Baseball Weekend Roundup

The Cardinal didn't play last weekend due to upcoming exams, but there was still plenty of other important action around the conference. This week's Roundup gives you all of the latest from around the Pac-10. In addition, check out an in-depth review of where the Cardinal stand as a team entering the start of conference play.

Pac-10 Standings (records through games of Sun. 3/19)

                    Conf.  GB   Overall
USC                  2-1    -    14-11
Washington State     0-0   0.5   18-6
Arizona State        0-0   0.5   18-7
Washington           0-0   0.5   15-7
Stanford             0-0   0.5   11-7
UCLA                 0-0   0.5   15-11
California           0-0   0.5   11-10
Arizona              0-0   0.5   10-11
Oregon State         1-2   1.0   12-7

* Arizona: It's been a tough couple of weeks for the Wildcats.  After getting swept at now-#1 Mississippi State two weeks ago (losing two of the games by one run), Arizona was unable to manage a victory in their recently-completed series versus the 4th ranked Cal State Fullerton Titans.  The Wildcats dropped games by the scores of 6-4, 5-3, and 5-3 last weekend at home against the red-hot Titans to fall under .500 for the season.  Arizona can play with anyone, but their youth and inexperience may be what's holding them back against some of the best opposition in the country.  The Wildcats play host to UC Irvine in a short two-game series this weekend before opening their Pac-10 schedule.

* Arizona State: The Sun Devils had their seven-game winning streak snapped at #18 Texas last Tuesday when they fell by an 11-6 score to the host Longhorns.  Last weekend, ASU welcomed 23rd ranked Oklahoma to Tempe for a rain-shortened two-game series.  The Sun Devils managed an 8-7 victory in the opener before falling by a 15-8 tally in the second and final game of the weekend.  ASU has positioned themselves nicely with an 18-7 record against tough competition as they head into the Pac-10 season.  The Sun Devils will take on Penn State in a three-game, home series this weekend as a final tune-up for conference play.

* California: The Golden Bears still haven't gotten completely on track this season.  Last weekend, California participated in a home-and-home series with an up-and-coming Pacific ballclub (featured two former Stanford players in David Esquer and Ed Sprague as the head coaches).  After a 3-1 victory last Friday behind another stellar performance from Brandon Morrow, the Golden Bears suffered 10-3 and 6-5 defeats to drop the series.  The finale in Berkeley was especially painful as the Tigers took advantage of some rare poor Cal defense to rally in the top of the ninth before winning the contest in the tenth.  The Bears now sit at just 11-10 on the season as they host Washington in a three-game, Pac-10 series this weekend.

* Oregon State: The Beavers opened their Pac-10 slate last weekend down in Los Angeles and dropped two-of-three games to the USC Trojans.  Dallas Buck outdueled Ian Kennedy in the opener en route to a 4-1 OSU victory (the Beavers scored a pair of unearned runs against Kennedy leading to the win).  Oregon State though continues to search for that consistent strong play that led them to the Pac-10 title and a CWS berth a year ago.  The potent USC offense hammered the Beavers by an 11-3 score on Saturday before the Trojans won a 4-1 decision in the rubber contest.  Oregon State, now ranked 16th in the country, hosts Utah Valley State and UT-Pan American over the next two weekends with a chance to rack up some victories before returning to Pac-10 competition.

* UCLA: After posting their 7-5 record in 12 straight games against ranked opponents, UCLA finally received a slight break in their schedule.  And the Bruins took full advantage winning all four of their games - in convincing fashion - last week in Westwood.  After a 16-2 rout of UNLV last Tuesday (the Rebels have series wins over Texas and Cal), UCLA smacked around San Diego State to the tune of 14-6, 12-2, and 9-1 victories.  Second-year head coach John Savage has done a terrific job with the Bruins this year as UCLA right now looks every bit like a club that will finish in the top half of the Pac-10.  It's a young team, so it will be interesting to see if they can maintain this high level of play, but thus far, their turnaround has been remarkable.  UCLA has the upcoming week off for their final exams.

* USC: The Trojans posted their third consecutive home series win over a ranked opponent when they took two-of-three from Oregon State last weekend.  USC again lost a close game started by Ian Kennedy on Friday before rebounding the next two days to take the series.  The last three weekends have the Trojans winning series' versus #25 Georgia, #17 Stanford, and the 16th ranked Beavers.  USC will play just a single game versus Loyola Marymount this week (Tuesday) before returning to Pac-10 action starting on March 31st with a trip up to Sunken Diamond.

* Washington: One of the hottest teams in the country, the Huskies took a small step back last weekend losing a pair of games to visiting Cal Poly.  The Mustangs managed just four hits against Tim Lincecum and Co. in the series-opener, but still managed a 5-4 victory.  UW then suffered a 18-3 thrashing on Sunday afternoon exposing a Washington pitching staff that certainly has many question marks once you get past Lincecum.  The Huskies, who did lead the Pac-10 in home runs, are still 15-7 on the year.  The two losses last weekend dropped Washington out of the Baseball America Top 25 as they'll wrap-up their series with Cal Poly on Monday afternoon in Seattle.  The Huskies travel down to Berkeley for a three-game series against California to open their Pac-10 schedule this weekend.  Lincecum versus Morrow on Friday afternoon should be a dandy.

