By Joseph Beyda
Twenty-five days ago, the cruel Southeast sun set on another Stanford baseball season, the 24th in a row that has ended without a third national championship trophy making its way to the Farm.
And as Cardinal fans watched another Pac-12 school, Arizona, erase a 25-year title drought of its own last Monday, they must have been shaking their heads that such a promising season ended with another floundering effort in the Super Regionals.
This year’s squad (41-18, 18-12 Pac-12), which ends its season ranked No. 12 in the country, was a near-copy of its No. 13 counterpart from a season ago. Seven of eight position players returned and ace righty Mark Appel remained a Friday stalwart, yet for the second year in a row, high conference expectations gave way to a middle-of-the-pack finish and a disappointing Super Regional in the Southeast.
An experienced lineup and the return of junior lefthander Brett Mooneyham from injury prompted a preseason No. 2 ranking for Stanford, which still was set to host No. 10 Vanderbilt, No. 13 Texas and No. 6 Rice in its first month of play.
“We’re No. 2 now but we won’t be ranked No. 2 in four weeks, because somebody’s going to be undefeated,” said head coach Mark Marquess in advance of the opener. “We’re not going to be undefeated after four weeks with the teams that we’re playing.”
The Cardinal nearly proved its venerated skipper wrong. Unlike in 2011, when Stanford struggled to a 6-5 start, the Cardinal swept the Commodores and Longhorns while roaring out to a 13-2 record.
By that point, Stanford had already claimed the No. 1 ranking, Mooneyham was at 4-0 and junior third baseman Stephen Piscotty had amassed 23 RBIs in 15 games. The Cardinal was committing just one error per contest and had found a reliable third starter in freshman lefty John Hochstatter, who posted a 1.09 ERA through four outings.
The squad—picked by every Pac-12 coach but Marquess to win the conference—swept a doubleheader at USC to keep things going, but then the wheels came off on Stanford’s spotless season. A series-ending loss to the Trojans was followed by a sweep at Arizona, capping a five-game stretch that saw the Cardinal commit 14 errors and get just 10 hits from the top three spots in its order.
A five-run rally in the bottom of the ninth in a midweek win against St. Mary’s provided the emotional boost to pull Stanford out of that hole.
“As far as the momentum, I think we’ve got that now,” Piscotty said.
And the Cardinal had proof of something else: its star hitter could pitch. Piscotty tossed 3.2 scoreless innings against the Gaels for the win and moved to 2-0 with another relief victory in the decisive rubber game at Washington that weekend.
After winning midweek games against Cal and Pacific by a combined 27-9 margin, Stanford’s prospects were good as it prepared to host No. 16 Oregon. Leading the charge was junior catcher Eric Smith, a converted infielder who had a .360 batting average through 27 games.
But the Ducks, much like eventual Pac-12 co-champion Arizona, proved to be the Cardinal’s kryptonite as they nabbed 5-0 and 4-2 wins to open the series. Before Stanford got a 4-2 victory of its own on Sunday, junior reliever Sahil Bloom took stock of the team’s season at the midway point.
“We’ve just got to start playing a little more consistent baseball,” Bloom said. “We can’t be on a roller coaster. We can’t score 19 against Cal and then come out and do this.”
There was nothing inconsistent about the next two weeks for Stanford. Freshman Alex Blandino earned national player of the week honors after powering a Cardinal sweep of Arizona State with three homers. In light of a season-ending injury to sophomore shortstop Lonnie Kauppila, Blandino added some much-needed hitting, and Piscotty moved to left field to accommodate him.
A series win at UCLA the next weekend moved the Cardinal back within striking distance of Oregon, but yet again it struggled to keep up its high level of play. Two losses in a neck-and-neck series at Oregon State left Stanford in a three-way tie for fifth place with three weeks to play.
After Appel notched his eighth win to open a home tilt with Washington State, Piscotty made his first career pitching start in place of a struggling Hochstatter, and he earned a victory to secure the series. A grand slam by freshman Dominic Jose that Sunday capped the sweep and kept Stanford alive in the Pac-12 race.
“That’s really going to serve us well as we go down the road, [getting] contributions from a lot of guys,” Marquess said of Piscotty and Jose.
Two games back of the conference lead, Stanford’s outright title hopes were shattered by the Bears in the opener, an 18-inning epic. Mooneyham then struggled in a 15-5 loss to end an up-and-down regular season for the shell-shocked southpaw.
With the Cardinal set to host a regional for the first time in four years, a 5-3 win in the regular-season finale with Cal sent the squad into the postseason on a winning note. Its first test was against Fresno State, the only team to have beaten Appel (9-1).
The Bulldogs’ early-season win over the Stanford ace wouldn’t matter one bit. Appel struck out 11 and gave up only four hits in his fifth complete game of 2012, a 9-1 win that earned him tournament MVP honors.
“I’m pretty sure he could’ve won a big-league game today,” said Fresno State head coach Mike Badesole.
The Cardinal wouldn’t be able to bank on its starting pitching against Pepperdine the following day, falling behind 4-0 after Mooneyham struggled yet again. But a solo homer by first baseman Brian Ragira and a quirky, three-run wild pitch knotted the game up before a Kenny Diekroeger single put Stanford ahead, setting up the clinching game against the Waves on Sunday night.
With its season on the line Pepperdine again took a 4-0 lead, but the Cardinal stormed back with eight runs of its own to earn its second regional sweep in as many seasons.
“We battled, and at this stage of the year you have to be able to do that,” Marquess said.
That battle would run out in the Super Regionals at Florida State the next weekend. In the series opener, Stanford got an early tally but Appel imploded in a seven-run fourth and the Seminoles cruised to a 17-1 victory.
Despite the sentiment that Appel’s slipping draft stock—a projected first-overall pick, he was selected eighth—may have caused his worst outing of the season, ESPN reported that the Tallahassee humidity left him unable to grip the ball correctly and forced his loss of control.
“We didn’t give them much of a contest tonight,” Marquess said. “The one inning did us in.”
One poor inning from Mooneyham the next night would do the Cardinal in again, with Florida State grabbing a 5-0 advantage when he left in the second. Stanford nearly came back from a 10-2 deficit late in the game, closing the lead to four runs before Piscotty grounded out with the bases loaded.
The Seminoles responded with eight tallies in the next half-inning to punch their ticket to Omaha.
In a season full of missed opportunities for the Cardinal, Piscotty’s out—the only one in his final collegiate game, a 4-for-5 performance—would be the last, and most poignant.
“I would’ve traded all four of those hits for that at-bat,” Piscotty said. “It’s tough. I am just so proud of the way our team played.”
That team will have a new face next year, with its full starting rotation—Appel, Mooneyham and Piscotty—and several of its most dynamic hitters—Piscotty, Diekroeger and junior leftfielder Tyler Gaffney—all going pro. Stewart and Smith were also drafted in later rounds, though they are still eligible for one more season.
Righty A.J. Vanegas is likely to be Marquess’ new ace, while Ragira and rightfielder Austin Wilson—steady sophomores who combined for 15 homers and 104 RBI in 2012—be centerpieces of a lineup with its fair share of rebuilding to do this offseason.