A Chance for Payback
Then, the wheels came off.
Arizona pounded ball after ball through its dry, rock-hard infield. Stanford closer David Schmidt only recorded one out, and the Wildcats plated four runs to stun the Cardinal in an 8-7 victory. The Wildcats were 4-2 victors the next night, and by the time April Fools' Day came around, the Farm Boys were hoping it was all just a bad joke. It wasn't; the Wildcats finished off a three-game sweep that afternoon with a 6-2 Sunday win. They never looked back again on their way to both the Pac-12 and College World Series championships.
Now comes the rematch. And this time, the two teams meet at Stanford's Sunken Diamond.
"We remember last year's series," Stanford catcher-turned-centerfielder Wayne Taylor told me Sunday. "We'll be playing with a chip on our shoulder."
Two Hot Ballclubs
Both teams are playing excellent baseball. After opening the Pac-12 season 0-6, the Wildcats (24-12, 8-7 Pac-12) have ripped off nine wins in their past 10 games. The Cardinal (20-11, 7-5 Pac-12), meanwhile, have won nine of 12. Mark Marquess' squad is averaging seven runs per game over the course of its past six conference contests. The past three series, in fact, have accounted for Stanford's best offensive output of the entire season. The Cardinal took two of three from Washington (7-5, 3-11, 12-2) and racked up 22 runs in the process.
"We're hitting a bunch of balls hard on a line, hard on the ground up the middle. That's where you're going to find most of your hits," third baseman Alex Blandino said. "The team has been picking it up and swinging it a lot better. Our pitchers were really carrying this team earlier in the year. The offense was giving them nothing."
Now, Stanford is mashing the ball out of the park after starting the season on a record-low home run pace. Blandino hit a three-run moon shot in a 9-2 Tuesday victory over Pacific on Tuesday, while Ragira's first-inning smash gave him four taters over his past six games. He entered last weekend hitting only .261 on the season, but certainly has found his stride along with the rest of the Cardinal's offense.
"I just kept putting my work in, and I knew things would come around eventually," Ragira said. "Hitting is contagious."
Indeed, Stanford's team batting average has climbed to .271 just three weeks after it was stuck at a conference-worst .244. Catcher Brant Whiting continues his phenomenal breakout campaign at a .418 clip, though he tells me that he remains blissfully unaware, as he avoids looking at his numbers on the scoreboard when he hits. (I guess he doesn't read The Bootleg, either.) Justin Ringo continues to scorch the baseball (.336, 18 RBI), Danny Diekroeger's hits keep racking up (.298, 18 RBI), and Austin Wilson's comeback (10-for-24 since his return) has fortified the 3-4 core of the lineup.
Austin Slater, the team offensive leader throughout the doldrums, has missed the past two games for undisclosed reasons, but Brian Guymon has filled in nicely by pushing four hits to all parts of the field. Marquess has penciled in 31 different lineups in the Cardinal's 31 contests so far this year, and the combinations are finally producing the desired results.
Pitching's Turn to Deliver
Now, Stanford needs elusive mound consistency against the Pac-12's most productive offense. The Wildcats again lead the league by wide margins in run production (6.9/game), average (.310), on-base percentage (.410), and stolen bases (78). Beyond Mark Appel, the Cardinal's starting pitching has been shaky at best, but John Hochstatter's complete game in last Sunday's 12-2 victory over Washington was certainly encouraging.
The bad news: That Hochstatter effort and Saturday's 11-3 implosion at the hands of the Huskies both came against the Pac-12's worst offense. It becomes significantly harder from this point forward. In fact, the Cardinal have played only the worst teams in the conference. The record of Stanford's league opponents so far is 56-80 (.412), while the record of the Farm Boys' remaining adversaries is 131-67 (.662). That's a back-loaded schedule if there ever were one.
The good news: Despite the poor competition, Stanford is clearly playing its best baseball of the season. The fact that its schedule is so backloaded may end up being the biggest break of 2013. Had the Cardinal been forced to play conference heavyweights during their weak-hitting rough stretch, the deficit in the standings might have grown too big to overcome. As it stands, the team is now sitting pretty in the Pac-12's third-place position. Their RPI is still lousy (112), but Stanford now has a legitimate shot to climb into picture to host an NCAA Regional, if they can find a way to hold it together on the mound this weekend.
Appel and Hochstatter will certainly get starts against Arizona, while freshman Bobby Zarubin has a great chance to re-enter the weekend rotation following five excellent innings in Stockton Tuesday. Pitching coach Rusty Filter removed him after only 45 pitches, presumably to save his arm for important work this weekend. Tall lefty Garrett Hughes is also a starting option for Stanford, but the bullpen will likely play a key role regardless against Arizona's furious attack.
This weekend is a clear defining point, one that will certainly test the Cardinal's mettle halfway through the conference sprint.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
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