Writer’s note: Please feel free to reach out with feedback and what you want to see more of from these weekend recaps – I’m still trying to figure out a format I’m comfortable with, and for now, I’m going to maybe do 500 words on big-picture things before giving observations from each of the games and some miscellaneous bullet points at the end.
Winter Quarter final exams are a rough time for any of the 7,019 undergraduates enrolled at Stanford, and the Cardinal baseball team celebrated the official conclusion of finals week on Friday by roaring to a sweep of the Kansas Jayhawks behind some stellar pitching and defense to wrap up its non-conference season with a 10-5 record.
The series marked the first sweep by Stanford since the Cardinal took three against Utah from May 24-25, 2014 and gave Stanford its second series victory of the season after it opened the year by taking two of three from Cal State Fullerton.
Most promisingly, the three games won by the Cardinal over the weekend were three different kinds of victories: Friday’s contest was a high-caliber pitchers’ duel, while Saturday saw the struggling offense finally string some hits together in an explosive seven-run fifth, and Sunday brought the renaissance of the long ball in a rain-soaked series finale at Sunken Diamond.
We knew the pitching was going to be good – Tristan Beck has certainly proved his mettle with stellar starts against Cal State Fullerton and Vanderbilt, and he was his typical dominant self in the opener. But the two things that really stood out to help Stanford win this weekend were the starting pitching depth and a noticeable improvement on offense since the team last played.
It helped that Kansas committed 4 errors over the weekend and the Jayhawks’ bullpen was simply atrocious (after this weekend, every consistent reliever except the closer will have an ERA of over 7.00).
Over the two-week finals break between the Vanderbilt series and the Kansas series, the team focused particularly hard on cutting down on strikeouts by taking a less aggressive approach at the plate and waiting on pitches to focus on making good contact to all fields.
“We’re just trying to see the ball longer,” said freshman second baseman Nico Hoerner. “We had too many strikeouts before and I think if you looked at a spray chart of this weekend, most of our hits were to the opposite field. It’s easier said than done, actually, and when you get two weeks to work on it, it definitely helps.”
Stanford finished its first session of ball hitting .212 as a team, but thanks to some great hitting from the top of the lineup over the weekend and the offensive explosion on Saturday, the team hit .290 against the Jayhawks. Moreover, most of those hits were really stung – these weren’t cheap hits that just dribbled through the infield in just the right place; these were hard-hit line drives that were really squared up.
As to Hoerner’s claim that the team was focusing on hitting to the opposite field, here are the spray chart numbers on the hits this weekend:
That’s a pretty darn good distribution – and looking at the extra-base hit numbers, you can clearly see that when the hitters are pulling balls, they’re making great contact into the left-center and right-center alleys for extra bases.
As Marquess pointed out after the series, this was a pretty good ballclub even with the hitters struggling. Now, imagine what the team could look like once the bats get going.
“We were 7-5 and hitting .210 -- so if we start hitting a little bit, we’ll be really good,” Marquess said. “And we’re young -- we have a lot of young freshman hitters.”
As to the starting pitching depth, it’s obviously not ideal when your Saturday and Sunday starters are both pulled before the second innings of their respective starts, but the Cardinal were bailed out by having two idle starters sitting in their bullpen ready to go out and make “piggyback starts,” in effect, to get the Cardinal deep into the game without burning relievers.
Chris Castellanos (6.0 IP) and Andrew Summerville (5.1 IP) looked fantastic in relief, especially with their off-speed stuff, which they could throw consistently for strikes, even on two-ball and three-ball counts. That’s the kind of confidence this staff has right now.
Also, quick note: Tremendous baserunning and defense over the weekend. Kansas was forced into at least two errors that I can remember by the Cardinal’s aggressive baserunning, and Stanford only committed two errors over the weekend to move their total to a paltry 7. Quinn Brodey threw out a runner at the plate from right field and Mikey Diekroeger started a phenomenal 5-4-3 double play to save a few runs (and Colton Hock’s 0.00 ERA) late in Sunday’s game.
Game 1: Stanford 2, Kansas 0
I can’t speak too much about this game because I had a final exam on Friday night and couldn’t make it out, but from what I heard, it was a clean, old-fashioned pitchers’ duel. Kansas lefty Ben Krauth went the distance, giving up 2 runs – both in the fourth, when Hoerner tripled and Diekroeger doubled before coming home on a Brodey sac fly.
Beck was just phenomenal (as expected). His fastball was thrown with pinpoint accuracy (as usual) and he was pulled after six-plus after back-to-back hits and a sac bunt in the seventh. He struck out six and walked just one in a shutout effort.
Hock made quick work of the traffic that Beck left, as he struck out all five of the hitters he faced through the seventh and eighth in his most dominant outing of the season. More impressively, three of those strikeouts came after 2-0 counts – great job by the sophomore to work his way back into favorable counts and not making mistakes that could be driven a long way.
Viall came in for a shutdown ninth inning for his first save of the season with a walk and two strikeouts to show for it.
Game 2: Stanford 10, Kansas 4
It was one of those ugly games where neither starter (Stanford: Brett Hanewich, Kansas: Jackson Goddard) made it out of the second inning. It was a second straight disappointing outing for Hanewich, who gave up 5 ER in a 4.2-inning start against Vandy his last time out. He got two quick outs in the first inning before laboring through two walks, a single, a hit batter and a bases-loaded walk to plate two runs for the Jayhawks and end his outing early.
