By Joseph Beyda
It’s time for the No. 12 Stanford baseball team to flex its muscles.
For the Cardinal (33-14, 14-10 Pac-12), anything less than a sweep would be a disappointment when it heads to Salt Lake City this weekend, with host Utah (14-35, 7-20) floundering in its first year as a member of the Pac-12 Conference. The Utes have only one series win all season—taking 1-0 and 3-1 victories against 10th-place USC (22-25, 7-17) in the opening weekend of conference play—and have been outscored 303-198 in the process.
Regardless, Stanford will have to avoid the fates suffered by fellow Pac-12 heavyweights Oregon and Arizona, which each dropped a one-run decision to Utah earlier this season. Even one such loss would be crippling for a Cardinal team that still is looking to make up some ground in the conference standings with six games to play.
If it maintains its positioning in the Pac-12, Stanford is likely to host a regional, but it still has some work to do if it wants a chance to host one of the eight Super Regionals on its road to Omaha.
No. 10 Oregon is three and a half games ahead of Stanford and has three fewer games left, meaning that any Duck win or Cardinal loss in Pac-12 play would eliminate Stanford’s outright conference title hopes.
No. 11 UCLA (36-13, 15-9) and No. 17 Arizona (33-15, 16-8), meanwhile, are still within the Cardinal’s reach. Stanford’s remaining Pac-12 schedule is the easiest of the bunch, but both schools will face the struggling Trojans and UCLA has a date with ninth-place Cal in Berkeley this weekend.
After sweeping eighth-place Washington State at Sunken Diamond last weekend, the Cardinal is riding some momentum for a late-season push like the one it put on in 2011, when the squad won three of its last four conference games.
“Our defense has been solid and our pitching has been pretty good,” said sophomore Danny Diekroeger, who had RBI in all three games against the Cougars. “Hopefully our bats can get hot at the right time.”
That’s exactly what happened on Tuesday, when Stanford rallied from a 3-2 eighth-inning deficit against the University of San Francisco to upend the Dons 6-3. The game also featured a triple from freshman Dominic Jose, who burst onto the scene against Washington State with two starts and his first career home run, a grand slam.
Ever since the season-ending injury to sophomore shortstop Lonnie Kauppila, head coach Mark Marquess has had success with shaking things up in the field.
“I think we’re learning some things,” Marquess said, “and that’s what you need when you get to the postseason.”
“Piscotty was the biggest thing,” he added. “We know he can start now.”
Junior Stephen Piscotty had a stellar performance in his first career start on Saturday, giving up one earned run in 6.1 innings to earn his third win of the season. Even though Stanford’s starting leftfielder had made several relief appearances before last Saturday, his endurance on the mound, given the Cardinal’s lack of a true third starter, will come in handy down the stretch.
Redshirt junior lefthander Brett Mooneyham, who was moved to the Sunday slot after missing a weekend with the flu, also held his own last weekend in his best outing over the last month.
Whether or not he moves back to pitching on Saturdays, Mooneyham said the adjustment wasn’t a tough one.
“Saturday and Sunday kind of feel like the same day,” he said. “Here at the ballpark the weather’s pretty much the same, the turnout’s pretty much the same.
“It’s the same hitters and you’re throwing to [junior catcher Eric] Smith every day, so it doesn’t really matter,” Mooneyham added.
In either case, Stanford pitchers are going to match up favorably with their Utah counterparts this weekend. The Utes are clearly the poorest pitching team in the Pac-12, and their 5.30 ERA is the worst in the conference by over half a point, despite the presence of two second-year starters in junior righthanders Brock Duke and Joe Pond.
The Cardinal still has some hitters of note who have put together underwhelming seasons and could really gain some confidence off those Utah hurlers. Kenny Diekroeger, winner of the 2010 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year award, is batting .291, the worst mark of his career, and at just .239, outfielder Tyler Gaffney’s batting average is down nearly a hundred points from a season ago. Gaffney, who helped lead Stanford past Kansas State and No. 8 Cal State-Fullerton in its 2011 regional, only got one start last weekend in light of his struggles, and needs to ignite his bat down the stretch run to become a regular contributor once again.
The Utes saw an uptick in their own offensive production on Tuesday against in-state foe Utah Valley, which came into the matchup riding a 32-game win streak. Also the worst hitting team in the Pac-12 with a team batting average of .248, Utah rallied from a 7-1 deficit to beat the Wolverines, which coincidentally hold the best batting average in the country (.348), 11-10.
The Cardinal is 23-1 when out-hitting its opponents, so if Stanford can best Utah at the plate it should continue its winning ways and push the Pac-12 race right down to the wire.
Tonight’s opener in Salt Lake City is scheduled for 5 p.m. PDT, with a 3 p.m. start tomorrow and an 11:30 a.m. finale on Sunday.