Jack Mosbacher was a member of the Stanford baseball team from 2008-2011. Each week, he’ll take a look at the Cardinal’s ups and downs on its road to the College World Series.
As No. 2 Stanford headed to Tucson this past weekend to face No. 8 Arizona, the college baseball world expected a dramatic showdown between two of the West Coast’s premier teams. Instead, after a momentum-killing, three-game sweep at the hands of the Wildcats, the Cardinal suddenly finds itself in the midst of a midseason mini-crisis.
These things sometimes happen in college baseball. With the amount of parity and talent that exists in the tough Pac-12 conference, it is commonly understood that, on any given weekend, just about any team can beat any opponent. Furthermore, Arizona is no pushover. The Wildcats have been one of the country’s most talented and accomplished teams so far this season, and the Cardinal knew that it would have to bring its A-game in order to leave the desert with a series victory.
So, what was most shocking about this weekend’s series was not that the Cardinal was swept, but rather how the Cardinal was swept.
There’s no nice way to put this: Stanford played an ugly brand of baseball, both at the plate and on the field. On the weekend, the Stanford offense tallied 24 strikeouts while the defense committed six costly errors, which largely accounted for the losses on Friday and Saturday. Strikeouts and sloppy defense are rarely on the resumes of teams that make it to the College World Series. The Cardinal committed strikeouts and errors in bunches this weekend, and it resulted in an ugly sweep at the hands of the first team Stanford has played that is likely good enough to make it to Omaha in July.
This Stanford team is overloaded with talent. This road trip raised the interesting question: Will they have the heart and soul to match?
When all is said and done, I wouldn’t be surprised if this past weekend marked a turning point in the season. The college baseball world was watching the Arizona-Stanford series expectantly, hoping to see whether or not Stanford was the real deal. Frankly, the Cardinal was embarrassed, and on a national stage. Seeing how the team reacts to this embarrassment will dictate the rest of the season.
If I’m correct, there are two ways the season can go from here: either Stanford uses this past weekend as fuel for its tank and remember that trotting out a stellar lineup doesn’t necessarily translate to victories, or the team will spend too much time licking its wounds and ultimately refuse to face the fact that they need to make some serious midseason adjustments in order to be a championship-caliber team.
In this moment of adversity, leadership is what the Card needs the most. Stanford’s lineup is filled with players who have played nearly every game since arriving on the Farm as freshmen, and this trial will tell us whether these players have matured into the type of leaders required on top-notch ball clubs. Someone needs to stand up and make it clear that this team expects its hitters to be tougher in two-strike counts than in three-one counts and that, while errors are a part of the game, this team will be making a new commitment to becoming the most fundamentally sound defensive squad in the game.
Someone else needs to stand up and remind the pitching staff that the Cardinal fears nobody, that they are confident enough to go right after hitters, get ahead in counts and throw any pitch in any situation. Someone needs to say these things, and they’d better do it fast.
There are clear messages that need to be sent. The question is, does the team have the messengers? Although Stanford doesn’t have an official team captain, juniors Stephen Piscotty and Mark Appel are the unspoken leaders of the offense and defense, respectively.
The outcome of the last two-thirds of this season will reflect their ability to rally the troops and communicate what is to be expected when the Cardinal hits the field, which is a lot of pressure to put on the duo. At the same time, their ability to lead is contingent on the team’s ability to buy into a shared message, and their willingness to use adversity as a reason to come together rather than to break apart.