**All Games at Stanford Sunken Diamond
Probable Starters and Times:
Friday: RHP Ian Kennedy (6-2, 2.71 ERA) vs. LHP Mark Romanczuk (10-1, 3.93 ERA), 6 PM.
Saturday: TBA vs. Jeff Gilmore (8-2, 4.89 ERA), 1 PM.
Sunday: TBA vs. TBA, 1 PM.
Remember the movie Groundhog Day where Bill Murray's character wakes up every morning and the calendar says February 2nd, and he repeats the day over and over again? The last three or four Stanford Baseball seasons have been like that movie. Since 2001, the Cardinal has struggled in late April-early May, eventually heating up in time for the end of the regular season, carrying that momentum into postseason play. Once again in 2004, the Cardinal wake up to the Groundhog Day alarm clock, staring a critical Pac-10 series with the USC Trojans directly in the face.
Yes, there are major issues with this team right now. Against Arizona in Tucson, the pitching staff, including the nearly untouchable closer David O'Hagan, had difficulties getting anyone out, as the Wildcats scored 39 runs in three games. The third starter spot continues to be a revolving door with no final answer in sight. And, Jonny Ash's finger injury continues to leave a hole in Stanford's lineup that has not been complete resolved. However, despite those problems, the Cardinal are in a position that virtually every team in the country would love to be: in control of their own conference destiny, in control of their own NCAA tournament destiny, and in possession of one of, if not the top offenses in the country.
Meanwhile, the USC Trojans are in the midst of their second consecutive season that can be considered a major disappointment. In 2003, the Trojans missed the tournament, and in 2004, the Trojans will do the same barring two straight series sweeps and a gift from the NCAA Tournament Committee. Mike Gillespie's club has underachieved all around the diamond, with the major exception of Ian Kennedy, the freshman right-hander who looks to be a mainstay in the Trojan rotation for the next few years. USC has lost three straight Pac-10 series, including two of three games last week against the Washington Huskies. Falling to Pepperdine on Tuesday, the Trojans have assured themselves of a 2nd straight season without a winning record. However, the Trojans have given teams problems, winning a series at Arizona St., at Top 25 Mississippi State, and taking a game from #1 Stanford in March.
Things to Watch:
1. Déjà vu all over again. Is 2004 like 2003 when the Cardinal beat the Trojans after a cold spell, or is this 1998 where the Cardinal hit the skids heading into and during the postseason.
2. Stanford pitching. Can the Cardinal find a dependable #3 starter and a few relievers besides O'Hagan who can be counted on after the 6th inning?
3. Jed Lowrie. In 2004, you can't take your eye off of him. He is challenging some of the record numbers that Ryan Garko put up just a year ago.
4. Ian Kennedy of USC. Pac-10 Freshman of the Year candidate has the ability to win a game by himself on the mound.
1. Chris Carter: 4-4 on Monday, 2 HR on Sunday have helped turn the season around for Carter, who has the best power of any #8 hitter in college baseball.
2. Jed Lowrie/Danny Putnam. After what Quentin/Garko did in the 3/4 spots in the lineup in 2003, who would have thought it could be duplicated? All Lowrie and Putnam are trying to do is best two All-Americans.
3. Blake Sharpe, USC 2B. Hitting .335, good for second on the team, after 3 doubles on Tuesday.
By the Numbers:
* #1 Ranking (Baseball America), #1 ISR (Boyd's World), #8 Strength of Schedule, #10 RPI
* .330 Team Batting Average, 84 HR, .975 fielding percentage, 4.31 team ERA.
* 23-1 at home in 2004, including a 16 game home winning streak.
* 4-4 in last 8 games.
