Appel Nears History as Baseball Faces Test

Stanford baseball's season is on the line, and Mark Appel has a chance to break perhaps Stanford's most glamorous record on fireworks night. The Cardinal's 36-year NCAA title streak is also in jeopardy, but women's water polo has a chance to make it 37 in Boston.

The first two and a half months of this roller coaster Stanford baseball season provided far more confusion than reassurance. The most recent stretch hasn't provided any clarity either. It featured a devastating sweep at Oregon, an impressive bounce-back series victory at Arizona State (5-3, 9-8, 8-11), and a flummoxing 4-3 midweek home loss to San Francisco.

Still, the Cardinal (26-17, 11-10 Pac-12, RPI 73) may finally be in position to solidify their identity as a team and their positioning for an NCAA Tournament berth. Conference leader Oregon State (37-8, 17-4) is coming to town, and the Beavers present a ripe opportunity for Mark Marquess' enigmatic squad, which is faced with the very real possibility of missing the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in seven years after 24 straight seasons in the postseason.

2013: An Enigma of a Season
Stanford burst out of the gate sizzling, but only because of excellent mound efforts from Mark Appel and the bullpen. Once the relief corps' injury-riddled state dragged that unit back down to Earth, the Farm Boys became a downright bad baseball team for two weeks: they couldn't hit, pitch, or field throughout multiple embarrassing March losses to UNLV, Utah, and UC-Davis.

Stanford gradually regained its offensive footing against the weak stretch of a back-loaded conference schedule, benefiting immensely from slugger Austin Wilson's April return from elbow injury. The defense remained suspect and the pitching struggled with depth issues, sparking the disastrous late-game implosions at Oregon, but the club managed to keep its precarious hopes for a postseason bid alive behind gutsy play in the 90-plus degree Tempe heat.

The Puzzle-Solving Formula
There's a simple formula Stanford must adhere to for success this season, and they executed it well in the desert. Appel was terrific against the powerful Sun Devils Friday night, striking out 13 en route to series-opening win. (He's only 15 career strikeouts away from Kyle Peterson's Stanford career record of 363.) That meant the Cardinal only had to find a way to scratch out one more victory on the weekend, and they did just that Saturday, gutting through a late three-run deficit, the heat, and 11 innings to win the series. Brian Ragira was the extra-inning hero, while it was Wilson's three-run shot that evened up the score late.

Now comes this pivotal home series against Pat Casey's Beavers, a set that presents Stanford with the opportunity to complete the defining May splash that seems to be the prerequisite for any type of postseason run. But despite this weekend's beckoning opportunity, time is running out, and the Cardinal are still playing with their backs against the mat.

It's become apparent that Stanford will not have the pitching stability behind Appel to consistently cruise on Saturday and Sunday. The Cardinal do, though, have the offensive salvo to scratch out wins even when their pitching struggles, as long as they play good defense. That phase of the game abandoned them in Oregon but returned in Tempe. The defense has been unsteady all season, but this showdown with the Beavers presents a chance for the D to smooth the course of a talented ship.

A Chance Against the Best
Oregon State brings the Pac-12's top pitching staff (1.97 ERA, .209 opposing batting average) to Sunken Diamond. The Beavers complement that lights-out pitching with an attack that ranks among the conference top three in runs scored (5.7/game) and on-base percentage (.375). Sophomore Michael Conforto (.942 OPS, 7 HR, 32 RBI) remains the most dangerous bat on a team that has won eight straight and is looking to lock up the league title and accompanying national seed.

As Stanford fights for their postseason lives from the opposite dugout, Appel will be charged with beating Beavers' senior ace Matt Boyd on Friday's fireworks night before Oregon State hands the ball to phenom Andrew Moore (9-1, 1.37 ERA) Saturday. The freshman has tossed two consecutive shutouts and is part of a staff that features seven pitchers sporting a sub-2 ERA.

Stanford's Rebuttal May Include Bloom
To counter, Stanford will hope for solid situational hitting and top performances from John Hochstatter (who struggled at Arizona State) and Johnny Wholestaff. Inconsistent efforts in the third starter's position have created a perpetual question mark, while Sahil Bloom may be ready to bolster the bullpen as soon as Sunday, barring setbacks.

Despite the loss, the Farm Boys again flashed on Tuesday some of the same encouraging bat control that was frequently on display in Tempe. Well-timed hit-and-runs and sacrifice flies are essential, as every extra 90 feet figures to be critical against Oregon State's suffocating pitching this weekend. (Yet, with a conference-low 18 sacrifice hits, Stanford rarely elects to go small ball.)

Of course, the Cardinal's defense must consistently perform. The team's current .969 fielding percentage reflects unsteady play that could doom the Cardinal in their final three weekends against the Beavers, Cal, and UCLA. With the calendar turned to May, there's no more room for sloppy play, especially considering the fact that Stanford is walking on such thin ice.

Also Don't Miss
Stanford women's water polo is in Boston for the eight-team NCAA Championship tournament, and the team carries more than just its three-peat hopes into Beantown. At least one Stanford team has won an NCAA title in 36 straight academic years, but that streak is in jeopardy in 2012-2013. John Tanner's club presents the best opportunity for Stanford to extend the mark, but they'll likely have to again defeat powerhouse USC for the crown. The Cardinal (27-2) and Trojans (24-1) have only lost to each other this season. Their most recent match-up ended with an 11-7 USC victory in the MPSF Championship game.

Stanford opens action on Friday against Iona. If they win, they'll face the UCLA/Princeton winner Saturday before having a shot at the critical NCAA title on Sunday, May 12.

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

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