But winning on a dominant level is always easier said than done, especially in the nation's most brutal conference. The Pac-12 was precisely that this season. Conference play quickly turned into a bloodbath in which every team was dangerous. It fittingly ended in a two-way tie at the top with the next four teams all within two games of the trophy.
Stanford's national position suffered as the Cardinal navigated the Pac-12's treacherous waters. A sweep at the hands of Arizona was an early stomach punch, while an extra-inning series defeat to Oregon State was equally painful. More important than a national seed, though, is the fact that Stanford stayed afloat and established a true identity through difficult times.
At the beginning of the season, the bullpen and Sunday pitching positions were major question marks. The closer's role was vacant following the departure of Chris Reed. The initial options to fill both roles were freshmen: John Hochstatter was assigned to start games, while David Schmidt was asked to seal them. The pitching lineup turned over throughout the course of the regular season, however, with Stephen Piscotty emerging to grab the Sunday role and A.J. Vanegas locking down the closer's spot with an impressive fastball-slider combination.
Despite the disappointing final weekend, the Cardinal also regained newfound trust in the rest of their bullpen against Cal. Dean McArdle was sharp in 81 pitches during Friday's 18-inning affair, and Sahil Bloom's sinker efficiently popped Eric Smith's mitt to close the series on Sunday afternoon.
Stephen Piscotty's and Brian Ragira's brief but extreme cold streaks won't last forever. The Cardinal actually may have been lucky to get the thaws out the way during the regular season. Before Piscotty collected a hit late Sunday, the 3-4 combination in Stanford's lineup had combined to go 1-of-20 on the weekend. The guess here: that's a one-time occurrence.
Finally, the surprising emergence of young Cardinal contributors was another regular-season highlight. Alex Blandino (7 HR, 35 RBI), Danny Diekroeger (.351 average in 77 at-bats) and Dominic Jose (11 RBI in 39 at-bats) all showed up as dangerous presences alongside clutch-hitting Brett Michael Doran.
So, as they end the regular season, the Cardinal wield a powerful, athletic offense capable of exploding at any time – like they did on Opening Day. After a year of Pac-12 tribulations, though, Stanford has added more weapons yet to its arsenal. They now have a trusted, dependable three-man rotation, a bullpen with defined roles, and reliable contributors outside of the original starting nine.
Combine this strengthened identity with Stanford's first chance to host a regional since 2008, and you have a successful regular season that ended with a pair of damaging hiccups against Cal.
Nothing that that the postseason can't rectify.
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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