Baseball looks to stay hot as UCLA visits

UCLA (12-17, 5-4 Pacific-10) comes to visit the Farm tonight for the start of a three-game series against resurgent Stanford baseball (11-12, 5-4), which has won seven of its last nine games to climb back up toward the .500 mark. Another strong weekend and Stanford could find itself with a winning record for the first time since the opening weekend, and among the top three in the conference...

Quite simply, since returning from the break for finals, this is an entirely different Stanford team. Over the first three weeks of the season, the Cardinal couldn't hit or pitch with any consistency, and almost never held leads in any of the games that they played. Now, they are hitting the ball with authority and getting quality outings from its starters most games.

Consider these numbers: in the 11 games played before the finals break, Stanford managed just two double-digit hit games. In the 12 games since, they have accomplished the feat six times. The power has improved greatly as well: seven home runs in 11 games before the break, 16 in 12 games after. The result was an increase from just under 4.1 runs per game before the break to 6.5 since. Runs allowed per game have also dropped from 5.9 to 4.2, resulting in a net gain of 4.1 runs per game for Stanford.

There really isn't one obvious reason or player responsible for the turnaround. Sophomore outfielder/designated hitter Kellen Killsgaard has consistently provided power, with three homers both before and after the break. Junior outfielder Toby Gerhart has finally found his stroke. Since the break, he's raised his batting average over .100 points to .288, and hit a pair of home runs as well. Senior outfielder Joey August also has added four homers since the break, versus none before.

From the mound, sophomore closer Drew Storen has gotten more opportunities to pitch and has made the most of them. In 11.1 frames since the break, he has allowed just two runs, striking out an astonishing 21 with no walks allowed. Freshman starter Jordan Pries has continued to be extremely effective, while junior starter Jeffrey Inman, admittedly just 1-4, has put together two decent outings after an extremely slow start to the year.

One note of caution, however: this resurgence has occurred during arguably the easiest three week period in Stanford's schedule. Cal, Washington and Oregon are hardly the toughest opponents the Card will face this year.

But if Stanford can keep stringing together wins this weekend against the Bruins, and especially next weekend in the most frightening series on the schedule—three games against No. 3 ASU (23-6, 8-1) in Tempe—a season that not so long ago looked to be lost suddenly becomes very interesting.

The Bruins, like Stanford, were mostly awful until late March. After starting just 3-11, losing 10 straight at one point, they have gone 9-6 in their last 15 games, winning series at USC and versus Arizona, before losing two of three at Washington State. Senior infielder Cody Decker leads the Bruins with 10 homers, while senior infielders Gino Aielli and Eddie Murray, and junior outfielders Justin Uribe and Casey Haerther are each batting well over .300. Stanford will have to limit their ability to get on base ahead of Decker—and keep Decker in the park—to be successful.

From the mound, UCLA presents a mixed bag. The regular weekend starters, freshman Gerrit Cole (2-3), sophomore Rob Rassmussen (2-2) and junior Charles Brewer (1-3), have all been fairly unimpressive, though Cole has the potential to be completely dominant when he is focused. Stanford should be able to, at the least, give itself enough opportunities to score this weekend to be successful.

Ultimately, though, this Stanford team doesn't have the same talent level it had last season. In the first three weeks that showed, and it looked like this team would be in danger of finishing the year below the .500 mark. They are still below that line, if by only a game, and will have to consistently beat very good teams down the rest of the way to have a successful season and make the playoffs. But the key to that success is going to be regular contributions from throughout the lineup and consistency from the starters.

In my opinion, there's not a player on the roster who win more than a game or two this year on his own. But that doesn't mean the squad can't win games – as these past three weeks have shown. Stanford is hot right now because it is hitting and pitching well, if not amazingly, as a group. If they can keep this up, and keep handing leads to Storen, they still could make this another special season.

Players to watch this weekend:


Jeffrey Inman, Junior, SP
Stanford's ace seems to be emerging. He has two very solid starts in a row and the Cardinal will need him to be close to a guaranteed win down the stretch.

Brent Milleville, Senior, 1B
"Milly" was supposed to provide the punch in the middle of the order for Stanford, but so far this year Kellen Killsgaard has filled that role. The sooner he heats up, the better.


Cody Decker, Senior, Infield
Don't leave anything up to this guy, or he will mash it into the pool at Avery. If the table is set for him regularly, it could be a long weekend for the Card.

Gerrit Cole, Freshman, SP
The righty has the stuff to deliver a strikeout at any time, but he has also been prone to giving up home runs so far in his career. When he makes mistake pitches Stanford will have to capitalize, as you just can't hit his best stuff.

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