Baseball's backs to the wall

AJ Vanegas

When it comes to Stanford baseball's postseason hopes, virtually no margin for error remains. The team had been riding a solid month to claw its way back into the NCAA Tournament picture. A miserable weekend in Eugene, though, exposed some glaring weaknesses and shoved the club right back into the middle of the conference pack.



In their 2-1, 6-4, and 4-3 defeats at the hands of the Quack Attack (34-10, 16-5 Pac-12), the Cardinal (24-15, 9-9 Pac-12) twice faltered in the bottom of the ninth inning. They only managed to squeak out eight total runs against Oregon starting pitching, while the Ducks' excellent bullpen blanked them throughout the weekend's decisive innings.

Fittingly, George Horton's near-obsessive small-ball approach sealed the sweep: Oregon cleanup hitter Mitchell Tolman's squeeze bunt made the Ducks walk-off winners on Sunday. Stanford, meanwhile, offered no such semblance of intricate late-game execution throughout the series. They bumbled their way to six errors on the weekend, including shortstop Drew Jackson's two-base miscue to open Friday's ninth inning. The error derailed Mark Appel's spectacular outing and sent the team into a tailspin.

Stanford's flamethrower did his best to work around Jackson's mistake, registering 97 miles per hour on his 116th and final pitch of the evening, but Aaron Payne's winning hit ended the game. With Appel defeated, the rest of the weekend's odds glowered at the Cardinal.

Progress Halted
Prior to the Oregon debacle, Stanford had been establishing itself as a club that could make noise down the stretch of this 2013 season. The Cardinal had taken baby steps after losing six of eight games to inferior competition in March: They began hitting incrementally better against progressively better pitching. Gutsy mound efforts complemented this offensive improvement to hold down the fort while the staff battled through early-season injuries.

This incremental improvement reached its crescendo in a wildly entertaining home series win against defending national champion Arizona two weekends ago. But it careened off the tracks last weekend, in the team's first conference test against a top-tier road team. If Stanford is to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, they'll be required to tighten the screws that came so loose at Oregon. They're now staring at an ugly No. 97 RPI rating, and only four Pac-12 series remain. It's do-or-die time.

"We know where we're at, and the guys are ready to face that challenge," lefty John Hochstatter said Tuesday, after returning from his four-game suspension to lead Stanford to a 9-1 win over St. Mary's. "This weekend is going to be big for us."

State of the Pitching Staff
Indeed, the weekend will bring an immediate opportunity to atone for road struggles. Temperatures at Arizona State (29-12-1, 11-7) are expected to soar close to triple digits. The ball is expected to fly out of Packard Stadium: the Sun Devils (29 HR) and the Cardinal (28 HR) again lead the Pac-12 in bombs, and the predicted heat should only boost those numbers. Marquess removed Hochstatter fairly early Tuesday to conserve him for his scheduled Sunday start, while freshman Daniel Starwalt is a strong possibility to get the ball on Saturday after tossing 5.1 solid innings in Eugene.

Stanford feels that it's close to turning the corner in its search for a consistent three-man weekend rotation, and the litmus test will come against the league's most powerful offense this weekend. Better defense, of course, will be mandatory: the Cardinal's mediocre .969 fielding percentage will suffer if the team doesn't pick it cleanly on the desert's parched, fast infield. Second chances for the offense in the Arizona heat lead to a pitcher's undoing. Look no further than nearby Tucson, where Arizona swept Stanford last year.

For the Card, the good news is that its bullpen will be deeper than in the past three weekends. After recuperating from mono at his Alameda home this past weekend, closer AJ Vanegas has been cleared to throw. (He's roommates with Appel, who hasn't been infected, knock on wood.) Vanegas is regaining his strength for potential relief appearances Saturday and Sunday. The Cardinal missed him in the finale against Oregon, in which they blew a lead in the bottom of the ninth.

Reliever Sahil Bloom won't be ready yet this weekend. He did, however, start a throwing program this past Friday in his recovery from a finger operation, the result of a complication from a cut that has kept him out since the season's opening weekend.

Pac-12 leader Oregon State visits Sunken Diamond next weekend, so this stretch through Murderers' Row offers ample opportunity for the Cardinal to take RPI bites out of quality opponents, provided they don't slip again. Offensive production is no longer a major concern despite the rough weekend in Oregon: Brant Whiting is back above .400 after a 4-for-4 Tuesday and Brian Ragira has already muscled out eight home runs. But pitching depth and defense both are worrisome issues, so the manpower of this team's staff is paramount moving forward.

If the attack can return to its ways of providing big early leads (it did Tuesday, when the Cardinal knocked out a midweek starter before he recorded a single out for the second straight week), Stanford's effectiveness on the mound should benefit regardless of the pitcher. The team never created separation between itself and Oregon this past weekend, and that ended up dooming the effort in Eugene.

"Having a big lead is huge," Hochstatter said. "There's a tendency for hitters to get themselves out. You can relax and let your defense work."

Offensive Injuries
Drew Jackson should be ready to play again this weekend after banging up his ankle at Oregon. Whether Marquess decides to go with the speedy freshman or the veteran defensive wizard Lonnie Kauppila at shortstop remains to be seen.

Freshman outfielder Jonny Locher suffered a fluke high ankle sprain while running back to the dugout from pregame infield/outfield drills Tuesday. He was carted away from Sunken Diamond and likely will be unavailable this weekend.

Avis Done for the Year
Hard-throwing Freddy Avis was possibly Stanford's most touted incoming 2013 freshman, but his inaugural campaign will end after only one appearance and two perfect innings.

"He's got some tendinitis," Marquess said. "We're going to shut him down. Nothing serious, but we've got to make sure he's squared away for next year."

David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.

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