By Joseph Beyda
The No. 12 Stanford baseball team did its job this weekend in Salt Lake City. Now, it’s going to need a little help in the final week of Pac-12 play.
Only two games separate the top five teams in the conference, and the Cardinal (36-14, 17-10 Pac-12) is right in the mix after a crucial road sweep of Utah (14-38, 7-23). Stanford, No. 11 UCLA and Arizona State are just two games behind conference-leading No. 10 Oregon (19-8), with No. 17 Arizona only a game back at 18-9.
Stanford’s starting pitchers were instrumental in moving the squad into that tie for third place, allowing 15 hits and striking out 27 Utes in 23.2 combined innings. Redshirt junior lefthander Brett Mooneyham regained his traditional Saturday spot in style, posting double-digit strikeouts for the first time since March 3, while junior Stephen Piscotty continued his surprising success as a starter, giving up only one run over 6.1 innings on Sunday afternoon.
“We knew Utah was a team that could beat us on any given day,” junior righty Mark Appel, who threw a complete-game shutout of his own on Friday, told GoStanford.com. “Their record isn’t that great, but they compete and they battle out there.”
Top-to-bottom contributions at the plate backed up those pitching efforts, with each of the eight hitters that started in all three games knocking in at least one run over the weekend. Stanford’s infielders were particularly on top of things, with sophomore first baseman Brian Ragira, sophomore second baseman Danny Diekroeger and freshman third baseman Alex Blandino all homering and junior shortstop Kenny Diekroeger adding two RBIs of his own.
The Cardinal might not have put up more than two runs in any inning this weekend — which was only the case for Stanford in one other series this year, when it lost two of three Oregon — but the consistency was enough to earn it three comfortable victories.
As Stanford fans are accustomed to by now, Appel (9-1) stole the show on Friday night with his fourth complete game of the season, just hours after having been named a Howser Trophy semifinalist, an award presented annually to the best player in college baseball. His 13 strikeouts put him at 109 on the year, just shy of his career total of 112 from before this season, and at one point, he retired 12 batters in a row during the Cardinal baseball team’s first-ever visit to the Utah campus.
“The slider was moving really well,” Appel said. “Especially for the high altitudes, you wouldn’t expect that.”
Junior catcher Eric Smith was the only player with an RBI hit in the game, as he opened the scoring with a two-run single in the top of the fourth. Then, Stanford’s small-ball gradually extended its lead, with two RBI groundouts and two sac flies building a comfortable six-run cushion for Appel to work with over the final three innings.
The potential No. 1 overall draft pick got a flyout with two runners in scoring position to end the game and preserve his shutout.
Mooneyham’s effort on Saturday was arguably just as impressive, especially considering the lefty’s up-and-down season that saw him lose four in a row before his recent resurgence. He retired the first six Ute batters he faced and struck out at least one in each of the first five innings, but given his recent efforts to fix some mechanical issues, Mooneyham (7-4) still wasn’t satisfied.
“[I was] a little bit inconsistent in the beginning of the start mechanically,” he said. “I just talked to [pitching coach Rusty] Filter after the second, ironed it out and felt like I had a lot better command after that.”
The Cardinal got on the board in the first when Piscotty reached on a two-out error and Ragira doubled him home. A Kenny Diekroeger sac fly made it 2-0 an inning later and two more runs came around in the fourth, thanks to a wild pitch and another sac fly, this one from junior centerfielder Jake Stewart.
Ragira brought out some power again with a two-run homer in the fifth to force Ute starter Joe Pond from the game. Mooneyham allowed Utah’s first run of the series on a seventh-inning single by Utah second baseman Cory Hunt, but the sophomore was gunned out by Stewart trying to stretch it into a double, ending the inning.
Two more insurance runs on a single by Blandino in the ninth clinched a series win for Stanford, but the Cardinal knew that it really needed a third win if it wanted to continue to improve its playoff positioning.
It was up to Piscotty to hold down the fort in his second career start, and even without the flair for strikeouts of Stanford’s other two starters, he threw 6.1 solid innings for the second weekend in a row.
Danny Diekroeger opened the scoring with a third-inning solo homer, marking the 29th time that the Cardinal has scored first this season. The squad had gone 24-4 in those previous 28 contests, and Blandino made sure that trend would continue with a two-run home run, his seventh of the season, in the top of the sixth to make it 3-0.
After a Ragira fielder’s choice extended the lead to four, two straight Utah hits in the bottom of the seventh left runners at the corners with one out, a potentially dangerous situation. Stanford head coach Mark Marquess replaced Piscotty with sophomore A.J. Vanegas and only one of those runs would score, as Vanegas struck out three Utes over his 2.2 innings to secure his fifth save of the season and Piscotty’s fourth win.
The Cardinal will head to Santa Clara to face the Broncos at 6 p.m. on Tuesday and will then close out its season against cross-bay rival Cal at Sunken Diamond next weekend with postseason positioning on the line.