Baseball must rally, but schedule eases up

Stanford baseball dropped an extremely hard-fought series at Oregon State in 11 innings Sunday. With nine games left to play on the Pac-12 schedule, it's go time for the Cardinal as they jockey for playoff positioning.

Mercifully, the most brutal stretch of the regular season is over for Stanford baseball. The Cardinal managed to stay afloat throughout consecutive trips to UCLA and Oregon State, but Sunday's eleven-inning 5-4 loss was a stomach punch to Pac-12 title hopes nonetheless. Two of three in Corvallis would have positioned the Farm Boys well entering a softer nine-game stretch to finish it off.

The record, though, stands at 11-10 in conference play. Oregon leads the way at 16-8, and although Stanford has only two more losses than the Ducks, it will likely take three consecutive sweeps for the Cardinal to have a shot at winning the conference crown. But, with three of the four weakest Pac-12 teams remaining on the schedule, that certainly isn't out of the question.

Next weekend's opponent, Washington State, is an average team with an atrocious bullpen. The Cardinal will benefit from facing the Cougars at home, in front of large crowds. Friday is the season's annual postgame fireworks night.

Then, Stanford heads to Utah. The Utes, with their 5.15 team ERA and .247 team batting average, are far and away the Pac-12's worst team. So if the Cardinal don't sweep in Salt Lake City this late in the season, it's tempting to say they don't deserve to host a Super Regional.

Finally, Cal comes to Sunken Diamond to close the regular season. The Golden Bears have talent, but they've been underwhelming in 2012, particularly because of their terrible play in the field. David Esquer's club is fielding at a conference-low .957 percentage. It would be foolish to expect a rivalry sweep, but Stanford has had Cal's number as of late. Even then, it certainly seems to be the toughest of the three dominoes to knock down.

The bottom line is that the Cardinal are entering a "breath of fresh air" stretch. Even if the next nine games aren't enough to catapult Mark Marquess' squad to the Pac-12 championship trophy, they represent a great chance for the ballclub to build confidence and momentum entering the NCAA Tournament.

Furthermore, it's possible that winning the Pac-12 won't be necessary to earn a national seed and host a Super Regional because of how good the conference is this season. Still, Stanford cannot afford to take any chances. Players and coaches remember last year's brutal cross-country trip to Chapel Hill, N.C. A repeat of that trek would be the quickest way to derail the train to Omaha.

Up to this point, quality Pac-12 teams have absolutely butchered each other. The conference standings are a near-.500 bloodbath for almost everyone involved, with Oregon the only squad likely to leave the regular season with a power record. The league-leading Ducks have only a home series against USC and a road Civil War tilt at Oregon State left, so it's only reasonable to expect two more losses at most from George Horton's scrappy ballclub.

That means that Stanford almost certainly must run the table to have any shot at catching Oregon for the crown. Moving forward, the hinge point is again Saturday starter Brett Mooneyham, who missed his scheduled start in Corvallis because of flu-like symptoms. If the tall lefty can rally to re-establish the early season's devastating 1-2 punch alongside Mark Appel, the Cardinal are primed to make a run.

Without an effective Mooneyham, Stanford is a team that must resort to Johnny Wholestaff before the midway point of the weekend. That's too much to ask out of a bullpen that hasn't been dominant in 2012, especially considering the fact that quality Pac-12 pitching has somewhat neutralized the Cardinal offensive juggernaut.

So, the formula moving forward for the Cardinal is simple. Ride dominant versions of Appel and Mooneyham to open sets and close with the offensive hammer behind a bullpen effort on Sundays. As far as executing it, it's do-or-die time now.


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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