford has stability in its pitching rotation following the emergence of freshman Sunday starter John Hochstatter. And it’s also the first time the Cardinal can call itself the No. 1 team in the country in eight years, ending Stanford’s longest sojourn from the top of the national rankings since longtime head coach Mark Marquess’ first days at the helm of the program in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
The Cardinal earned that ranking by throwing off preseason top-15 teams Vanderbilt and Texas without much difficulty, sweeping those two squads by a combined score of 62-18. But even though this weekend’s opponent, the Bulldogs (3-5), might not be as highly touted, Stanford can’t afford to take the weekend off.
“We’ll bring the same intensity,” Marquess said. “[The players] know that it doesn’t make any difference whom you’re playing if you don’t play well. Pacific hadn’t won a game yet and they almost had us beat over there. If you don’t play well, you get beat.”
The Cardinal’s closest call this season was a 9-7 extra-innings win over Pacific on Feb. 21 in the team’s only road game at that point. Avoiding a similar lapse is a priority heading into this weekend’s trip to Fresno.
“Our motto this year has been that we’re going to outwork every team in the country, and I think we’ve just got to keep that mentality going into Fresno,” junior centerfielder Jake Stewart said. “They’re going to be tough, and especially playing them down there, we’ve got to be sure that we go down there and play our best every day, and not let one get by us.”
Fresno State fell flat in its last game, a 7-1 home loss to UC-Santa Barbara, while the Cardinal won its Tuesday game against UC-Davis 5-1 thanks to two hits and a leadoff home run from Stewart, his second dinger of the season.
Stanford holds a 77-44 advantage in the all-time series with the Bulldogs, though it has not met Fresno State in five years. When the Cardinal hosted the Bulldogs in 2007, weather limited the series to two games and Stanford earned the partial sweep.
For the squad to take all three contests this weekend and return back to the Farm with an 11-0 record on Sunday, it’s going to have to go through a pair of Bulldog starters who have rarely faltered this season. Don’t be fooled by the 1-1 records of lefthanders Thomas Harlan and Tyler Linehan; their respective 0.71 and 0.59 ERAs are clearly going to be a test for Stanford’s loaded lineup.
Even with offensive explosions, such as an eight-run inning in the series finale against Vanderbilt and a 13-run frame last Sunday against Texas, the Cardinal is looking to add a degree of consistency to all areas of its game with the season still in its early stages.
“We have guys who aren’t hitting like they would like right now, and I think that it’s only a matter of time before those guys start to, and we have all the confidence in the world in those guys,” Stewart said. “The schedule we’ve played has helped us because we came here to play the best, and playing these good teams is really setting us up well.”
This series can also be a proving ground for Stanford’s pitching staff, which seems to have answered questions about the Sunday starter and closer spots, with freshmen Hochstatter and David Schmidt stepping into those roles. Behind feared juniors Brett Mooneyham and Mark Appel—who was named the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week after striking out 10 batters and giving up one run in seven innings last Friday—Hochstatter’s challenge will be to keep up his 0.71 ERA and .116 opponents’ batting average pitching in a hostile environment for the first time.
Fresno State’s lineup averaged over eight runs per contest in its four-game opening series with Butler, but its production has fallen off considerably since then, putting up just 11 runs in five games and being shut out twice. By comparison, the Cardinal has scored 40 times in its last five contests, and seven of Stanford’s nine regular starters have at least six RBIs—the tally for the Bulldogs’ team leaders, freshman rightfielder Jordan Luplow and senior second baseman Patrick Hutcheson—on the season.
The difficulty of Stanford’s conference schedule makes this weekend seem that much more important, with six Pac-12 schools already climbing into the rankings at some point this season. And even though the Cardinal seems to have created some separation for itself at the top of the conference with its early play, Stanford still has work to do before conference play begins.
“We’ve played well, we’ve scored a lot of runs and we’ve got some timely hitting,” Marquess said. “We’re really swinging the bats well. But we’ve still got to go to Fresno, play a tough Fresno State team there, and play [No. 4] Rice. So we’ll still be tested some more. We’re still finding things out.”
The series kicks off tonight at 6 p.m. in Fresno, with the Saturday start set for 6 p.m. and the Sunday matchup slated for 1 p.m.
Listen to extended interviews of Marquess and Stewart here: