Tuesday's 17-2 non-conference bludgeoning of San Jose State brought back memories of an age fueled by pure aluminum bats. Austin Wilson's two majestic blasts complemented Justin Ringo's pair of moon shots, which included a grand slam that punctuated a nine-run first inning outburst. Brian Ragira destroyed a baseball of his own, giving Stanford five home runs for the first time since May 9, 2009. Back on that day, current Minnesota Vikings running back Toby Gerhart left the yard for the Cardinal. (Ragira, by the way, has raised his average from .257 to .310 in just two weeks.)
Stanford's 2008 College World Series team, the one that cranked out an astonishing 81 long balls on the season, did not hit five in a single game. But Stanford's Tuesday home run derby did the trick with significantly weaker BBCOR bats, which replaced the old pure aluminum standard prior to the 2011 season.
The Offensive Turnaround
Poor San Jose State control (the Spartans hit an incredible six Stanford batters Tuesday evening) was a big part of Tuesday's fireworks. But surging power production at Sunken Diamond is not a new phenomenon. The Farm Boys have been progressively flexing their offensive muscles for about a month now, and Tuesday's annihilation of the Spartans represented the peak of a week that featured a run parade against defending national champion Arizona. Stanford's gutsy 4-3 and 12-8 wins sandwiched a 10-9 Saturday loss and loudly pronounced the complete return of the Cardinal's feared attack.
In addition to batting at a conference clip that's 17 points higher than the closest competitor, Stanford is averaging nearly 6.5 runs per game in Pac-12 play, over one full run better than second-place Arizona State. Wilson's return from an early-season elbow injury has certainly reinforced the attack, but the resurgence traces all the way back to the aftermath of a gut-wrenching 2-1 defeat at UC Davis on March 26. The Cardinal mustered only four hits against an Aggies' pitching staff defined by its atrocious 5.18 ERA.
"I could tell that Davis game really hurt us, and I think from that point on, we realized that if wanted to make the [NCAA Tournament] and do something this year, we were going to have to turn the bats up and do our thing," Wilson said. "Ever since then, it's been incrementally better."
Since that Davis debacle -- we'll call it rock bottom -- the Cardinal offense has averaged nearly eight runs per game, almost double their production prior to the setback. The Farm Boys' 11-8 record has morphed into a 23-12 mark that is slowly positioning the team for a postseason run. At 9-6, Stanford is third in the Pac-12 at the halfway point of the conference season, and they have a chance to take a bite out of second-place Oregon (13-5) with their hot bats this weekend. Remember too that conference leader Oregon State (11-4) must visit Sunken Diamond in May.
"I think we're going to do some damage in the coming weeks," Wilson predicted.
A Depleted Pitching Staff
If Stanford baseball were a run factory, now could be considered the Industrial Revolution. That's a fortunate trend for Mark Marquess, because his club is venturing deeper into the teeth of its schedule with a limping pitching staff. Whereas pitching kept the Cardinal afloat throughout the early part of this season, Mark Appel has been the only consistently reliable force since Day One. Beyond that, mound matters are only becoming dicier for Stanford.
Sophomore John Hochstatter looked to be establishing himself as the Farm Boys' second weekend starter, but he was ejected after beaning Arizona's Joseph Maggi on Sunday. Home plate umpire Ramon Armendariz tossed the lefty without warning, and that ejection translated into an automatic four-game suspension.
"Unfortunately, there's no appeal to it," Marquess said. He did admit that "everyone thought it was kind of a ridiculous call," but he also added that Stanford has no choice but to respect Armendariz's decision since he cannot be expected to retroactively change it.
Hochstatter's first pitch after an Arizona grand slam hit Maggi squarely in the back, prompting some speculation that the Wildcats had mouthed off after immediately their big hit. There had been no noticeable bad blood between both dugouts up until that point in the series. Stanford players maintained that Hochstatter's pitch slipped out of his hands.
Regardless, the lefty won't be available this weekend in Eugene, and neither will closer A.J. Vanegas (mono) nor fellow reliever Sahil Bloom (finger). All three are expected back perhaps as soon as next week, but Stanford's pitching fate may again lean heavily on a crop of inconsistent freshmen. Bobby Zarubin used his new breaking ball to effectively complement his fastball and signature splitter Tuesday, while Daniel Starwalt's 4.1 innings of one-run work against Arizona Saturday earned Marquess' praise. But the Cardinal still had to lean heavily on veterans Garrett Hughes and Sam Lindquist to finish off the Wildcats because their staff stretched so thin.
"Last year, they kept getting ground ball hits against us, and I'm a ground ball pitcher, but I can get movement to get those ground balls to end up in our defense's gloves," Lindquist said. "We were a bit dry in the bullpen, we were down to our last legs. So [pitching couch Rusty Filter] told me to keep the ball down. He said 'if you get hit a little bit, that's OK. Just last out there.'"
Lindquist did more than just survive: he dealt five shutout innings against what was (at the time) the Pac-12's most productive offense to seal the massive series victory.
Pitching Moving Forward: The 2012 Arizona Model?
Arizona used only five total pitchers throughout its 2012 postseason run that ended in a national championship, so Stanford doesn't necessarily need a bevy of effective arms to accomplish great things moving forward. The Cardinal do, though, need at least a small corps of consistently reliable pitchers, and Marquess is still looking to find his trusted combination.
Appel, who's on a healthy pace to break Kyle Peterson's Stanford career strikeout record (we'll discuss his pace in detail next week), is one surefire Stanford fixture moving forward. One has to assume that Vanegas also is, and his return can't come quickly enough for this ballclub. If Hughes, Lindquist, and Hochstatter can continue to throw quality innings, pressure will come off the club's freshmen. That could potentially allow Zarubin, Starwalt and Logan James to establish greater consistency moving forward. It can also allow room for Bloom, a middle relief fixture in 2012, to ease back into the mix. If Dean McArdle and David Schmidt can iron out their recent struggles, they also remain potential assets.
Oregon: Pac-12 Positioning and National Positioning
This coming weekend, though, Stanford will be forced to survive on the mound significantly short-handed. Oregon, which leads the conference in sacrifice hits, has been performing well offensively in Pac-12 play (.288 team average). The Cardinal will count on Appel to go deep into Friday's game, while the starting situation is up for grabs later in the weekend. Marquess didn't rule out the possibility of Lindquist, his de facto closer in Vanegas' absence, starting Sunday if he isn't needed Friday or Saturday.
To take at least two games in this pivotal set, Stanford may have to again rely on its offense. That will be a challenge too, especially given the Ducks' 2.99 staff ERA. But it's one that the Cardinal seem up for following a bitter home series defeat to the Quack Attack last season.
"I think against these guys, if they try to keep the ball outside [again], we're going to have to stay back and try to drive it the other way," Wilson said.
Taking two of three is crucial, as the Cardinal's RPI (82) is still too low for comfort. It did take a massive jump from last week's 119th position, though. Plentiful opportunities to further raise that important ranking await simply because Stanford's strength of schedule is in the midst of immense improvement.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
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