Fast forward 365 days. Stanford is hoping that the finals break will give it a nudge in the opposite direction this time around. The Cardinal are scuffling at the plate in 2013. Their .244 average is about 100 points lower than at this time last year; their 170 total bases are worst in the Pac-12; their league-worst 55 total runs are 115 shy of Pac-12 best Arizona.
Needless to say, the losses of Stephen Piscotty, Jake Stewart, Eric Smith, Kenny Diekroeger, Tyler Gaffney, and Austin Wilson (recovering from early-season elbow injury) have sapped the punch out of Stanford's lineup. So the Cardinal now turn to their break for mental rest and a chance to iron out problems at the plate.
"It's baseball," powerful first baseman Brian Ragira said. "It's about staying the course, getting back into the cages, getting the mechanics in line."
Those deals may also summon additional focus in situational plate appearances. The team has registered only six successful sacrifices, second worst in the Pac-12 and 21 fewer than league-leading Oregon.
Still, this Stanford lineup remains stocked with undeniable talent. Utah, the club's first Pac-12 opponent out of the break, will throw mediocre pitching at the Cardinal. That should offer the Farm Boys an immediate chance to break out of their funk to open conference play, as Mark Marquess' squad outscored the Utes 18-2 over three games in Salt Lake City last year. Plus, the 2013 campaign is only 15 games old. It's important to remember that's a relatively small sample size.
"I think guys are seeing the ball well," said reliever Sam Lindquist, echoing Ragira's confidence. "It's baseball, a tough sport. They've got to maintain a good approach."
Pitching and Defense
Just as Stanford's offense hit its dreariest point during visiting UNLV's sweep before the break, the team's defense simultaneously faltered. The Cardinal committed eight errors over the weekend while scoring only five runs.
"We've been playing so well defensively [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."
Led by senior sensation Mark Appel, Stanford's pitching has delivered a fantastic 2.08 ERA that has pushed the club to win two thirds of its early games, despite all the offensive troubles. Appel is on a solid pace to challenge the school's single-season strikeout record, but even sensational pitching cannot overcome a lack of hitting and poor defense. That's a lesson Appel earned the hard way after losing to UNLV in his career-high 15 strikeout performance two Fridays ago.
The flamethrower will again take the Sunken Diamond mound Friday. He should be primed to deliver his fourth consecutive sensational effort. After taking off two weeks to tackle winter quarter final exams, Appel's supporting cast will look to rediscover precision that can establish a strong Stanford foothold early in the Pac-12 race.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
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