From the Cheap Seats: Baseball Sweeps Utes

Some of you know that MiniWyoMizzouCard (Mini WMC), who assisted with this article, has grown up taking road trips with his dad to assorted Stanford sporting events. It is our "thing." But the thing is about to be over, as he will be headed to college next year.

If we are lucky, we may occasionally find ourselves taking in a Stanford sporting event or two sometime in the future. But the run is pretty much over, as of his high school graduation next week.

While we have attended Stanford sporting events of all types over the years (even gymnastics, synchronized swimming, and women's rugby), the whole thing started with trips to Omaha to watch Stanford in the College World Series. So it seemed appropriate to finish it off with a trip to Salt Lake City to see Stanford play its first Pac-12 baseball series with Utah. So we talked Mrs. WMC into joining us, as she did for that long ago first trek to Omaha a decade and a half ago, played hooky on Friday (there are some advantages to being a senior), and caught the Cardinal's workmanlike sweep of the Utah Utes.

Friday, May 18: Stanford 6, Utah 0

Mark Appel was in control throughout, with a complete-game, four-hit shutout featuring 13 strikeouts. He seems to have great command, locating the ball all over the strike zone. Every once in a while, a Ute would give a ball a good ride (though almost always into the glove of a Stanford outfielder), usually when Appel got a bit too much of the strike zone, but even those pitches seem to be very close to where he wanted them.

Once Stanford adjusted to the tendency of Utah starter Brock Duke to throw low and outside, it turned in a solid offensive showing. No home runs, but several clutch at bats, including a two-run single by Eric Smith in the fourth, a pair of RBI ground outs by Stephen Piscotty in the fifth and Kenny Diekroeger in the sixth, and sacrifice flies by Austin Wilson in the sixth and Alex Blandino in the ninth. Stanford scratched out six runs by hitting the ball hard after the first three innings, though without the long ball.

Saturday, May 19: Stanford 8, Utah 1

Although there were early indications that he might go on Sunday, Brett Mooneyham returned to his traditional Saturday starter role. He is, to this fan's eye, the epitome of "effectively wild." Not ridiculously wild, as he rarely misses the strike zone by a lot. But he seems to throw a lot of pitches that look good to hitters, who then swing only to miss or hit harmless fouls. Utah did get its first run of the weekend in the seventh, after a leadoff single literally tore the glove off Mooneyham's hand, but he was never in trouble. He struck out ten and gave up only four hits in 8.1 innings of work. Dean McArdle also pitched well in short relief, getting the last two outs while allowing one hit.

Stanford's offense was particularly impressive on Saturday. Brian Ragira got the first RBI with a double down the third-base line in the first. Kenny Diekroeger got the second with a sacrifice fly in the second. After Smith scored on a wild pitch in the fourth, Jake Stewart hit a sacrifice fly that plated Dominic Jose. In the fifth, Ragira belted Stanford's first home run to the opposite field, scoring Piscotty (who reached base after smoking a ball off the Utah pitcher Joe Pond's back, one of three shots off pitchers in the game). In the ninth, Blandino pushed two runs home with a hard ground ball that punched through the left side of the Utah infield.

Side note: Although it might sound like this was a game without suspense, there was actually quite a bit of suspense for the WMC crew. Mini and I had a tee time for Sunday morning, so yours truly found a 7:00 p.m. Mass for us to attend on Saturday night. It would take a Catholic (and an American one who gives himself or herself the occasional break from the weekly obligation to attend Mass) to fully understand this, but Mini had come to the conclusion that we would not have to go to Mass if the game was still going at 7:00.

