The Cardinal have played four consecutive games of solid situational baseball, albeit against bad teams. But the hustle and offensive precision sparked a road sweep of California (9-8, 9-4, 6-3) and an 11-2 midweek victory over Pacific. There's nothing wrong with sweeping all five games of a season series against one's archrival, so this brief stretch of consistent play has at least salvaged part of what has been a turbulent season on The Farm.
But it may be a classic case of too little, too late for Stanford's postseason hopes. Still, there remains a slight chance that the tournament selection committee will favor the Cardinal pedigree if Mark Marquess' squad can sweep powerhouse UCLA to close the season, particularly if the Farm Boys can squeak their way into the Pac-12's fourth place position. Stanford is currently in fifth, one game behind Arizona State. Since the Cardinal took two of three against the Sun Devils, they own a potential tiebreaker versus the Fork.
"We know where we're at. We know we're in a tough place, but all we can do is win," said third baseman Alex Blandino, after blasting a pair of home runs Tuesday. "We have nothing to lose. I think we're playing maybe the best team baseball we've played all year. We're just going to keep that rolling into the weekend and hope for the best."
After last Tuesday's disastrous home loss to RPI No. 280 Santa Clara lowered Stanford's own projected RPI to No. 101, this past week's success at Evans Diamond and against Pacific helped that figure recover back to about No. 75, a mark which must still considerably improve for the squad to be legitimately considered for postseason play. The Bruins' No. 16 RPI offers at least a semblance of hope for the Farm Boys closing out the season because wins over a highly-ranked team offer a significant potential reward.
RPI is not the only metric used to determine which teams make the NCAA Tournament, but it is an essential component of the process. A club's consistency, late-season performance, and aforementioned conference placing are three other factors that the committee can examine when evaluating a team. Stanford's overall performance in those regards is also still in question, but a 7-0 finish has potential to turn at least some heads.
Resurrection of Situational Baseball
After the Santa Clara nightmare, Stanford drastically shook up its style of play.
"That loss was tough. Getting shut out at home is never good," Blandino said. "As a team, we just looked at each other man to man and said we've got to come and start competing better and taking things personally. Because we know we're better than that, and we know that we're better than what we've been doing this whole year."
A team that had played extremely stale baseball over the course of its deflating six-game losing streak reinvigorated its play from the get-go at Berkeley, when Austin Slater, the Cardinal's second batter of the game, hustled to turn a single into a double. That set the tone for a binge of newfound successful situational baseball: in the first game of the series, Stanford laid down two good sacrifice bunts (accounting for 10 percent of their season total) and a pair of sacrifice flies drove in two runs. Solid execution continued through the weekend and into Tuesday, when an early double steal helped open the floodgates against Pacific.
"We've been shaking up the offense a little bit," Blandino said. "Coach Marquess has been putting on some hit-and-runs, some bunts, doing more to manufacture some runs, and I think it's paid off."
Taylor, Kauppila Roar to Life
Lonnie Kauppila had lost some playing time to freshman Drew Jackson down the stretch this season, but the junior firmly re-established himself as a fixture at the shortstop position with a fantastic offensive weekend at Cal. Kauppila finished 8-for-13 over the course of the Cardinal's sweep, delivering the pivotal two-run double on Friday and driving in two more runs in Sunday's 7-3 victory.
Wayne Taylor unleashed offensive prowess of his own, blasting two home runs out of the ballpark to the opposite field on Friday night. Stanford has been itching for consistent production outside of Brian Ragira, Austin Wilson, Danny Diekroeger, Justin Ringo, and Austin Slater, so the recent Kauppila-Taylor-Blandino offensive surge is a very positive development before the season-closing series against UCLA.
On Deck: UCLA
Tied with Oregon for second place in the Pac-12, the Bruins (38-15, 20-7) sport an excellent 2.73 ERA as they invade Sunken Diamond looking to earn a national seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. The Baby Blue's team batting average (.253) is the worst in the conference, but they play the best defense in the league (.980 fielding percentage). In fact, they're constructed very similarly to Oregon and Oregon State, the two Pac-12 clubs that have swept Stanford this year.
"It's college baseball: pitching and defense win a lot of games," Blandino said. "And if you look at UCLA's offensive numbers, they aren't brilliant. But their pitching numbers are pretty unbelievable. We know how they're going to try to beat us. We know what we're going to have to do to win games. Ultimately, we're going to have to come out and swing it."
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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