Baseball Stumbles Vs. Utah, Davis; WSU next

Stanford baseball has hit rock bottom. At least that's the hope after the Cardinal lost three of four to inferior competition. The conference-opening series against Utah saw weekend defeats (3-2 in 10 on Saturday, 7-5 on Sunday) erase any momentum Friday's 6-4 win may have generated. Tuesday's 2-1 setback at UC Davis capped the offense's struggles. Next up: a series in Pullman, starting Thursday.

Common sense expected Cardinal offensive production to take a hit after the 2012 MLB Draft and Austin Wilson's elbow injury sucked 368 hits, 28 home runs, and 217 RBI from the program's starting lineup. Common sense, however, did not expect that Stanford (11-8, 1-2 Pac-12) would morph into one of the league's least productive offenses. Yet here we are, about 20 games into the 2013 season, with the Farm Boys in the Pac-12 run production cellar.

The Cardinal have plated a league-low 69 runs. Last year's 6.7 run-per-game average has taken a three-run gut punch (3.63 now), and that's something few saw coming, despite the personnel losses. The Stanford lineup, after all, is still stocked with big, physical talent highly recruited out of high school. Coming off the bus, Mark Marquess' squad still looks more imposing than any other team's in the Pac-12, if not the entire country.

Granted, the current 19-game sample isn't definitively large. The problem is that college baseball doesn't play a 162-game regular season. Conference play offers Stanford only 30 contests to fix things, and the Cardinal's first three in that stretch were not promising, as Stanford dropped a home series to projected cellar-dweller Utah. Neither was Tuesday's outing against UC Davis, a game in which Stanford managed only one run against a pitching staff yielding a 5.20 ERA. The Aggies have allowed well over a hit per inning, but the Cardinal mustered only four knocks all game against their Big West opponents' midweek pitching staff. The true torture came in the bottom of the ninth inning, when UC Davis plated the tying and winning runs against Stanford's taxed bullpen to walk off with the victory.

The Cardinal's offensive struggles are accentuated by the team's mere 15 sacrifices (eight bunts, seven flies), a total that's also good for last in the Pac-12. In the past, Stanford has typically possessed an offensive arsenal so impressive as to render small ball unnecessary in the midst of searing doubles and booming home runs. But the shock of so many massive talent departures has created a new void that must be filled with markedly improved situational hitting moving forward.

Stanford baseball is at a crossroads. If this 2013 installment is unable to address its woes and make a run at the College World Series, it will have been half a decade since the program regarded as the Duke basketball of the college baseball world reached the promised land of Omaha.

No matter how dominant pitcher Mark Appel is, it's difficult to see that drought ending if this club is faced with a postseason path that does not go at least partially through Sunken Diamond. Stanford must scratch and claw its way to a postseason hosting spot to avoid facing lottery odds come June, and that effort must commence Thursday in Pullman. The season is simply too short to wait any longer.

Coming Up: The Palouse
Washington State is also hitting the ball far too well for Stanford to continue napping offensively. The Cougars' .333 team average leads the Pac-12, as do their 17 home runs, .406 on-base percentage, .479 slugging percentage, and 390 total bases. The pitching (3.87 ERA) has scuffled at times, but it's been steady enough to already push Washington State past host Arizona State on to open the Cougs' season.

So, comprehensive improvement at the plate must occur just as the degree of difficulty climbs for Stanford. Appel is putting together a spectacular season. Justin Ringo, Austin Slater, and Brant Whiting are all coming into their own. Now, though, it's time for the entire machine to fire to life.



David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.

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