Stanford baseball finishes noncon play 13-2

It's a good thing that I don't bet on college baseball, because I would have wagered a fortune on the 2012 Stanford team not getting shut out this season. Not with this machine of an offense.

Sunday's non-conference finale against Rice would have cost me some money, however, as it delivered the unexpected: a Cardinal shutout loss. It was a marked difference from the season's first 14 games: No. 2 Stanford snoozed its way through the afternoon, rolling over grounders to second base without even working counts against Owls' freshman right-hander Jordan Stephens. The Cardinal just looked out of whack in a game that started, in essence, two hours earlier than they were accustomed to, due to a Rice travel curfew and the fact that clocks had sprung forward to accommodate Daylight Savings Time the night before.

The rest of Stanford's dominant 13-2 non-conference tour de force, though, told a different story. If the Cardinal offense was a run factory, then the first 15 games of the season were the Industrial Revolution. Even though the team challenged itself with the nation's toughest schedule, it outscored opponents 126-44.

That's not shabby either, considering the fact that No. 1 Florida's 130-51 run mark was padded with cupcake series against William & Mary and Florida Gulf Coast. The Cardinal, on the other hand, went through traditional powerhouses Vanderbilt, Texas, Fresno State, and Rice. While the Commodores, Longhorns, and Bulldogs all appear to be in rebuilding years, those clubs certainly worlds ahead of William & Mary. And the Owls? Well, that's a legitimate top-five team that Stanford also outplayed this past weekend, despite the offensive outage in the series finale.

"The first part of our season was a huge success," Cardinal shortstop Kenny Diekroeger said of his club's hot start. "It showed that we can compete with anyone but it also gave us some areas to improve on."

One of those areas will need to be the defensive play of third basemen Stephen Piscotty, whose fielding percentage of .769 is tough on the eyes. A Piscotty error on Sunday led to a Rice unearned run, which turned out to be the only score of the game.

Otherwise, the Cardinal are humming along just fine. Piscotty has more than atoned for his defensive shortcomings on the offensive end, leading the team with three home runs and 23 RBI on the young season. Catcher Eric Smith, the only regular who wasn't in the starting lineup last season, is second in the run-production category with 17 RBI. He's also done a steady job behind the dish handling a red-hot pitching staff and throwing out would-be base-stealers in crucial situations.

"I'm just trying to get better defensively every day," Smith, a recently converted middle infielder said. "The toughest part of the catching position is the physical toll it takes on my legs."

On that note, the Cardinal's 13-day break for winter quarter final exams comes at an opportune time to allow the team to recharge and brace for what promises to be a competitive Pac-12 season.

Once play resumes, the club will ride a pitching staff that has been fantastic into the conference slate. Opponents have hit only .198 against Cardinal arms thus far. Perhaps the biggest benefit of the season's opening 15 games was the discovery of Stanford's bullpen. Freshman David Schmidt has locked down the critical closer's role with his 2-0 record, 0.73 ERA, and nasty sinking fastball.

All in all, this has proven to be an extremely complete team, one that even 36-year veteran head coach Mark Marquess has been pleased with thus far. ‘Nine' laughed when I asked him about the luxury of having 6-foot-5, 245-pound, muscle-laden Austin Wilson penciled into the lineup's No. 9 spot. Wilson's .348 average is second on the team, and he has already blasted three home runs for a batting order that appears to have no weak links.

Before the season, Marquess predicted that the team would not still be ranked second after it was finished with its arduous non-conference slate. Well, here the Cardinal are heading into conference play, sitting pretty at 13-2 with that No. 2 ranking still intact. The Stanford coach, of course, admits that he has no problem that his club has proven his prediction wrong.

"Our Pac-12 schedule is going to be tough," Diekroeger said, turning to the conference opener against USC on March 24. "But we're definitely ready for it."

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