By Joseph Beyda
Don’t sleep on Fresno State.
That’s a lesson that the college baseball world learned the hard way in 2008, when the unheralded, 33-27 Bulldogs took their conference tournament by storm and never stopped winning, staving off elimination six times en route to the program’s first NCAA championship in a men’s sport.
The Bulldogs (30-26, 8-10 Western Athletic Conference) will again play underdog this year as the No. 4 seed in their regional, and it will be top-seeded Stanford’s job to quell another Cinderella run when the two teams meet on the Farm tonight in the first home regional for the Cardinal (38-16, 18-12 Pac-12) in four years.
Also in town are No. 2 Pepperdine (34-21, 16-8 West Coast Conference) and No. 3 Michigan State (37-21, 13-11 Big Ten), which will meet at Sunken Diamond this afternoon before Stanford and Fresno State face off at 6 p.m.
The 13th-ranked Cardinal may be the odds-on favorite to win its regional, but it will still be on upset alert all weekend long.
“There’s so much more parity than there ever used to be, and I think that’s real healthy for our game,” said head coach Mark Marquess, who is coaching in a home regional for the 15th time in 36 seasons. “It shows when you don’t have Texas making the field of 64.
“At this stage, if you make a couple of mistakes at the wrong time or don’t win a couple of big spots as a pitcher, you get beat,” he said. “It’s that equal. As I tell the players, a lot of times it’s not the best team that wins—it’s the team that plays the best. And I think that’s very true this time of year.”
Though the Cardinal also reached the College World Series in 2008, it never crossed paths with the eventual-champion Bulldogs. But Stanford is no stranger to their tendency to play spoiler, as Fresno State was the first team to beat the Cardinal this year after the squad had opened the season at 8-0 against the likes of Vanderbilt and Texas.
The Bulldogs beat up ace righty Mark Appel (9-1) for his only loss of the season on March 2, with sophomore centerfielder Aaron Judge hitting two home runs in his team’s 7-4 victory. Appel’s 11 strikeouts and complete game were not enough to secure a win.
Stanford responded dominantly the next afternoon with a 16-0 victory and went on to win the series on Sunday. But the squad won’t have the same chance to bounce back this weekend, and if Fresno State can get to Appel again Stanford could be on the brink of elimination by Saturday morning.
Marquess said that he isn’t putting much stock in the results of that early series.
“I think that would make a lot of difference if we played them two, three, four weeks ago,” Marquess said. “But we played them the third week of the season, so that’s so long ago that it’s hard to say [if it matters]. The thing I do know about them is they’re a young team, they had a lot of freshmen who were playing, and at this time of year they’re probably not freshmen anymore. They’re probably [playing] like sophomores.”
Regardless, Stanford holds a vast experience advantage over all its opponents this weekend, having swept its regional last season and traveled to North Carolina for a Super Regional.
Fresno State hasn’t made it out of a regional since that magical 2008 run—being quickly eliminated in two games last year—and has only one player still on its roster from that championship team. Two-seed Pepperdine is playing in its eighth regional in 13 seasons under head coach Steve Rodriguez but has never advanced over that time period. Three-seed Michigan State, meanwhile, is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 33 years.
“We have that experience going to Fullerton, winning a regional, going to North Carolina with that Super Regional,” said junior catcher Eric Smith. “We now know what it takes to win a Super Regional, and what it takes to hopefully push our way into Omaha.”
To the man at the top step of the dugout who has taken 16 of his teams to the College World Series, that knowledge is priceless.
“Experience makes a big, big difference at each step,” Marquess said. “If you’ve never been to Omaha before, it’s hard to go there and win; it’s just so different.”
To get past the Bulldogs tonight, Stanford is going to need its role players to take center stage. Junior outfielder Tyler Gaffney’s emotional play helped propel the Cardinal past favored Cal State-Fullerton in its 2011 regional, while junior leftfielder and pitcher Stephen Piscotty had seven hits of his own that weekend.
Two of Stanford’s wins—10-3 over Kansas State in the opener and 14-2 over Illinois in the clincher—were powered by its offense, but if the 1-0 nail-biter over hometown Fullerton was any indication, the Cardinal’s pitching will have to be at the top of its game as well.
Perhaps the most concerning is redshirt junior lefthander Brett Mooneyham (7-5), the Cardinal’s traditional Saturday starter. Mooneyham bounced back from a midseason slump with two strong outings against Washington State and Utah, but he struggled mightily in a 15-5 loss to Cal at home this weekend and seemed to have lost his command yet again.
Piscotty (5-2) is also a question mark on the mound. He was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team for his hitting and has pitched admirably over the second half of the season, but has never thrown on this kind of stage before.
Marquess indicated that he would be willing to switch Mooneyham and Piscotty in the order depending on their matchups, not out of a lack of confidence in either.
“As far as the first game I think it wouldn’t be too wise for us to not pitch Mark,” he noted. “We’re not going to overlook Fresno State.”
It is still unclear as to which Bulldog pitcher Appel will be facing off against tonight. Fresno State Friday starter Tyler Linehan left his May 18 start against Louisiana Tech after just four pitches and missed his team’s conference tournament, though he has been replaced by fellow-lefty Tom Harlan, a senior who has started 15 games and compiled a 2.73 ERA. Though his 83 strikeouts on the season pale in comparison to Appel’s 116, Harlan headlines the squad in that category, and the Bulldogs are eighth in the nation in strikeouts per nine innings (8.5).
Fresno State isn’t as formidable at the plate, as its 5.1-run scoring average barely cracks the top 200 in the country. But the Bulldogs have some dangerous weapons in sophomore Aaron Judge, with his .459 on-base percentage, and junior catcher Austin Wynns, who has 20 doubles this year.
If Stanford can win tonight it will face either the Spartans or the Waves on Saturday evening. Michigan State is impressive on paper—the Spartans are the 12th-best hitting team in the country (628) and have the 26th-lowest ERA (3.17)—but has amassed those stats in the relatively weak Big Ten. Pepperdine’s strength is in its defense, as the Waves have turned 55 double plays this season, but also boast a strong all-around hitter in Joe Sever, the WCC Player of the Year winner.
If the Cardinal falls against the Bulldogs, it will need to pull out three straight wins—on Sunday afternoon, Sunday night and Monday night—to make it out of the regional. Given the overall quality of teams in the tournament, Marquess said there’s no guarantee that heavily favored Stanford will advance.
“Twenty-five years ago you could’ve said one of these four or five teams would win the national championship, and you’d be right,” he said. “Now there’s probably 40 or 50 that can do it. I think that Fresno State, which it’s ironic that we play, was indicative of that when they won it. They wouldn’t have made the field of 64 if they didn’t get the automatic [berth], and it’s the same this year.”
If the Cardinal can survive the weekend it would then likely play No. 3 Florida State or No. 22 Mississippi State, the overwhelming favorites in Tallahassee regional this weekend.
But first the squad has business to take care of, starting tonight when Fresno State sets foot in Sunken Diamond. The Cardinal’s postseason opener is set for 6 p.m., with all of the weekend’s games to be broadcasted online at ESPN3.com.