* 2-1 against USC this year
With only 10 losses through 50 games, it would seem as if the Stanford Cardinal doesn't have much to worry about as they head into the final six games of the season. However, after two straight series losses, the Cardinal are in danger of finishing behind Washington in the Pac-10 conference standings (currently 0.5 games behind) and even potentially dropping out of national seed contention for the NCAA Tournament, despite a #1 ranking in the polls. How could that be? Well, the NCAA Tournament Committee has notoriously relied on RPI as a measure to determine the eight national seeds. With an RPI of 10, the Cardinal could in theory be left out of the hunt on Selection Monday. However, with a few series wins to wrap up the season, Stanford would almost assuredly garner a Top 8 seed. That, more than anything, makes this series with USC critical.
Clearly, the Cardinal have the advantage on paper in this series. They have two of the best hitters in the country in Jed Lowrie and Danny Putnam, who combined for 15 hits and 11 RBI during the Arizona series. Both have averages hovering around .400 and homerun numbers in the mid-teens. Chris Carter has turned his season around with a .420 average in Pac-10 play after a slow start, and he is hitting eighth in the lineup. On the mound, Mark Romanczuk has lost just one regular season game in two seasons, posting a 10-1 mark and a solid 3.93 ERA.
There are really just two things holding this team back: injuries and consistent quality pitching (admittedly, a big question mark). First, injuries: Jonny Ash's finger injury has left the Cardinal short handed at third base despite the growing power of Chris Lewis. Ash has missed 16 games with injury, leaving the Cardinal without a hitter who has a .374 average and .444 OBP and just four errors at 3B. However, Ash did take ground balls during batting practice on Tuesday and may be ready to return sometime soon, although this is just speculation. John Mayberry Jr. seems to have mostly recovered from a shoulder bruise that kept him out of the lineup over the last few weeks, going 5-12 against Arizona with a HR.
Injuries aren't the problem on the hill. But Stanford's #3 starter is still TBA for Sunday. Possibilities include Matt Leva who pitched 3 solid innings as the #3 starter against Arizona, Greg Reynolds who hasn't pitched well on weekends but threw an effective four innings against USF, and Blake Holler who has been roughed up in Pac-10 play. However, don't forget there are some major positives on the staff. Romanzcuk has been a winner on Fridays, Gilmore has been good throughout most of the year, and O'Hagan, despite one bad outing, has been lights out.
The fact remains that the next two weekends will help to decide whether Stanford is the dominant squad that did not lose a series from January to mid-May, or whether the Cardinal have hit the wall and will sputter to the finish line.
Stanford Starting Lineup
CF Sam Fuld .271, 3 HR, 27 RBI, .378 OBP
SS Chris Minaker .266, 2 HR, 25 RBI, .314 OBP
2B Jed Lowrie .412, 16 HR, 63 RBI, .512 OBP
LF Danny Putnam .392, 14 HR, 50 RBI, .469 OBP
1B John Mayberry, Jr. .345, 13 HR, 50 RBI, .427 OBP
C Donny Lucy .329, 11 HR, 42 RBI, .404 OBP
RF Brian Hall .364, 9 HR, 50 RBI, .429 OBP
DH Chris Carter .303, 8 HR, 35 RBI, .401 OBP
3B Chris Lewis .233, 4 HR, 7 RBI, .313 OBP
Mark Romanczuk has 10-1 mark, 4-0 in conference play, but he and Jeff Gilmore must step up in the last two weeks, as both of their ERA's now are over 5 in the Pac-10…Prediction from the author: watch David O'Hagan bounce back with a big performance this weekend. Its easy to take the last outing and have it cloud perceptions, but O'Hagan has been there all year long…The third starter is still TBA. If the bullpen hasn't been used much in the first few games, don't be surprised to see Greg Reynolds get the nod, with Matt Leva and Blake Holler to follow quickly if problems arise…One key as the Cardinal come down the stretch to me is Matt Manship. Because he can start, pitch in middle relief and close, he could be extremely valuable if he finds the form that he displayed in the second half of 2003.
By the Numbers:
* 22-28, 8-10 Conference Play, #1 Strength of Schedule.
* .291 batting average, 39 HR. .955 fielding percentage, 5.62 team ERA.
* 10-15 on the road in 2004.
* 1-2 vs. Stanford in 2004.
