During the course of any season, teams face make-or-break, do-or-die moments. For the Stanford baseball team, Saturday was one of them.
After an auspicious start to the season against some the nation’s best teams, the Cardinal had stumbled of late, losing five consecutive conference games before this series with No. 20 UCLA.
The Cardinal, now unranked after spending much of the season in the nation’s top-20, did manage to win on Thursday night — but stumbled on Friday and trailed the Bruins 4-1 with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the ninth in Saturday’s rubber game. There was no reason to think that there was any fight left in the Cardinal — after all, Stanford had mustered more than four runs just once in its previous seven conference games.
But just when you least expected it, freshman right fielder Brian Guymon singled, pinch hitter Justin Ringo walked, sophomore center fielder Jake Stewart singled and senior catcher Zach Jones doubled, tying the score. Head coach Mark Marquess must have been shaking his head, wondering where that offense has been for the last month.
After a pair of walks to load the bases, sophomore shortstop Kenny Diekroeger dunked a single in front of the outfield to win it for the Cardinal. Seems so easy, doesn’t it?
Could this be a turning point for the up-and-down Cardinal? Perhaps. With the win, Stanford is back to a respectable 5-7 in a very difficult Pac-10 — though things won’t get easier for Stanford anytime soon, as the Cardinal has a trip to No. 9 Arizona State on tap for next weekend.
The ninth-inning, four-run rally was a nice start, but Stanford’s offense will need to be more consistent if the Cardinal is going to turn a corner. Hitters have shown signs of life — but they need to find a way to produce day-in and day-out.
The potential is there — case in point was Thursday night. Stanford’s had-been putrid offense was facing Gerrit Cole, UCLA’s ace, and arguably the best pitcher in the country. So what did Stanford, which managed five runs all of last weekend against Oregon State, do? The Cardinal knocked Cole around to the tune of six runs on nine hits in 6.1 innings en route to a 7-4 win. What may have been the most amazing part of that offensive performance, however, is that Cole (and his 98-miles-per-hour fastball) only struck out one Cardinal hitter.
So Stanford was able to carry that momentum into Friday night, right? Wrong. Facing the Bruins’ second ace, Trevor Bauer, Stanford was utterly dominated as Bauer threw a complete game four-hitter, striking out a whopping 17 Cardinal batters. Does any of this make sense? Not really. Yes, Bauer is one of the country’s best pitchers, but it’s difficult to explain the drastic lack of consistency.
A win like Saturday’s may be crucial in building much-needed momentum going forward. A 5-7 record looks a lot better than 4-8. Not losing three conference series in a row is also a huge plus. No one questions Stanford’s talent level — all the pieces are there for this to be a College World Series-caliber team — the question is whether Marquess can push the right buttons and get nine guys on the field playing well at the same time.
One of the keys may be Jones. While Marquess has the liberty of shuffling players in and out at other positions, Jones is really Marquess’ only option at catcher. He has started every game, and no other catcher on the team has a single at bat this season. Senior Ben Clowe used to catch but doesn’t anymore — so it looks like as long as he is healthy, Jones will be behind the dish.
Marquess knows that he will get great defense out of Jones — he has thrown out exactly 50 percent of would-be base stealers this season. He also knows Jones can run when he gets on base and can hit for some power (he is tied for the team lead with three home runs). However, Jones is dead last among team regulars with a .236 batting average.
Much of that is a product of an extraordinarily slow start to the season. In fact, in recent weeks, Jones has been steadily improving at the plate, and Marquess even moved him from the ninth spot in the lineup to the two-hole. Jones has more experience than any other Cardinal player — as a freshman, he was the team’s starting third baseman when it went to the 2007 College World Series. Down the stretch, Jones’ leadership may be pivotal to Stanford’s success. It was definitely pivotal to Saturday’s win, at the very least.
Daniel Bohm wishes people would sometimes write about the do-or-die moments for his club baseball team. Send him your version of this column at dbohm “at” stanford.edu.