As it turns out, that setback was Appel's only loss of the regular season. With the MLB draft looming on Monday, the potential first pick has one more opportunity to impress scouts Friday, and it'll come in a revenge opportunity against Judge and the Bulldogs. One more win for the righty, by the way, would make him the first Stanford pitcher since Jeff Gilmore in 2005 to win 10 games in a single season.
"We're going to have the best pitcher in the country coming at us with a little chip on his shoulder," Fresno State coach Mike Batesole said. "Everybody knows he's 9-1, and we were the one. He's going to be throwing 100 miles per hour. He's a week away from an $8 million payday, and he's going to be fired up to make sure he's the first guy taken in the draft. That means we're going to have our hands full."
The Cardinal annihilated the Bulldogs in two games following Appel's series-opening loss. Saturday's game featured a 16-0 smashing, while Sunday's rubber match ended in 9-2 Stanford success. Although Mark Marquess' squad left the San Joaquin Valley with a winning feeling, this Friday's rematch to open the NCAA Regional is not expected to be a cakewalk for the favorite.
As usual, Fresno State is red-hot at the exact right time of the season. When Stanford first took two of three from the Bulldogs three months ago, Batesole's team was scuffling behind five freshmen new to college baseball. Now, with those same youngsters have adopted to Division I game, Fresno State has won 12 of its last 16. The Bulldogs capped the run with a 4-3, 13-inning thriller over Sacramento State in the WAC Tournament championship game to earn their date with Stanford.
"Our freshmen are essentially sophomores now," Batesole said. "This team is playing with a lot of heart, playing together, playing unselfish, and that's what it's all about."
Keep in mind that this late-season success is nothing new for the Fresno State program, which became the lowest-ever NCAA tournament seed to win the national championship in 2008. The Bulldogs are 85-31 in the month of May and 41-14 since 2006. And their late-season success this season has been spearheaded by freshmen who were struggling when Stanford last came calling: Jordan Luplow was named the MVP of the WAC Tournament after delivering the winning hit and driving in 10 runs over the course of six games, while shortstop Mariscal recovered from a brutal start at the plate to hit .329 in conference play.
As for Judge, he's still the integral cog of the Bulldogs lineup, though opponents have tried to avoid him. The sophomore's .459 on-base average is bolstered by his team-leading 46 walks and has led to a team-high 45 runs. Appel has given up only three home runs this entire season; Judge accounted for two of those shots in one game.
Fellow all-conference selection Kenny Wise won the WAC batting title (.434 in league action), driving in a team-leading 36 runs to protect Judge in the order. Trent Garrison's .333 average and second baseman's Patrick Hutcheson's five home runs are each team-leading figures. Stanford fans may best remember Hutcheson as the guy who broke up Brett Mooneyham's perfect game in the sixth inning of a 15-0 game with a bunt, but he's the perfect embodiment of a Fresno State lineup that has found an effective balance between scrappiness and power.
"We're just happy to be here," Hutcheson said. "We feel that we're playing good baseball. We feel that we will be competitive."
The Bulldogs have been ultimately driven by their pitching, though, and that's where the majority of their confidence comes from. Sophomore lefty Tyler Linehan is expected to start Friday against Appel after pitching effectively in Fresno State's March 2 win over Stanford. In that outing, Linehan pitched 5.2 inning of two-earned run ball. He hasn't toed the rubber since May 18, though, a start in which he only lasted four pitches before exiting with a strained back.
Batesole expects Linehan to be ready to go, but his confidence is reserved.
"The trainers came in and said he's 100 percent a few days ago," he said. "But 100 percent range of motion and 100 percent to get on the mound and beat Stanford are two different things."
Hard-throwing right hander Justin Hayley tossed 3.1 perfect innings in relief of Linehan to seal the Bulldog victory over Stanford, and he is expected to pitch as well. The Bulldogs also feature closer Taylor Garrison, who has racked up 10 saves during a fine 2012 senior campaign. Given the fact that JD Salles and Thomas Harlan have also pitched well for Fresno State, Batesole has repeated that there isn't pressure for Linehan to go deep into the game.
"I think more of what we're looking for is the quality, not so much the quantity. We need [Linehan] to give us everything that he has, just so it's neat and clean. Even if it is only three or four innings."
The Cardinal have won 9 of 11 entering the postseason, though they slipped in their final series against Cal. If there's a key for Stanford, it is to score early: the team is 14-1 when plating at least one run in the first inning this season. Good defense will also be important; both teams have been substandard in that category (Fresno State - .963 fielding percentage; Stanford - .967), though the Cardinal have improved to a .978 clip over the course of their season-ending winning ways.
The Palo Alto Regional also features Pepperdine and Michigan State, a team making its first postseason appearance in 33 years. All initial attention for Stanford, though, is on Fresno State for Friday's 6 p.m. first pitch. Hundreds of Bulldog fans are expected to make their way over Pacheco Pass to create what promises to be a true playoff-like environment at Sunken Diamond.
Fasten your postseason seatbelts.
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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