Baseball swept at Arizona

As the team licks its wounds, David Lombardi diagnoses and assesses the problems that led to Stanford's wilting in the Arizona desert heat.

The cavernous confines of Major League-sized Hi Corbett Field neutralized Stanford's mighty offense. The Cardinal's defense wilted in the dry Arizona heat as it struggled to handle blazing grounders on the stiff Tucson infield. As those two negatives conspired, the club's pitching chose the wrong weekend to lose its previously sharp edge. In its first major road test of the season, Mark Marquess' squad was soundly defeated in all three major phases of the game. Stanford fell victim to a road sweep at the hands of a pesky Arizona squad tailor-made for success in its home park. The Cardinal (16-6) blew a three-run ninth inning lead to fall in heartbreaking 8-7 fashion Friday. They were then shut down by stellar pitching performances in consecutive 4-2 and 6-2 defeats to seal a disappointing 2-4 start in conference play.

Falling victim to small ball in a large park

Credit Wildcats coach Andy Lopez for his ingenious transformation of the Arizona attack. Just five years ago, his squad was a perennial power-hitting juggernaut. But with the introduction of weaker BBCOR bats and the move away from campus to the much larger Hi Corbett Field, Lopez has turned his club into a station-to-station, annoyingly effective collection of ‘rabbits' that never gives opposing pitchers a break.

For this reason, the Wildcats now have the inside track to the 2012 Pac-12 championship.

Stanford experienced the brilliance of Arizona's new home approach firsthand this weekend, as the Card were pressured into six errors in their first two losses of the series, before being beaten at their own power-hitting game in the sweep-sealing finale. The Wildcats bunted multiple times each contest, outhit Stanford 36-19 on the weekend, and punctuated their feisty effort in the Cardinal's style: with a three-run Robert Refsnyder blast to secure the sweep on Sunday.

With that drive, Arizona had officially stolen the Pac-12 spotlight that had once belonged to slugging Stanford. But don't underestimate how much the Wildcats benefited from Hi Corbett Field. This was a series that could have gone the other way had it been played in a more conventional environment – despite the Cardinal's struggles.

The Wildcats have carefully charted every ounce of benefit that they enjoy courtesy of their home park. Instead of futilely trying to challenge Hi Corbett's vast outfield, they constantly strive to pound the ball into the ground, knowing that the dry desert air has turned their infield into concrete. As a result, the area between home plate and the pitcher's mound is an asphalt-hard minefield filled with baseball-sized divots.

Six-foot-five Brett Mooneyham was just one of Stanford's tall pitchers who struggled to find his footing in the mess. Arizona ran circles around the Cardinal - and the bases. Even sure-handed Brian Ragira was eaten up by a wicked hop produced by the treacherous infield. For a conventional power-hitting team, the results weren't pretty.

Sunday defensive improvement

There was one respite for the Cardinal from this weekend-long nightmare, but it was only a small positive. Stanford played clean, error-free infield defense on Sunday, finally patching together its scuffling defense. Entering the series finale, Marquess' club had committed 14 errors on the week. Leading into the week, the team had been charged with only 15 errors the entire season. Thus, the solid defensive showing in the finale was a step in the right direction.

Will Marquess put the wheels in motion?

So the Tucson debacle might have given Stanford some much-needed defensive conditioning. Offensively, though, the lineup must now rediscover its early season mojo. The Cardinal certainly didn't look like a juggernaut this weekend, especially during their paltry three-hit Saturday performance and two-run Sunday showing.

Stanford came into the weekend leading the Pac-12 with 55 doubles on the year, but hitters were unable to take advantage of Hi Corbett's spacious outfield gaps. It's possible that Marquess will try to reignite the group by mixing in some hit-and-run activity this week.

Up until the recent struggles at the plate, the Cardinal coaches hadn't needed to put the offense's wheels in motion on the bases. The team had only 12 steals compared to the Wildcats' 44. Hitting talent alone had carried Stanford. But after watching Arizona's furious motor run the Cardinal out of the desert, expect Marquess to push the envelope to jump start his attack.

Moving forward after the stomach punch

Although frustrating, this team's recent struggles should not be demoralizing. There is too much offensive talent on this Stanford club for it to scuffle for an extended period of time. Defensive and bullpen issues are more concerning; the Cardinal have relied so heavily on its starting arms that relief remains a murky question mark.

David Schmidt has shown exceptional stuff, and his Friday appearance in a high-charged Arizona atmosphere will be invaluable in preparing the freshman for bigger closing opportunities in the future. Further repetitions will allow this young Stanford relief corps to establish itself. The bullpen should certainly get its chance to grow up this weekend in Seattle, where rainy 48-degree weather will likely require a full pitching staff's effort from the Cardinal.

As for the gloves, the hope here is that Stanford's defense learned a hard lesson this weekend and that its fielding will be cleaner moving forward on softer, more forgiving surfaces. Sunday's good work was an encouraging sign.

Remember, even the 2003 College World Series team was swept early in the season on the road. That Ryan Garko-led squad fell victim to Cal-State Fullerton in three straight games and ended up going the distance anyway. It's better that the Cardinal get these kinks ironed out now, before June rolls around.


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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