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.
We cannot fully appreciate the importance of last weekend’s series victory for No. 9 Stanford over No. 10 UCLA without first taking a moment to consider the depths from which this team has returned. After a brutal stretch in which Stanford dropped to seventh place in the Pac-12—a league it was unanimously picked to win in preseason polls—the Cardinal has crawled its way back into contention with its second-straight series victory over a difficult opponent.
The most surprising aspect of this well-timed turnaround, however, has been the cast of characters most responsible for it.
Coming into the year, the entire college baseball world knew that Stanford’s starting lineup would be as talented and experienced as any in the country. What no one outside of the program could have guessed was just how deep its bench would prove to be and, if given the chance, just how well its less known players could perform.
With recent injuries to several regular starters, a trio of new faces has led the offensive resurgence that has propelled Stanford back into contention: sophomores Danny Diekroeger and Brett Michael Doran and freshman Alex Blandino, proud members of a brotherhood known as the “Steal Squad.”
The self-proclaimed Steal Squad derives its name from the group’s most common game-time activity: watching from the bench while the Cardinal is playing defense and waiting to alert Stanford’s catcher of an attempted steal by an opposing base runner. For the better part of this season, Diekroeger, Doran and Blandino were buried so deep on Stanford’s bench that a periodic scream was often the only way for the trio to make a tangible impact on the game.
When the Cardinal was on offense, Diekroeger and Doran had the responsibility of keeping written charts of the game’s events for the coaching staff. Diekroeger’s chart would record every pitch sequence thrown by the opposing pitcher, while Doran’s chart would keep a detailed record of Stanford’s offensive performance. Meanwhile, Blandino was so buried that he didn’t even get a chart; instead, he kept a watch to time how long it took the opposing pitcher to throw to home plate. Blandino wasn’t just on the bench; he was on the <I>bench’s bench<P>. While they attempt to make light of their predicament, these players were quite literally in baseball purgatory.
I can speak so openly about the agony of being stuck in a similar position because I know the experience so personally—you’re reading the words of a three-year starter on the Steal Squad. What has been so amazing about these three players is how ready they were to seize an opportunity that, under most circumstances, never comes.
Since the trio entered the lineup over the past two weeks, this Stanford team is simply better. After another team-wide slump in which the offense mustered just eight runs in a four-game stretch, the Cardinal has averaged almost nine runs a game in a dominant sequence of seven games since these three took over. In limited playing time, Blandino has been simply electric at the plate and is currently tied for the team lead in home runs, with six. Meanwhile, Diekroeger leads the team in hitting with a .368 clip and Doran—who has filled in brilliantly as the team’s leadoff hitter—paces the team with a .451 on-base percentage.
Pretty soon, we might need to start calling the Steal Squad the “Stud Squad.”
Stanford’s depth has also been displayed on the mound by the performance of junior Sahil Bloom. In limited action over three seasons, Bloom has compiled season ERAs of 2.72, 0.90 and 0.00, yet he has struggled to earn more than the occasional appearance out of the bullpen during his time on the Farm. One of the team’s hardest workers, Bloom has simply bullied his way into more playing time and has thrown seven brilliant innings, giving up only three hits and one earned run.
Unfortunately, for every Brett Doran and Danny Diekroeger there is a Justin Ringo or a Christian Griffiths: übertalented players whom the coaching staff simply cannot trust. For every Sahil Bloom there is an AJ Talt, a senior who has had nothing but success in his few chances on the mound but who can’t seem to buy another opportunity to get out there and pitch.
This team’s depth is a positive attribute for every party involved except one: the players who actually make the team so deep. But it is through the struggle and frustration experienced by these players that the true character of the young men on this team is on full display. Don’t believe me? Just watch the next time a member of the Steal Squad succeeds on the field. I guarantee it: No one will be cheering louder than his proud Steal Squad brothers.
Deep down, these players also know that if they’re the last team standing in Omaha at the end of the season, everyone—including the guys buried deep on the bench—earns a national championship ring.