This past weekend showed just how good Stanford baseball can be when everything is clicking. Now, it’s just up to the Cardinal to push this performance through the home stretch of the season through a critical slate of conference games to make their case for the postseason.
Stanford needed this series win in a bad way after a tough stretch in which it lost seven of its last nine. After taking two of three from Cal over the weekend, Stanford now sits at a respectable 23-19 and is in a five-way tie for fifth place in the conference.
The Cal series saw the return of the Stanford team that we saw at the start of the season: tremendous pitching, decent hitting that wasn’t spectacular but did enough to win games. And – dare I say it – the team even looked like it was having fun out there on the diamond. It was really something.
It’s no big secret that in order to beat this loaded Cal lineup, you need to stop the Bears from going yard. Led by catcher/Kris Bryant impersonator Brett Cumberland, who is a threat to go yard literally every time his bat touches the ball, Cal had whacked 32 home runs coming into the series and features a lineup of bashers from top to bottom.
Thanks to some great work by the Stanford pitching staff, Cal leaves The Farm still with only 32 home runs to its name.
Freshman Kris Bubic got the ball on Thursday to keep Beck in his Friday starter rhythm, and he was rocked early before buckling down, allowing three early runs in the first two innings to give Cal a lead it wouldn’t let up – the Bears took Game 1, 4-1.
But Tristan Beck was – as always – spectacular. On Friday, his fastball was dancing, his curveball was biting and even on the rare occasions when Cal got runners in scoring position, it always felt like the freshman stud was in control of the game. And again, it bears mentioning for a second time that his curveball was absolutely devastating. The bottom was dropping out on Cal’s hitters all night when Beck was ahead in counts, and he made those curveballs count. It was a thing of beauty.
He came out firing, too. Beck struck out two in the first inning, and then he struck out his next six batters in a row, punching out the side in both the second and third innings, to pick up eight of the nine strikeouts in his performance before most people had even settled into their seats.
In the end, the freshman improved to 5-4 on the season after allowing just three hits through seven shutout innings in his best outing of the season, striking out nine while walking nobody to help Stanford easily coast to a 5-1 win.
Stanford fans were also treated to a vintage outing from junkball lefty Chris Castellanos in the rubber game on a wet Saturday night. Casty’s trademark control was on full display as he pounded the zone, only reaching three-ball counts on five of the 32 batters he faced. He went 7.2 innings and allowed two earned runs (four runs total), which was good enough with Stanford’s offense jumping all over Cal starter Tanner Dodson for five early runs.
Tyler Thorne was also spectacular in relief for Castellanos, bouncing back from a few rough outings over the last few weeks by throwing 13 of his 17 pitches for strikes to pick up the last four outs of the ballgame for the Cardinal – and the series victory.
The new-look Stanford lineup (with Matt Winaker hitting leadoff, Tommy Edman moving down into the three-hole and Mikey Diekroeger in the bottom half) also fared pretty well, knocking 25 hits on a pretty good Cal pitching staff over the weekend. Alex Dunlap extended his on-base streak to a season-high 17 games and hit safely in all three, while Tommy Edman’s average is straddling .300, as usual.
This offense isn’t going to be top-half of the Pac-12, and that’s okay: As long as it can do what it did this weekend – namely, string together some hits in a few innings and get an occasional long ball – the pitching staff is good enough that this offense can be more than good enough.
So here’s where we’re at: Stanford has now won its eighth straight season series over the Bears, and now sit in fifth place in the Pac-12 at 23-19 overall and 10-11 in conference play.
Though that doesn’t sound all too special at first glance, keep in mind that two years ago, when Stanford made its miracle Super Regional run, the Cardinal finished the regular season 29-23 with a non-conference schedule similar to this year’s – and snuck into an NCAA Regional with a No. 3 seed.
Current bracketology projections have the Pac-12 sending four teams to the tournament this season. With 10 of the 11 teams in the Pac-12 hovering within 3.5 games of the conference lead (seriously), you can make serious arguments for all 10 of those teams except maybe USC and Utah, which own mediocre overall records at best.
And here’s where Stanford’s schedule lines up favorably: The Cardinal’s three remaining series this season are against Utah (second in the Pac-12), Washington (first) and Oregon (tied for fifth). Those road trips to Salt Lake City and Seattle will undoubtedly be tough, but Stanford is absolutely the better team in all three remaining matchups. It’s all about the consistency.
Stanford ended that 2014 season on a run that helped it eke its way into the tournament – it’s shaping up to be another barn-burner of a home stretch in the 2016 campaign. Buckle up – it’s going to be a heck of a ride.