By Joseph Beyda
One of the closest Pac-12 baseball races in recent memory has come down to its final weekend, and No. 11 Stanford is currently on the outside looking in when it comes to winning the conference or hosting a Super Regional.
That could change in a hurry for the Cardinal (37-14, 17-10 Pac-12) if everything goes its way this weekend, as Stanford hosts unranked Cal (27-24, 10-17) with just two games separating the top five teams in the Pac-12 and only their respective rivalry series remaining. The last time that even three squads at the top of the conference finished within two games was in 2004, when Stanford won its last Pac-10 title in a close finish over Washington and UCLA.
“We’re aware of the standings but at the same time we know that all we can do is go up and win games,” said first baseman Brian Ragira, whose .330 batting average is third-best on the squad. “We’ll let things fall where they will.”
This time around, No. 9 Oregon is in the driver’s seat to win its first conference championship since the Ducks reinstated their baseball program in 2008-09 following a 28-year hiatus. They can clinch at least a share of the title with a series win over Oregon State, but the No. 20 Beavers are no pushovers, having already beaten Oregon once this season.
No. 13 Arizona is only a game behind the Ducks at 18-9, but it must face a top-tier opponent as well in 17-10 Arizona State, which is unranked in the Coaches Poll due to NCAA sanctions but still ranked as high as 16th by some publications.
Also at 17-10 is No. 10 UCLA, which has perhaps the easiest series of the bunch this weekend. The Bruins will play at home against 10th-place USC, which has lost eight of its last nine in Pac-12 play.
Rounding out the group is Stanford, which will ride an eight-game winning streak into its series with the Golden Bears. With a sweep, the Cardinal would likely finish in second place in the conference, which could bring a Super Regional to Sunken Diamond if the squad can stay alive long enough in the postseason.
Unless Oregon gets swept for the first time this season, winning just twice would, at best, put Stanford in a three-way tie for second. With UCLA likely to have a strong showing as well, the Cardinal would have a hard time distinguishing itself to the selection committee if it finishes below 20 Pac-12 wins.
Thus, a sweep is imperative for Stanford for the third straight weekend.
“It always is [a must-win] once the postseason comes around,” Ragira said. “It was pretty similar last year.”
The Cardinal did win three of its last four games of the 2010 season, including two victories at Berkeley. And given its results playing under pressure over the last two weeks, the squad has a good shot at filling that tall order.
Two 3-0 weekends against eighth-place Washington State and conference doormat Utah weren’t entirely unexpected, but they helped revitalize a Stanford lineup that lost three of four to Oregon State and San Jose State, never scoring more than five runs in the process. Since its May 6 loss to the Beavers, the Cardinal has dipped below the five-run mark only once.
Additionally, Stanford’s starting pitchers combined for a 1.40 ERA and struck out double-digits on three separate occasions in those two series. Redshirt junior lefthander Brett Mooneyham (6-4) has returned to form with two straight wins, while junior utilityman Stephen Piscotty—recently named a finalist for the John Olerud Award, given to the best two-way player in college baseball—has emerged as a reliable starter to round out the Cardinal’s rotation.
“We knew Stephen could throw. He threw all through fall,” Ragira said. “He’s been a big pick-me-up for us.”
For their part, Cal could use a pick-me-up of its own on the mound. The Bears are the third-worst pitching team in the Pac-12 with an ERA of 4.13, with sophomore lefty Michael Theofanopoulos—who hit a three-run homer against Stanford in nonconference play last season as an outfielder—stepping in without much success on Sundays.
Offensively, Cal is paced by one of the best hitters in the conference, junior Tony Renda. The 2011 Pac-10 Player of the Year, Renda is batting .365 but his mere 26 RBI are indicative of the Bears’ overall difficulties with scoring runs this season. In contrast, the Cardinal is averaging nearly two more runs per game than Cal.
Much of that production has come from junior centerfielder Jake Stewart as of late. Stewart led off four innings on Tuesday at Santa Clara and got on base all four times, while also hitting two home runs and going a perfect 4-for-4.
“He’s a catalyst. He’s got speed, he’s got power, he can do everything,” Ragira said. “At this time of year, we need a guy who can get things rolling and he’s just that guy.”
When these two teams met a year ago, the Cardinal won the first two games before the final one was rained out with Stanford holding a 7-1 lead in the fourth inning. This year, it’s going to have to win all three if it wants to contend for a conference title.
Tonight’s opener is scheduled for 5:30 p.m., with 1 p.m. starts on Saturday and Sunday at Sunken Diamond.