Friday - 6:00pm
Saturday - 1:00pm
Sunday - 1:00pm
The final month of the regular season gets underway this weekend as the 9th ranked Stanford Cardinal host the California Golden Bears in a three-game series at Sunken Diamond. Instead of writing a regular preview that documents both teams at this point in the season, I'll take a closer look at the Stanford baseball squad and what exactly has gone wrong over the past 2 1/2 weeks and what needs to be done to turn things around.
The primary concern for Mark Marquess and the coaching staff right now has to be the hitting. Two Friday's ago, the Cardinal were shutdown by Washington Huskies ace Shawn Kohn as Kohn threw a six-hitter to lead Washington to a 3-1 win. At the time, it wasn't a big issue as Kohn is one of the top contenders for Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year and even the best hitting teams get shut down every once in awhile. That's baseball. But that was only the beginning of a disturbing trend for the Stanford hitters. The next day, the Cardinal were held to two runs through six innings versus a very mediocre Sean White before exploding for seven runs over the final three frames against the Huskies bullpen to win 9-4. So despite not hitting for 15 of the first 18 innings of the weekend, Stanford still had a chance to win the series. But on came UW starting pitcher Clay Johnson with his above eight ERA and Johnson silenced the Card bats as the Huskies eked out a 4-3, ten inning win. You could blame the cold weather that weekend as that certainly makes it tougher on the hitters, but nevertheless, Stanford had just been shutdown by a Sunday starting pitcher who had given almost as many runs as innings pitched this year.
So looking to put the miserable Seattle trip behind them, the Card returned home for a single non-conference game against the Sacramento State Hornets. Stanford went on to win that game by a score of 6-5, but the contest had no business being close. Sac State entered the game with a 0-12 record in Big West play and was clearly a reeling team. But the Hornets jumped out to a 5-0 lead and the Cardinal had to scratch and claw their way to victory over the lowly Hornets. Not pretty, but it was still a win and Stanford was at least a respectable 2-2 over their last four games.
But then the roof caved in. A 3-1 loss in the opening game of the Oregon State series last weekend as OSU starting pitcher Ben Rowe (5.86 ERA) four-hit the once vaunted Cardinal offense and then OSU took the second game of the series, 4-3, behind the arm of Stephen Copeland (career ERA above 6) and all of a sudden Stanford had lost another series. You couldn't really blame the pitching in these four losses, as the Card hurlers had given up just 14 runs in the four games which is outstanding at any level of baseball. For some reason, the hitting just couldn't get it together and because of it Stanford was a below .500 team in Pac-10 play.
In the series finale, the Cardinal hitters finally broke through with a 19-hit barrage en route to a 13-0 victory. Hits up-and-down the lineup brought back memories of what had transpired the first two months of the season. Stanford was back at .500 and if they just could get by San Jose State in their upcoming mid-week game, a slew of home games was awaiting. But it was not to be as the Spartans jumped all over the Cardinal in a 12-0 rout. This one, despite the wide margin of defeat, didn't hurt as much as the conference losses because it was a midweek non-conference game with none of regular starting pitchers on the mound, but that still doesn't explain getting shutout on only six hits. So once again we go back to the hitters as Stanford fell to a dismal 3-5 in their last eight games.
Now this is bound to happen at one point in the season as that's just baseball. Every player and every team goes through hitting slumps at one point in the season. I think the thing that makes this so frustrating for the players is that the team is being shut down by pitchers that aren't anything spectacular. Outside of Shawn Kohn of UW, the Clay Johnson's, Ben Rowe's and Stephen Copeland's are not that great of pitchers and it's tough to figure out why the Card can't hit them. When Stanford slumped briefly last year with their hitting for a 2-week span in April, they were getting very few hits, but it was against the likes of All-American's Mark Prior, Rik Currier, and Trevor Hutchinson. All you can really say is that this was bound to happen at some point, you just have to keep fighting and you'll eventually brake out of it. I'm sure that's what the coaching staff is telling the players right now.
Now enough negativity, what can we look forward to. In an almost shocking similarity, the 2002 Stanford baseball team is doing exactly what they did last season through the first three months of the year. Last year (like this year), the team rolled through February, March, and the first half of April with no series losses and a top-five ranking. But their last two series' in April (which were both on the road) saw Stanford stumble to two series losses and a 2-4 overall record. Well, the same thing happened this year as Stanford (as previously mentioned) dropped two road series' these past two weeks en route to a 2-4 overall record. Then last year, on the first Wednesday of May, Stanford went on the road to play a single game with Sacramento State and the Hornets absolutely destroyed Jeremy Guthrie and the Card in a 12-3 win. And in almost a scary resemblance, the Cardinal went on the road again this year on the first Wednesday of May and were destroyed 12-0, this time to SJSU. So after that Sac State loss last season it looked like the season was over as the Card was fielding a young team and people were wondering if they had peaked too soon. Well, the same thing has happened this year with the team struggling in late April and early May and we can only hope this year's squad can turn it around just like that 2001 club that reached the CWS championship game.
One of reasons why I think this team will turn it around and get hot at the right time is that the hitting is just too good to stay down. An O'Riordan, Garko, Cooper, and Quentin middle of the order (these last two weeks withstanding) is one of the most potent middle of the lineups in the country. And the other guys in the lineup aren't too shabby either as evidenced by the fact this team has been hitting above .320 all year. They've showed some signs of life over the past couple of games with the 19-hit game on Sunday vs. OSU and they hit a few balls hard on Wednesday vs. SJSU that just didn't fall in. They say hitting is contagious and you've got to figure that once Stanford can string a couple of solid hitting games in a row that it will all come together. I would certainly be more concerned if the pitching was struggling at this point in the season, but it appears that the starting rotation is really rounding into late-season form.
It's not time to panic yet as there
are still 14 games left in the regular season. 9 of those 14 contests
are at home including three of the final four series' of the year which
is certainly a welcome sight. Stanford is a sizzling 16-3 at home
this year and they haven't lost a home series in over three years, so maybe
a little home cooking is all this team needs. This is veteran club
with plenty of juniors and seniors who know how to turn it on when it matters
(as shown by last year's May and June surge). And frankly, now these
games really do matter, so no time like the present. Sacramento State
on May 2nd, 2001 was rock bottom last season. Hopefully San Jose
State on May 1, 2002 will be looked back upon as rock bottom this season
The California Golden Bears :
The Bears enter this weekend on a sour note just like the Cardinal. Cal was swept at home by the Washington Huskies last weekend dropping them to 8-10 in conference play. With only one conference series remaining after this weekend, Cal needs a sweep to stay in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament berth. Friday's game appears to be a mismatch on the mound with Guthrie going up against little-used Joe Todoroff (0-2, 5.28 ERA, only 29 IP). The Bears will throw their ace on Saturday in Trevor Hutchinson (7-4, 3.19) while Matt Brown (5-2, 3.13) takes the ball on Sunday. Brown has been splitting time between the rotation and closer as he moves back to a starting spot this weekend. Cal is only hitting .294 as a team but they boast maybe the top hitter in the conference. First baseman Conor Jackson (.387-15-56) is the player to watch as the sophomore has a realistic shot to win the Pac-10 Triple Crown this season.