With Utah sweep, baseball closes in on 40

Stanford baseball flexed its muscles during its weekend demolition of Utah, the Pac-12's worst team. With three critical wins in Salt Lake City taken care of, the magic number entering the season's home stretch for the Cardinal is 40.

Following their 4-1 win behind Stephen Piscotty's reliable arm, Mark Marquess' squad improves to 36-14 with four more winnable contests on its schedule. The Farm Boys have already won seven in a row; if they're able to run the table and make it 11 to close out the regular season they will have reached this magic number.

Reaching 40 wins would be significant for a number of reasons. For one, it would show that Stanford is catching fire at the exact right time: entering the postseason. Second, it would give the Cardinal a legitimate shot to win the conference title, considering the ever-tightening nature of the standings. Finally, even if Oregon wins next weekend to deny Stanford that crown, winning 40 games and finishing second in the ultra-competitive Pac-12 would earn the squad serious consideration for one of the top eight national seeds in the NCAA tournament. Such positioning would build a road to Omaha directly through Sunken Diamond.

It's hard to derive much from Stanford's sweep over the Utes, except for the fact that the Cardinal prevailed in three games that they absolutely had to win. The club outscored the Pac-12's newcomer 16-2 behind consecutive stellar outings from Mark Appel, Brett Mooneyham, and Stephen Piscotty, but a quick look at Utah's pathetic numbers entering the weekend (.248 team average; 5.27 team ERA) confirm that the Utes are not yet up to Pac-12 baseball par.

Still, it's reassuring that the Cardinal finally appear to have their weekend pitching rotation set after their trio's second straight set of sharp work. Another big question has been answered with A.J. Vanegas settling into the closer's role. Now, all attention focuses to Tuesday's midweek tilt at Santa Clara (6 p.m., kzsulive.stanford.edu, 90.1 FM), during which Stanford will ask for a fourth starter to deliver the crucial non-conference win. The Broncos have struggled lately: their 4-17 league record has them mired in last place in the West Coast Conference.

The Cardinal will then return home to wrap up the regular season for some more winnable action. That'll be a series next weekend archrival California, a team that has struggled mightily this season on the heels of its surprising 2011 College World Series run. The Golden Bears have committed 87 errors in only 51 games this season, good for an ugly .956 fielding percentage.

So, running the table the rest of the way is feasible for Stanford. Winning the Pac-12 crown outright, though, would also require an Oregon State sweep of the Ducks next weekend and some other rivalry series help in Los Angeles and Tucson.

Oregon has the advantage of leading the pack entering the final three (19-8), while UCLA (17-10) will have the benefit of playing the worst opponent (USC) of the contenders during the deciding weekend. Arizona (18-9) has a formidable foe in Arizona State, while Stanford (17-10) is at disadvantage because of their record.

At this point, though, postseason positioning is most important, and that's why all sights are set on 40 wins. Along those lines, the Cardinal only need to worry about their own success. If they do that, they'll guarantee themselves a Regional at home and almost certainly eliminate the possibility of having to travel three time zones again for a potential Super Regional.

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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