* Washington State: The much-improved Cougars had a solid 3-2 showing at Fresno State's week-long round-robin tournament last week.  Wins for Washington State came against the likes of Bucknell (7-1), Lafayette (10-2), and Gonzaga (15-3).  They suffered defeats versus Miami of Ohio (9-7) and the host Bulldogs (7-1).  The Cougars take on Stanford in a three-game, Pac-10 series beginning on Saturday afternoon.

This Weekend:
* Washington State at Stanford  (Saturday-Monday)
* Washington at California
UC Irvine at Arizona  (Saturday-Sunday)
Penn State at Arizona State
Utah Valley State at Oregon State

* - Pac-10 series

Baseball America Rankings:
-- Pac-10 --
16. Oregon State (12-7)
17. Stanford (11-7)
19. Arizona State (18-7)

-- West Coast --
4. CS Fullerton (17-6)
16. Oregon State (12-7)
17. Stanford (11-7)
19. Arizona State (18-7)
21. Pepperdine (14-11)

-- Top Ten --
1. Mississippi State (15-0)
2. Rice (18-6)
3. North Carolina (17-3)
4. CS Fullerton (17-6)
5. Georgia Tech (18-3)
6. Florida State (21-2)
7. South Carolina (17-3)
8. Nebraska (15-2)
9. Florida (17-7)
10. Clemson (11-6)

Pac-10 RPI Update:
(rankings from Boydsworld through Sunday, March 19th)
12. Stanford
15. UCLA
18. Arizona State
24. USC
27. Washington
49. Arizona
50. Oregon State
71. California
94. Washington State

Opponents Update:
The Cal State Fullerton Titans remained one of the hottest teams in the country after their three-game sweep of host Arizona last weekend.  The Titans, now ranked fourth in the country, have won eight straight games and are 17-3 since their season-opening sweep at Stanford.  Fullerton hosts a struggling Long Beach State team this weekend (will not count in conference standings) before starting Big West play.

Texas notched an impressive Tuesday victory over the Arizona State Sun Devils in Austin (11-6) before splitting two games on the road against Texas Tech over the weekend.  The Longhorns, now 15-10, are still ranked 18th in the country according to Baseball America.

Kansas suffered their second straight series loss on the road against a ranked opponent when they dropped two-of-three at #22 Baylor last weekend (3-15, 6-5, 1-5).  The Jayhawks are now no longer in the Top 25 as they currently sport a 16-8 record.  Meanwhile, Fresno State won all six of their games in their own round-robin tournament last weekend.  The Bulldogs have been playing much more like a team that garnered preseason Top 25 mention over the past few weeks.  In fact, since losing their series to Stanford February 24-26, Fresno State has won 12 straight games (all at home) to improve their overall record to 19-8.

Stanford Update:
The Cardinal are in the midst of a 12-day break for final exams having posted an 11-7 record thus far during the season.  Playing one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, Stanford has moved all the way up to the #17 national ranking this week after not finding themselves in the top 25 entering the season.  There are many reasons for optimism heading into the start of Pac-10 play which begins this weekend.

The Cardinal offense got out of the gate quite slowly this season hitting at just a .214 clip in their first seven games (4-3 record).  Stanford was scoring just 4.3 runs per game during that stretch.  However, while the Cardinal haven't all of a sudden become a dominant offense, the numbers have improved across the board since their early funk (starting the second game of the Texas series on February 19th).  Over their last 11 games (7-4 record), Stanford is hitting .292 as a team while scoring 5.9 runs per contest.  Those numbers are very similar to what was accomplished last season (.287, 6.4 R/Gm.).

The upward trend is a good sign - especially considering the quality of opposition the Cardinal have faced plus the fact most of those recent games have come on the road.  For Stanford though to make a serious run at the Pac-10 title, there's no question that positive trend will have to continue.  It's a pitching-rich Pac-10 this year and perhaps the deepest, top-to-bottom, it's ever been since the merger prior to the 1999 season.  Examining the pitching numbers, eight of the nine conference teams currently possess ERA's at 4.50 or lower (Washington at 5.85 is the lone exception).  That should result in plenty of tight, often low-scoring affairs in the Pac-10 this year (especially on Friday's and Saturday's).  The Stanford offense likely won't be able to put up anything close to dominant numbers, but the positive trend must continue for there to be a run to the title.  And executing the little things throughout a game will be paramount to their success (i.e. moving runners over, executing hit-and-runs, driving home runners from third when there are less than two outs).

The overall batting average may be low, the team ERA may be unspectacular, and the infield defense has certainly endured plenty of struggles, but through it all, Stanford has still put themselves in an excellent position heading into the Pac-10 season.  Consider that the Cardinal played six non-conference series' this year.  All six have come against teams that spent at least a portion of the year ranked in the top 25.  And all six have come against teams that have very realistic hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament.  Some positives to take from the non-conference portion of the schedule:

* Stanford's offense has improved (see the numbers above).  The Cardinal, after struggling mightily early, have at least returned to their same production as a year ago.

