The right-hander's spectacular career-high 15-strikeout, one-walk performance: wasted in a 3-2 loss.
The wheels then came off, derailing Stanford's train to the tune of a 12-2 beatdown Saturday a 5-1 setback Sunday. On the weekend, the Farm Boys committed eight errors while scoring only five runs.
"We have to go back to our strong points: pitching and defense." Brian Ragira said. "I think defense left us this weekend."
Offensive deficiency compounded the problem. It had been a concern all season, but it didn't become a glaring issue until Friday, after Stanford's poor second inning in the field created a frustrating deficit. Down by one in the seventh with two runners in scoring position, the Cardinal had a golden opportunity to tie or even take the lead. But Ragira and Justin Ringo, the club's No. 3 and 4 bats, both waved through nasty Bobby Zuniga sliders.
From that point onward, offensive frustration became a weekend fixture. The whole ship sunk in Saturday's 10-run loss, but situational at-bats were glaringly unproductive while the team's overall approach at the plate sputtered. Meanwhile, UNLV capitalized by throwing darts at the corners of the strike zone. It took Sunday Rebels starter John Richy just 58 pitches to work through six frames.
"You've gotta give them credit," Ragira said. "All their starters were pounding the zone with three to four pitches and really attacking us."
For Richy, that formula yielded a complete game two-hitter against a Stanford team that's now hitting .244 for the season, with only 55 runs through the first 15 games. Keep in mind that last year's club had produced 133 runs, or 78 more, in the same amount of time. Nearly the entire starting lineup was hitting .300 or better. This season, only occasional starter Brant Whiting (6-for-12) is above that mark.
Problems in the Field
Significant personnel departures have obviously slowed the Stanford attack. That means Ragira's aforementioned priorities, pitching and defense, must carry the day for the Cardinal, at least temporarily.
The formula was holding up until the UNLV series. Stanford's pitching had been humming along, and the defense had committed a respectable 15 errors in 12 games. But on Friday, the gloves took a second-inning nap that turned into a three-day slumber. Three errors in the frame robbed Appel, who has now been spectacular in three consecutive starts. Three more misplays affected Saturday's game, while another two Sunday ensured that all five runs that UNLV scored against Bobby Zarubin were unearned.
"We've been playing so well defensively all year [up until this point]," veteran reliever Sam Lindquist said. "If this were happening every weekend, maybe it would be something to worry about. But having a weekend like this, it's out of the ordinary, but not something we're worried about. We're definitely going to look at it and make sure it doesn't happen again."
The importance of quality defense is essential: Had they played cleanly in the field, Stanford would have taken two of three from the Rebels, despite their anemic offensive play. But while pitching and defense are indeed theoretically enough to scratch out wins, counting on a flawless game with the gloves is tantamount to playing with fire. The Cardinal need more insurance, and they'd be best suited buying it with their bats moving forward.
The hope is that this current two-week winter finals break from action, a hiatus that stalled the team's prolific offensive attack last season, works the opposite magic this year. Alex Blandino's deep bomb and three-hit Friday night represented a glimmer of explosive hope heading into the break. With a clean Pac-12 slate awaiting, the hope is that the full explosion awaits.
"It's baseball. It's about staying the course, getting back into the cages," Ragira said. "Getting the mechanics in line."
Lindquist Mans the Closer's Role
Though he didn't have an opportunity to notch his team-leading fourth save this weekend, burly junior Sam Lindquist represents a major reason why Stanford has not yet lost a game it has led this season. The right-hander has notched a 1.93 ERA over eight appearances and has been Rusty Filter's most trusted late-game reliever thus far, just a year after playing in only nine games and struggling to a 7.36 ERA.
"The main thing for me this year is that I've gone out there trying to compete," Lindquist said. "Last year, I was focusing on keeping the ball down and throwing hard. Now, I'm focusing on competing."
The results have been noticeable. Lindquist has assumed the role of injured closer AJ Vanegas, expected to return in early April. On top of his gutsy save in apocalyptic winds at Santa Clara on Tuesday, Lindquist has delivered 14 strikeouts against only five walks in his mound time, a marked improvement over last season's even strikeout-to-walk ratio. Stanford hitters commonly say Lindquist's pitches are "heavy" and thus difficult to hit because of the strength that his six-foot-six, 255-pound frame generates behind the baseball. Casual fans may deem Austin Wilson the most powerful player on a physical Cardinal team, but word is that Lindquist gives No. 30 a serious run for his money in the muscle category.
Even though Lindquist's brawn cannot be infused into Stanford's lineup to cure the team's offensive woes, the smiling Washingtonian is optimistic that the Cardinal bats are merely in an early-season slump.
"I think guys are seeing the ball well," he said. "It's baseball, tough sport. They've got to maintain a good approach."
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
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