Baseball To Battle OSU In Key Series

Riding a four-game winning streak, the 10th ranked Cardinal get set for an important series this weekend at Sunken Diamond. Their opponent: the Oregon State Beavers. The surprise team in the conference, if not the entire country, the Beavers have the #16 national ranking with their spectacular 24-4 record. Armed with possibly the top pitcher in the Pac-10, Oregon State is certainly for real. Here is a series preview.

The next two weekends will tell us a lot about this year's Stanford baseball team.  The Cardinal have a nice four-game winning streak going, but all the victories have come against Washington State and Santa Clara - two struggling ballclubs.  And even though a sweep on the road in the Pac-10 is an impressive accomplishment, Stanford fans are plenty used to seeing this team handle the Cougars.  Now comes a matchup this weekend with 16th ranked Oregon State at Sunken Diamond followed by a tilt with 24th ranked Arizona State in Tempe next weekend.

Stanford's overall record currently stands at a respectable 18-9 while they boast the #10 national ranking.  The Cardinal have a series victory over USC - a team that has spent a portion of the regular season ranked in the top 25 and are clearly a NCAA Tournament caliber ballclub (if not a Pac-10 title contender).  Series wins over Cal, Fresno State, and Kansas are nice, but now we find out if Stanford is among the elite on the west coast. 

The Cardinal's early-season 1-5 record in games at Fullerton and Texas told us this team was not quite at national elite status.  Stanford was certainly competitive in those early-season losses (the five defeats were by a total of seven runs), but that combined with a couple of home setbacks to the likes of Sacramento State and Pacific last month prove that the 2005 Cardinal are not quite there yet. 

"There" is a College World Series type squad.  Six of Stanford's last eight teams have reached the promise land and there is plenty of hope that this year's team could also achieve that feat.  But the Cardinal now need to prove they can beat potential super regional and College World Series caliber ballclubs.  Close losses aren't nearly good enough.  They'll see two of those teams over the next nine days.

The Oregon State Beavers have basically come out of nowhere this season to post a 24-4 overall record.  They're a perfect 3-0 in Pac-10 play after a relatively easy sweep of California up in Corvallis last weekend.  Picked to finish near the bottom of the conference, OSU is now all of a sudden a Pac-10 favorite.  Here are some quick notes on their ballclub :

* Oregon State wins with pitching.  Their team ERA currently sits at a spectacular 2.76 - tops in the conference.  In particular, five pitchers carry the load for this team.

* Dallas Buck is the ace of the staff and would be the runaway choice for Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year if the season ended today.  The hard-throwing sophomore right-hander is a perfect 6-0 on the year with a sparkling 0.84 ERA.  Yes, in eight starts, his ERA is 0.84.  Over 53 2/3 innings, Buck has surrendered just 33 hits and five earned runs.  Opponents bat just .176 against the superstar while he's fanned 70 hitters on the season.  With numbers like that, Buck is also garnering attention as a National Player of the Year candidate.

* #2 starter Anton Maxwell has a solid 4.03 ERA and .236 opponents batting average, but that doesn't compare to who gets the ball on Sunday.  Jonah Nickerson has burst onto the scene this season to record a 6-0 record with a 1.17 ERA through eight starts.  With numbers like that, Nickerson would probably be the #1 starter on 289 out of the 290 teams in Division I college baseball.  That one exception though is Oregon State where Buck's statistics are even more mind-boggling.  And while Buck was coming off a dominating summer in the Cape Cod League (good enough for him to earn Preseason All-American honors), Nickerson was a virtual unknown on the west coast.  That's no longer the case as this young hurler has allowed only six earned runs over his eight appearances.  His strikeout-to-walk ratio is even better than Buck's too (57-to-9 compared to Buck's 70-to-18).  If Stanford manages to win this series, they'll likely have to get to either Buck or Nickerson and as the numbers indicate, that will be very difficult to do.  Oregon State has yet to lose a series this season.

* Out of the bullpen, the Beavers aren't particularly deep, but that hasn't been necessary with the type of starting pitching they routinely receive.  However, two relievers are having fantastic seasons and you can certainly expect to see both in key spots in the late innings this weekend.  Kevin Gunderson and Nate Fogle have combined for ten saves on the year while each boasts impressive ERA's and strike out-to-walk ratios.  Gunderson is currently at 2.61 with 31 strike outs and just seven walks in 31 innings.  Meanwhile, Fogle has an even better earned run average at 1.32 with 28 K's compared to just seven walks over 27 1/3 innings.  Both pitchers see a lot of action with Gunderson appearing in 15 of OSU's first 28 contests while Fogle has thrown in 13 games.  Of note, Gunderson throws from the left side while Fogle is right-handed.

* These five pitchers are all very difficult to hit.  Stanford's offense has, at times, struggled this season, so the matchup will be an interesting one to watch.  It would not be a surprise to see a couple of low-scoring affairs this weekend which means defense and making the little plays such as moving runners over will be key. 

* Meanwhile at the plate, OSU is hardly a pushover.  Their team batting average is an outstanding .324 while they score 7.3 runs per game (Stanford is at 6.7).  Seven of their ten regular starters bat over .300, so these guys will make the Cardinal pitchers work.  As a team, the Beavers don't strike out a lot while they aren't afraid to steal a base.

* Individually, clearly the star of the hitting corps is center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.  Ellsbury bats leadoff on this team and is without a doubt, one of the best hitters in the Pac-10 - if not the country.  He brings a .448 batting average into this series with ten doubles, four home runs, and 24 RBI.  Ellsbury has tremendous speed as evident by his 16 stolen bases and he always puts the ball in play (has just five strike outs in 116 at-bats).  While Buck is a leading candidate for Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year, Ellsbury is clearly in the discussion for Pac-10 Player of the Year at the midpoint of the season.  He'll be a focal point for the Stanford pitching staff this weekend.  If Ellsbury is getting on base, this offense is tough to stop.

* Other notable names offensively include catcher Andy Jenkins and third baseman Shea McFeely.  Jenkins also has a sparking batting average as he hits at a .386 clip (to go with three HR's and 22 RBI).  Meanwhile, McFeely is batting .356 with a pair of home runs.  As a team, Oregon State doesn't hit a lot of home runs, but their offense is filled with players who hit for high averages, don't strike out very much, and can run. 

* By sweeping California and allowing just five runs in the process, OSU has already shown they're going to be a major player in the Pac-10 race.  However, they've yet to play anyone among the nation's elite - certainly nothing like a Cal State Fullerton or a Texas.  While Stanford has played a whopping nine games against teams in the Top 25 (3-6 record), the Beavers have played just one game against a ranked opponent.  Granted, they smoked Arizona State by a 12-6 score (non-conference game back in early-February) in Tempe.  But it is definitely worth noting that OSU has not played nearly the same schedule as the Cardinal.  To their credit, they've beaten up on everyone they've played and handled the Bears last weekend.  And now much like Stanford, they want to see if they belong in the discussion to be among the nation's elite.

After these next two weekends, we should have a much better idea about who the early favorites are in the conference.  Stanford has Oregon State and then ASU on the road.  Meanwhile, the Beavers, after doing battle with the Cardinal, travel down to Tucson to take on the 6th ranked Arizona Wildcats. 

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