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.
For a few sweet hours on Monday night, things appeared to be back to normal. In a 19-6 shellacking in Berkeley against the California Golden Bears, the No. 6 Stanford men’s baseball team returned to its early season form, scoring runs in bunches and making a mockery of opposing pitching.
The previous weekend, however, this same Stanford squad barely pulled out a series victory over unranked Washington to inch one game closer to .500 in Pac-12 play. Indeed, since conference competition began, Stanford’s highly touted offense has been largely silent. Will last night’s breakout mark a return to offensive dominance or prove an aberration in a brutal long-term slump?
In the lead-up to the season, pundits around the country considered Stanford’s offensive lineup one of the most talented in college baseball. In the early season, Stanford’s bats didn’t disappoint, displaying power and poise from the top of the lineup to the bottom. Based on the Cardinal’s brilliant performance at the plate to start the year, it was hard to imagine the team losing more than 10 games this season.
Stanford started the year by lighting up the then-No. 5 Rice pitching staff like the Fourth of July after also dominating perennial powerhouses Vanderbilt, Texas and Fresno State. It wasn’t just that the Cardinal could mash; it seemed that every game, a new part of the lineup was out-producing the others. It was a lineup with no obvious weaknesses and eight or nine obvious strengths.
However, since Pac-12 play began, the Cardinal bats have gone cold. This past weekend, as Stanford barely stole two of three against a marginal conference opponent, the Card continued to struggle to put runs on the board. Since conference play began, this has been a vastly less intimidating incarnation of a team that won four convincing series to open the season.
Let’s consider the statistics for moment. Stanford has started the Pac-12 season hitting just .250 as a team and is trailing its opponents in nearly every relevant offensive category. They have struck out 52 times in just nine conference games and mustered a measly team on-base percentage of just .291.
In short, the offense has more than struggled; since league play began, it’s been straight-up bad. Pardon the tacky metaphor, but this slump hasn’t just hit a few branches of the Stanford baseball tree–it has started at the roots and spread through the entire organism. This offensive nosedive is almost entirely responsible for Stanford’s underwhelming 4-5 conference record.
Now, hitting consistently in the Pac-12 is difficult for a variety of reasons. First, the Pac-12 is one of the country’s most talented conferences, arguably only surpassed by the brutal SEC. Second, the Pac-12’s strength has historically been its pitching. Since 2006, a whopping 11 Pac-12 pitchers have been selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft. Put simply, hitting in the Pac-12 is harder than hitting just about anywhere.
More importantly, this Stanford team is in a portion of the season that begs for underperformance, particularly at the plate. After playing four high profile series against some of the country’s best programs, the Stanford players took 10 days off from competition to complete their final exams. Although 10 days might not sound like a long time, for a hitter, 10 days off is an eternity. The Cardinal has obviously lost its early-season rhythm and swagger at the plate and is struggling mightily to reclaim some semblance of its former self.
That’s the bad news. The good news is the slump might be over. Sure, Cal’s pitching staff was running on fumes Monday night after its series at USC this past weekend, but there is no denying that Stanford’s hitters looked more patient and more confident than they have for weeks. Most importantly, the case of over-anxiousness at the plate that has plagued the team recently was nowhere to be found.
This team is too talented and too competitive to stay down on the mat after taking a few punches. As Stanford’s lineup continues to pile up at-bats and learn from its struggles, I have no doubt that the offense will return to its previous form. As Monday’s game proves, these guys can turn on the fireworks at any moment. It’s not a matter of if, but when they catch fire again.