Thus, the issue, after Stanford took control of the game, was how long it would take. Mooneyham's effectively wild tendencies, which led to many deep counts, helped Mini's cause. Unfortunately for Mini, the Utah pitchers worked much quicker than Duke, who was slow as molasses in the winter, especially with men on base. Things looked rough for Mini when the last out of the eighth settled into Stewart's glove at 6:18 p.m. The Stanford rally in the top of the ninth helped his cause though, especially since it caused Utah's second pitching change. Mooneyham struck out of the last batter he faced, the first of the ninth, at 6:33, but then Stanford pitching change to McArdle used up a bit of time, giving Mini one last bit of life. Still, out number two came at 6:36 and the final out, a pop out, ended all hope and sent our crew to the cathedral, much to Mini's chagrin. Then again, given how badly we played golf on Sunday, we should have just slept in and gone to a late Mass.

Sunday, May 20: Stanford 4, Utah 1

Piscotty seems to be settling into his new role as a starter. The first time through the order, he almost always threw nasty first-pitch curveball strikes to the low, outside corner for 0-1 counts. The second time through, perhaps fearful that the Ute hitters would adjust to his approach, he threw several of his first pitches lower and further outside. Both times through the order, the Utes did little first-pitch swinging, so the second time through Piscotty found himself behind 1-0 frequently. The Utes did manage seven hits against Piscotty, but he gave up only one run. Plus, that sole blemish could have been avoided, had Danny Diekroeger not thrown high to Ragira while trying to complete a double play, forcing Ragira to jump off the bag. (Danny had several solid defensive plays, so there are no worries there.) Piscotty is no Appel or Mooneyhan, but it would be ridiculous for us to expect that. He is a solid pitcher who will give up some hits, but he has the guts to pitch out of trouble well. After one out in the seventh, A.J. Venegas took over on the hill. After inducing that potential double-play ball, he continued solid work to the finish. He gave up one hit in his 2.2 innings of work.

On offense, Stanford was not as effective in piecing together runs as in the first two outings, though the Cardinal did scratch together a run in the seventh when Utah just missed turning an inning-ending double play. But Stanford tripled its long ball total for the weekend by adding two, with Danny Diekroeger pulling a solo shot over the right-field wall in the third and Blandino blasting a two-run homer about 390 feet to left center in the sixth.

All in all, it was a solid showing by the Cardinal. Nothing too flashy (unless one considers allowing just two runs over 27 innings flashy), but nothing too flashy was required. Admittedly, Utah is not one of the stronger Pac-12 teams, but they have still managed to hang losses on several top conference foes. This was Senior Weekend for them, but Stanford still walked out with a sweep. That seems like a good sign late in the season.

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Other thoughts

It is quite a place
We loved Spring Mobile Ballpark, home of both the Utes and the AAA Salt Lake Bees. The Wasatch Mountain background rivals the warehouse at Camden Yards as the coolest thing I have seen past the outfield at a baseball stadium. When Brigham Young said, "This is the place," he knew what he was talking about. I highly recommend a trip here in some future year to our Bootie buddies. In addition to the great scenery, the locals are as nice to visiting fans as any other place we have visited, with the possible exception of the University of Mississippi. Very different approach than the Rebels locals, but both groups are very accommodating to visitors. That is not usually the case. And the price was right—five bucks a pop, and I did not have to pay on Friday because I had a black shirt on and it was "Black Out" day. To a Scot like me, saving five bucks turns a good day into a great one.

Some things never change
When you are about to lose your sports travel partner, you start to think about how quickly things change in life. (In my Professional Responsibility class, I showed a video of Mini, as a five-year-old, going to a game with his dad. I was hoping to make the point that one has to balance one's professional life with family and other priorities. Unfortunately, seeing that video of five-year-old Mini really got to me, so I pretty much lost it in front of my class. All I could choke out was, "It goes by really fast.") When things seem like they are changing at lightning speed, it is good to see that some things don't change at all. We had not seen a Stanford baseball game live for four years, but those ‘70s uniforms have not changed a bit, at least to the naked eye.

What in the world?
Speaking of the naked eye, I must report that neither Mini's nor mine, nor even Mrs. WMC's eyes were good enough to figure out what the Utah mascot was supposed to be. Was it some sort of hawk or raven, wearing a skirt? If so, why? I am sure there is a good reason and meaning behind whatever that was supposed to be. You could look it up, I suppose, but it is already almost 3:00 a.m. Monday morning after a seven hour drive from Salt Lake City to Laramie, Wyo., so I am too tired to do it. [Ed: Swoop is a red-tailed hawk.]

