CWS Notebook: On to the Championship

We have one day to take a deep breath after three days of tension-filled elimination competitions for your Cardinal diamond dandies. But <i>The Bootleg</i> isn't taking any break. Joe Ritzo checks in from Omaha with commentary on Stanford's CWS heroes, answers on Carlos Quentin's elbow, and predictions on the weekend pitching rotation. Read on for all the latest scoop from the College World Series!

What an incredible game! You have to wonder that when Jonny Ash is hitting homers against arguably the best closer in America, that this may be Stanford's year. To win a championship, you need guys that may not have assumed the role of the go-to-guy all season to step-up and rise to the occasion in big spots. Jonny Ash supplied the big home run in the seventh inning while David O'Hagan's 4 1/3 innings of scoreless relief to finish the game certainly filled that role. And in the tenth, it was Danny Putnam continuing an amazing postseason with a game-winning, two-run home run to send Stanford to the Championship Series.

Many people heading into the CWS thought Fullerton was the best team in the country. They had all kinds of pitching depth, an unbelievable closer, and although their lineup wasn't filled with power hitters, they still did a great job of producing runs. The Titans then quickly won two games in this CWS to put themselves in the driver's seat, and with their pitching depth very few thought Stanford could pull it out. But behind John Hudgins' complete game and Carlos Quentin's two homers on Wednesday followed by the heroics of Jonny Ash, Danny Putnam, and David O'Hagan on Thursday, the Cardinal are the ones advancing to the next round. It's also pretty remarkable that Stanford was able to win on Thursday considering they were starting a freshman who was making just his second career start, while Fullerton sent out their ace pitcher who had an ERA below 2.00.

This is a team that has come so far since their early season struggles. Many were wondering if this would be a down year for the Cardinal after consecutive series losses to Cal State Fullerton and Florida State in early February, which dropped Stanford's record to 3-5. But behind solid veteran leadership and a couple of breakout years from underclassmen, the Cardinal rolled to their fifth straight trip to Omaha and are now playing for the National Championship.

Stanford News and Notes: 

* Friday was a practice day for Stanford as they get ready for the Rice Owls. Saturday's game is scheduled to start at 4:00 pm (PST) while Sunday's Game Two will get underway at 11:30 am (PST). If a Game Three is needed on Monday, it would start at 4:00 pm (PST).

* Rice will be the home team on Saturday, Stanford will be the home team on Sunday while a coin flip will determine the home team on Monday.

* The home run hit by Jonny Ash was the first of his career, while Chad Cordero had allowed just one earned run over his previous 35 1/3 innings prior to that blast.

* I think it's safe to say that Danny Putnam has put together the quietest 16-homer season in Stanford history. That will happen when you play behind All-Americans Carlos Quentin and Ryan Garko, but Putnam is one of main reasons the Cardinal will be playing for a title this weekend. Recapping the postseason, Putnam had a huge three-run homer in the Game One of the Super Regionals. He supplied the game-winning hit (a two-run, two-out single in the seventh inning to break a 2-2 tie) in Game Two of the Supers. At the CWS, Putnam had a remarkable game on Tuesday against South Carolina as he went 4-for-5 with a homer, five RBI and he also made numerous great defensive plays out in left. And then of course, he smoked the game-winning home run in the tenth inning on Thursday. In the postseason (10 games), Putnam is hitting .375 with five homers and 21 RBI!

* Weekend weather update in Omaha : Temperatures in the 80's for all three days. A chance of thunderstorms on Saturday and Sunday (not a surprise for Omaha this time of year) while it should be fairly windy. Bottom line, no big storm is headed this way, so rain shouldn't be a big problem.

* Talk about peaking at the right time. Stanford is 22-2 in their last 24 games. They're also now 9-1 in postseason play.

* Jonny Ash's CWS numbers: .478 (11-for-23), 1 HR, 7 RBI. With Rice expected to start three righthanders, Ash should remain in the #2 spot in the batting order.

* Cal State Fullerton, by the way, has to be wondering what it takes to beat Stanford when it matters. In 2001, the Titans were ranked #1 heading into the CWS, only to see the Cardinal take two straight to advance to the championship game. In 2002, Jeremy Guthrie fired 13 innings of amazing ball to defeat Fullerton 3-2 in the Regional opener. And now in 2003, when the Titans were primed for the championship, the Cardinal again knocked them off to advance. Stanford also defeated the Titans in the 1999 CWS opener.

* Ryan Garko and Carlos Quentin are both on the edge right now for finishing with a .400 batting average this season. Garko currently sits at .407 while Quentin is at an even .400.

* Quentin continues to play with a bad elbow, something that's been bothering him for the majority of the season. Still, expect to see #24 out in right field. The guy is a gamer and moving him to DH would force some major changes to the Stanford defense, something Coach Marquess certainly doesn't want to do at this stage.

* Garko still is one RBI short of Rick Lundblade's single season record. Give some credit to the Titans; they knew how to get Garko out (he was just 4-for-22 in the six games against them this season). Still, you can't keep Garko down for long, and I would expect him to come through with a few big hits in this series.

A look ahead to Rice.

Chad Goldberg will have a full preview of this series later today, but here are a few quick notes. The Owls thrive off their starting pitching. #1 starter Jeff Niemann is 17-0 with a 1.67 ERA while #2 starter Wade Townsend is 11-1 with a 1.92 ERA. There is a little bit of a drop-off after Townsend, although #3 guy Phillip Humber (10-3, 3.40) is still very good. All three guys are strike out pitchers while Niemann and Townsend have given up only six home runs between them this season (although SMS did hit two bombs off Niemann last Saturday). The Owls feature a very good closer in David Aardsma (3.07 ERA, 12 saves), who like Chad Cordero was drafted in the first round. Nothing is very scary about Rice's hitting as they hit .313 as a team with 51 homers. In the CWS, they're only hitting .253. The matchup of Stanford's pitching vs. Rice's hitting is one that the Cardinal needs to win. It's likely that Stanford's offense won't erupt for double figures in runs against these guys, so the pitching needs to keep the Owls hitters at bay.

So that brings us to the question of who exactly will be on the mound for Stanford. No official word yet as of 2:30pm (CST), but the most likely candidates are Ryan McCally or Tim Cunningham. I would guess that we'll see McCally on the hill. McCally has been lights-out in the postseason this year and will be pitching on three days rest after throwing 110 pitches on Tuesday versus South Carolina. While that's a lot, it's not a huge amount, so McCally may be the best option. If he does start Cunningham would be available in long relief, while reliever Kodiak Quick has not pitched since last Friday and could definitely throw a few innings. It's been a tough year for Cunningham with his injury and lack of production since returning. He has shown some signs of his 2002 form, but the fact that Coach Marquess went to Romanczuk in middle relief (despite pitching on three days rest) over Cunningham (who is certainly very fresh) says something about who the coaching staff has more faith in right now.

If it's McCally tomorrow, then the most likely scenario for the rest of the series would have Mark Romanczuk start on Sunday and John Hudgins on Monday. It's pretty doubtful, I think, that Hudgins would go on Sunday even if Stanford loses on Saturday. If the Cardinal does lose on Saturday, then they'll have to win one game without Hudgins to win the title so why not just have him go with an extra day of rest on Monday. What would be interesting is if Stanford wins on Saturday and they're leading late in the game on Sunday. Would Coach Marquess consider bringing in Hudgins to close out the game?

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