* If you take out the one USC game where the Cardinal pitching staff was hammered to the tune of 16 runs, the team ERA drops all the way down to a stellar 3.64 (from the current 4.35).  The Trojans offense certainly had their way with the Stanford pitching staff on that afternoon, but you can probably chalk it up to a red-hot offense and just "one of those days" for the Stanford pitching staff.  Maintaining a sub-4.00 ERA in the college game (against the type of schedule Stanford faces) puts you in the elite category.

* The Stanford offense has had success against some of the very best pitchers in the country.  They've tagged Texas' Kyle McCulloch and USC's Ian Kennedy for a combined ten earned runs on 16 hits (with just four strike outs) in 11 innings.  That's half of last summer's Team USA starting rotation and two upcoming first round draft picks.  The Cardinal won both games. 

* Stanford has also posted victories in games started by Fullerton's ace (Wes Roemer: 1 R in 7 IP), Kansas' ace (Kodiak Quick: 5 R in 5 IP), and Fresno State's ace (Doug Fister: 2 R in 6 IP) proving they can be very competitive against some of the best pitchers in the country.

* Stanford's sweep of Cal State Fullerton came against a team that has posted a 17-3 record since that opening weekend.  The Cardinal have also taken two-of-three from the defending national champions (granted they aren't playing at quite the same level, yet), and managed a road series win against a Fresno team that is the clear favorites in the WAC and has won 12 straight since their matchup with Stanford.  The Cardinal also held their own on their longest road trip of the year recording an even 4-4 record.  Playing .500 baseball on the road, against NCAA Tournament competition, is not something to be embarrassed about.

* After struggling in close games all of last season, the Cardinal are 5-2 in one-run contests this year.

Individually, the Cardinal looked to have found their top two starting pitchers in Greg Reynolds and David Stringer.  The top two pitchers on the club during Fall Ball and preseason workouts, both have maintained their high level of play once the real games started.  It's also interesting to note that, on a team loaded with recruits not from the Bay Area, it's two local products that are currently leading this pitching staff.

A point of emphasis no doubt will be who else steps into the starting rotation now that the Pac-10 season has begun.  Matt Manship has excelled in three of his starts (Texas, Fresno, Cal : 1.65 ERA), but has also been hit hard in his other three starts (Fullerton, Kansas, USC : 14.63 ERA).  Matt Leva also has plenty of starting experience, but overall mixed results this year (5.50 ERA, but an impressive .239 opponents average through 18 innings).  Top relievers Jeremy Bleich, Nolan Gallagher, and Erik Davis could start if needed, but it remains to be seen if Coach Marquess will want to move them around.  Bottom line, as always, you'll often go as far as your starting pitching will take you.  The Cardinal are no doubt still looking to lock down three consistent starting hurlers in what will be of vital importance with the impressive strength of pitching around the Pac-10 this season.

Also moving forward, as has been written about in recent weeks, it's going to very important for the Cardinal to see improvement in their infield defense (second and third base, in particular).  Stanford committed just two errors (and only one on the infield) during their recent USC series which is a step in the right direction.  With the way the Pac-10 is shaping up this season, playing clean defense (especially late in games) will be just as important as executing the little things while at the plate. 

Stanford also is in need of better overall production from their experienced hitters.  The numbers for the likes of Jim Rapoport (.242 AVG), John Hester (.219 AVG), and Chris Lewis (.217 AVG) are lower than normal, but there's still plenty of time where a few good games in a row will bring those batting average up to where they should be (and should result in plenty of team success).  Improved production from this trio is needed even more considering the season-ending injury to Adam Sorgi.

That all said, the outlook for the 2006 Cardinal still looks good.  Considering the record they have already posted against an incredibly difficult schedule without three consistent starting pitchers, poor infield defense, and a slow-starting offense you would think that making a run at the top two spots in the Pac-10 is well within reach.  If that starting rotation can be solidified, the defense tightens up, and the offense continues their steady improvement, then there's no reason this team can't enjoy great success over the next couple of months. 

Looking into the immediate future, if there ever was a break in the Stanford schedule, it's probably coming up.  The Cardinal will play their next seven games at Sunken Diamond with series' versus Washington State and USC.  The Cougars are much-improved, but not nearly as talented as a Fullerton or a Texas - two clubs that have already come through the Farm this year.  After their match-up with the high-powered Trojans, it's five straight non-conference games (two home, three road) against Sacramento State, Pacific, San Jose State, Santa Clara, and San Francisco.  There are some tough matchups in there (@UOP, @SJSU headline the list), but again, it's not the same as taking on Fullerton or Texas.  These next 11 games will take Stanford up to the halfway point of the regular season and offer the team a chance to string together some wins and gain momentum heading into the meat of the Pac-10 schedule.  After this upcoming stretch, it's a showdown in Corvallis starting on April 13th versus conference-favorite Oregon State.

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