Rice Dream: Owls visit for weekend series

For Stanford baseball, the first serious exam has finally arrived. The Cardinal's first three weekend opponents never posed a serious series-long threat. Vanderbilt: terrible defensively, recently swept by Oregon. Texas: anemic offensively, 4-7 to begin the young season. Fresno State: scrappy, but deficient talent-wise in a rebuilding year.

Now, though, No. 4 Rice (12-2) comes to Sunken Diamond for a three-game set. Finally, No. 2 Stanford (11-1) sees a team in the opposite dugout that actually has much in common with them.

Besides the fact that Stanford and Rice are both highly regarded private universities with undergraduate enrollments of near 6,000 students, both schools boast elite, experienced, well-rounded baseball teams this year. In fact, the two programs are near mirror images of each other here in 2012.

Both teams return exactly eight starting position players and a host of veteran pitchers to their roster. Both can pitch: Rice boasts a 2.88 staff ERA, while Stanford is just a smidgen better at 2.81. Both can certainly hit: Stanford checks in with a .327 team average; Rice is at .294. Both feature new closers with nasty stuff. Both start effective freshmen pitchers on Sundays. Both began the season 8-0 before dropping a game. And both feature longtime coaches who are associated with the College Baseball Hall of Fame: Rice's Wayne Graham is being inducted this summer after 32 years of coaching, while Stanford's Mark Marquess is already a member in his 36th year at the Stanford helm.

The top-five matchup promises to be an excellent barometer of Stanford's level of play heading into a two-week finals break that will precede Pac-12 play. It will also give the Cardinal an opportunity to avenge the program's loss to the Owls in the finals of the 2003 College World Series.

The Cardinal took the series in Houston to open last year. When Rice last visited Sunken Diamond, Stanford also cruised, sweeping the Owls en route to a 4-0 start to 2010. Players including Mark Appel, Kenny Diekroeger, and Stephen Piscotty, the core of this year's Stanford club, made their collegiate debuts in that series.

Now, a little over two years later, they're spearheading a Stanford juggernaut that has outscored its opposition 111-35 this season. The Cardinal pitching staff has also done its part by suffocating opposing bats, limiting them to a .195 batting average on the season.

Rice, though, counters with a strong lineup of its own. Although star Anthony Rendon has graduated, junior Michael Ratterree, the club's leading offensive threat, is finding his groove after hitting .327 with six home runs and 53 RBI last year. Ratterree hit the ball hard in a 3-for-5 performance Wednesday night to break out of an early-season slump. During his struggles, the Owls' offense has been paced by red-hot Michael Fuda (.424, 2 HR), Jeremy Rathjen (.367, 3 HR), and host of other returners.

Rice will send Matthew Reckling (0.82 ERA), 2011 Freshman All-American Austin Kubitza, and freshman Jordan Stephens to the mound against the Cardinal's trio of Mark Appel, Brett Mooneyham, and John Hochstatter. Appel, a native Texan, actually played against Reckling when the two were in Little League. They will be Friday night opponents.

The Owls also have a bullpen weapon in closer Tyler Duffey, who struck out 76 batters in just 60 innings of work last year.

Prediction

Rice is a complete baseball team that will give Stanford its first true test of the 2012 season. The Cardinal have a little more firepower offensively, though, and what appears to be a slightly stronger rotation. Mark Marquess will finally see what his bullpen is really made of, but his club should win two out of three games on its home field to take this marquee series.


About the Author: David Lombardi is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for several years and is currently contributing to the Cardinal Channel. You can check several of his Stanford calls out at www.davidmatthewlombardi.com, where you can also read his West Coast-oriented blog via this direct link. For Stanford baseball insights, follow David on Twitter at davidmlombardi.


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