The best thing that Mike Gillespie can say about his 2004 club is that they are getting experience for 2005. After a hugely disappointing 2003, the Trojans have followed it up with another mediocre season, losing 28 games this year, including six of the last seven. While USC looked as if they could make a comeback after series wins against UCLA (nonconference) and Arizona St. in late March and early April, the Trojans quickly cooled off, losing series to Cal, Oregon St., UCLA, and Washington while defeating just Washington St. in that stretch.
Clearly, the best player and story for USC is the emergence of Ian Kennedy, their current and future ace. The righthander was named a Baseball America Midseason Freshman All-American after a 4-0 first half. He was invited to try out for Team USA (along with teammate Jeff Clement and Stanford standouts Jed Lowrie and John Mayberry Jr.) and has become the first USC freshman since Randy Flores in 1994 to be the Trojans #1 starter. His ERA and strikeout numbers are particularly impressive: 2.71 ERA and 107 Ks in 79.2 innings. Kennedy picked up a no-decision versus Stanford in the first meeting between these two teams, going 6 innings and fanning 5.
Besides Kennedy, USC's pitching has been a disaster. Only two other pitchers on the staff (Clayton Wentworth and Michael Friedman, mostly in relief) have an ERA under 5. After a promising freshman campaign, Bobby Paschal has disappointed in a big way with a 2-8 record and a 6.89 ERA. Josh Rummonds, who leads the team in appearances with 25, has a 6.70 ERA.
The hitting has been a little better that the pitching for the Trojans, but there have been disappointments offensively too. Joey Metropoulos has posted lower than average numbers for his career, hitting just .278 with 7 HRs. In 2002, he hit .352 with 13 HR. Jeff Clement was out for much of the first part of the year with mononucleosis but has recovered to hit 10 HR, still far short of his 2003 HR numbers when he hit 21 to lead the Pac-10. Billy Hart at 3B and Blake Sharpe at 2B have picked up some of the slack, but have combined for just 4 HR between the two. Plus, Hart and Sharpe have combined for a whopping 31 errors, with Hart posting a .882 fielding percentage and Sharpe only slightly better at .908.
While they have not played good baseball in over a month, USC can present problems. The Cardinal won two of three against USC in early March in a non-conference series, but the Trojans handled the Card in Game 3 and lost Game 2 by just one run. USC has quality wins against Georgia Tech, Mississippi St., and a series win at Arizona St. this season. The Cardinal will not take the Trojans lightly, but will hope to continue the dominance over USC they have had in the last four years, where the Cardinal have won 6 straight series (including the 2002 Super Regionals).
USC Starting Lineup:
SS Michael Moon .269, 7 HR, 35 RBI, .360 OBP
LF Jon Brewster .274, 4 HR, 25 RBI, .345 OBP
C Jeff Clement .291, 10 HR, 35 RBI, .421 OBP
1B Joey Metropoulos .278, 7 HR, 28 RBI, .432 OBP
DH Baron Frost .311, 4 HR, 30 RBI, .376 OBP
3B Billy Hart .353, 2 HR, 24 RBI, .433 OBP
2B Blake Sharpe .335, 2 HR, 26 RBI, .394 OBP
CF Daniel Perales .297, 2 HR, 32 RBI, .397 OBP
RF Cyle Hankerd .333, 1 HR, 26 RBI, .458 OBP
Ian Kennedy is USC's only announced starter. The most earned runs that he has given up in a start this year is 4, and he has gone at least 5 innings in every start…LHP Jon Rummonds (if he doesn't start) along with LHP Michael Friedman are the most likely to come out of the bullpen, as they have combined for 7 saves. One or both could also pick up a start…RHP Bret Butler (4-3, 6.41 ERA) is a definite candidate to start one of the weekend games….Losing RHP Brett Bannister to injury was devastating for this team, as he certainly would have been at worst a capable #2 starter…LHP Bobby Paschal hasn't thrown since May 3rd when he was shelled for 6 R on 3 H and 4 BB in 0.2 innings.
Thanks to Joe Ritzo for his help with some aspects of this story.