To be b(l)unt about it
Much as we love them, I can never remember our Cardinal being a very good bunting team. To the contrary, I can think of several key situations over the years where Stanford was unable to put down a solid sacrifice. By my very unofficial count, Stanford squared to bunt in eight or nine at bats this weekend. With the exception of a Wilson at bat where he wisely took three pitches after squaring to bunt (and then took a called strike that sure looked like a ball on a 3-1 count, before grounding into a double play that should never have happened, suggesting that Blandino's blast could have been a grand slam), every single time a Stanford hitter (including Wilson on Saturday, per Mini's recollection) squared to bunt, the bunt successfully moved up the runner(s) on the very first pitch. In other words, if my notes and my recollection are correct, there were no swings and misses on bunts, and not even a foul ball. So Stanford bunted a lot this weekend and was darn close to perfect in that effort. Cool! If that continues, it could really help in the postseason.

A tall tale
Sometimes you see things when you finally get to a game live that you do not notice on television. One thing that really stands out about Stanford is how tall the squad is. On many teams, including Utah, Dominic Jose and Brian Rigara would be considered tall. On the Cardinal squad, they are noticeably shorter than Appel, Wilson, Mooneyham, Garrett Hughes, and A.J. Talt.

The defense never rests
Stanford had a good, though not perfect, weekend in the field. Stanford's outfielders can really run down fly balls. Although Wilson's dash and flying leap to nab a sure double and end a Utah threat in the eighth inning on Sunday was the most spectacular, his outfield mates Stewart, Piscotty, and Tyler Gaffney also used their legs to turn solid drives into outs. Stanford's outfielders cover a lot of territory. Smith also had a defensive gem in the fourth on Sunday, when Utah put on a double steal, or a hit and run. He grabbed the low and outside pitch just above the ground and fired to Blandino at third to get the lead runner. Speaking of defense, Utah third baseman Trey Nielsen was out-of-this-world good, with two barehanded plays and several others that most college third basemen would not make.

When you are going through hell, keep on going...
You have to feel for Gaffney. When he finally had the chance to start in left on Sunday, with Friday and Saturday left fielder Piscotty pitching, he had four trips to the plate, with each of them ending in the last out of an inning, despite three (or, if you are generous, four) hard hit balls. Move a couple of those balls a couple of feet, and Gaffney has a great day at the plate. But slumps are like that. Gaffney deserves a lot of credit for keeping his chin up and putting out a great effort. Even when he is not playing, he cheers on his mates, usually vaulting the fence in front of the dugout to greet them as they run back to the dugout after recording the third out. Lots of folks who go from starting every day to not starting do not have a positive attitude like that. You have to love this guy. (Also, he is huge across the shoulders. No wonder he bowls so many people over on both the football and baseball fields.)

Not a scout, but…
I don't pretend to be able to evaluate baseball talent, so I could be way off here. But to this untrained eye, it looks to me like Blandino has a really quick bat. When he goes, he goes in a hurry.

One more trip?
If Mini and I are lucky, there could be one more Stanford road trip. If our guys qualify for Omaha, we might be able to sneak over for an early game. (In what has to be considered good news for our fellow Bootmaniacs aware of our tendency to bring bad luck to Stanford in the postseason, we will not be able to get to any late games in Omaha, even if Stanford is in them, due to long-standing extended family vacation plans.) With the current late-season winning streak, there is renewed hope. For what it is worth, I think the key will be the pitching beyond Appel and Mooneyham: if it holds, we could get to the new ballpark in Omaha. Sure wish we did not have to go on the road in the first two weeks, though. Mooneyham's flu during the trip to Oregon State might very well end up costing us the chance to host in the second round, if we survive the first.

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