It looked like Hanewich just couldn’t find a consistent release point for his big, three-quarters delivery, and given his arm angle, that meant that he was missing all over the place horizontally. Whatever the reason, he was pulled early and Castellanos came in and gave a stellar six innings before Tyler Thorne came in to mop up at the end with 2.1 perfect innings.
Luckily for the Cardinal, Goddard struggled as much as Hanewich and was pulled in the second after already having walked four and given up three hits. He issued a bases-loaded walk of his own in the first (how often do you see both starters issue a bases-loaded walk in the same inning?) and gave up an RBI single to Matt Winaker to boot before exiting in the second.
Stanford had at least one baserunner in every inning but a lot of rallies came with two outs and the Cardinal just couldn’t find the timely hit until the fifth, when Stanford blew the game open with a flurry of hard-hit singles to center for a 7-spot (the biggest inning of the season), batting around and taking advantage of three Kansas errors in the process.
In the end, the situational hitting numbers actually didn’t look all that bad after the fifth-inning flurry: 7-for-14 with 2 outs, 6-for-15 with RISP.
Winaker had a fantastic day at the plate, tying a career-high with 3 hits to drive in 2 RBIs. Every Stanford starter except Hoerner notched a hit and five hitters (Edman, Mikey, Winaker, Dunlap, Carter) had multiple hits.
For some reason, Kansas used seven relievers in the game (and were switching pitchers often even after it was clear they weren’t going to win the game). Why not follow conventional wisdom and preserve your bullpen for the rubber game? Switching pitchers isn’t going to help much when every non-closer reliever you have has a 7-plus ERA (seriously, look it up if you don’t believe me).
Meanwhile, despite Hanewich’s struggles, Stanford only needed three pitchers to finish (and win) this game.
Game 3: Stanford 6, Kansas 2
Another shaky start in some intermittent heavy rain, this time from freshman Kris Bubic, who only lasted 1.2 innings and departed after throwing only 44 pitches and allowing a run. He was missing high with his fastball, and though he wasn’t leaving too many over the plate, Kansas’ hitters were taking solid swings and making good contact. Credit to them.
Summerville came in for 5.1 innings of relief and only allowed one unearned run to pick up his second win of the season, striking out four and walking just one. He worked into a bit of a jam in the seventh and ended up allowing an RBI double before picking up a big strikeout to close his outing. He’s looked great in all three of his outings this season, and I’d expect him to move his way back into the rotation.
Hoerner picked up three hits and freshman Brandon Wulff, hitting cleanup, knocked two hits of his own to help pace the club. Down 1-0 in the third, Winaker got hit by the pitch and Klein walked on four pitches to set up a sac bunt by Edman before Hoerner drove them both in with a solid knock to center. Wulff brought Hoerner home with a hard-hit ball through the left side to push the Cardinal out to a 3-1 advantage.
This is where things got fun.
After the offense got held in check, Wulff turned on a pitch on the inner half in the sixth and didn’t make fantastic contact (sounded like a pop fly off the bat) but somehow muscled it all the way out of the ballpark over the 335 marker down the line in left. The considerable wind certainly helped prop it up a bit, but it was ridiculously impressive from the freshman who has been exciting everyone with his power – hopefully, flashes of things to come.
Not to be outdone, freshman Duke Kinamon led off the seventh by turning on a fastball and launching one of the deeper home runs I’ve seen in my four years at Sunken Diamond – clear over the tree line in left field. Simply majestic. Apparently Kinamon has shown some truly ridiculous power in fall ball and batting practice (hitting home runs off the batter’s eye in center field, among other things), so look for Kinamon, who also notched his first collegiate hit on Saturday, to flex his muscles as his playing time increases.
Hock and Viall once again shut things down to finish the game. Ho-hum. The big three (Hock, Viall, Thorne) still have yet to give up an earned run this season.
· Stanford’s team ERA is down to 2.18, tops in the Pac-12 by a wide margin (ASU is second at 2.54). Stanford has allowed the fewest hits, runs, earned runs and walks in the conference as well. This includes the games against Vanderbilt, the best offense in the country.
· John Hochstatter has reportedly had some great bullpen sessions as of late and I’ve heard that he’s likely going to get the start tomorrow at UC Davis. This would put his recovery a few weeks ahead of schedule and would only make Stanford’s already-stacked rotation even scarier and deeper. Not the best raw stuff on the team, but he’s a savvy veteran that has truly seen it all.
· Lots of scouts in attendance over the weekend to look at Stanford’s pitchers – particularly Chris Viall, who is draft-eligible after this season. I’ve heard he touched 96 mph during fall ball, and he topped out at 94 in his save on Sunday.
· Stanford busted out the traditional home white uniforms for the first time this weekend (they had exclusively worn the red alternates at home before the finals break). Apparently the white uniforms weren’t ready until now because of patches or something. Red unis should stay a thing for Sundays.
· Hoerner was 5-for-10 over the weekend with 2 walks. His average is up to .304, tops among regular starters. His 17 hits co-lead the team and his 4 extra-base hits tie him with Jonny Locher for third on the team.
· Kinamon got three starts in left field after returning from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for most of the pre-finals-break session. He was supposed to compete with Hoerner for the second-base job this year, but… well, there’s no taking Nico Hoerner out of this lineup.