The No. 9 Stanford baseball team made up some crucial ground on Pac-12 foe UCLA this weekend, besting the No. 11 Bruins twice with dominant pitching and getting help from some of its veteran bats as well.
Junior righthander Mark Appel had double-digit strikeouts against a highly ranked opponent for the fourth time this season on Friday, while junior righty Sahil Bloom pitched five near-perfect innings in relief on Sunday to secure the series win in Westwood. Meanwhile, junior outfielders Stephen Piscotty and Tyler Gaffney combined for nine hits and six RBIs on the tail end of a stretch that has seen Stanford’s youth take a leading role at the plate, with both homering in the series opener.
The Cardinal (28-11, 10-8 Pac-12) is now only a half game behind UCLA (28-12, 12-9) for third place in the conference, with No. 14 Oregon on top and just two and a half games in front of Stanford after moving into the top spot this weekend.
With six wins in its last seven games, the Cardinal is carrying much-needed momentum into the home stretch of the Pac-12 season, which includes a showdown with No. 21 Oregon State — the Beavers sit just a game behind Stanford — in Corvallis next weekend.
The Cardinal jumped out to a big lead in the pivotal series opener and didn’t look back, grabbing a 7-0 advantage with runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. Sophomore righthander Adam Plutko took a no-hitter into the top of the fourth, but Gaffney broke it up with his first home run of the year, an opposite-field solo shot. Sophomore first baseman Brian Ragira tacked on a second run with a two-out, full-count double to bring home freshman third baseman Alex Blandino.
Stanford led off the fifth with six productive at-bats — a hit batsman, a sacrifice bunt, a single, a sacrifice fly, another single and a three-run home run from Piscotty — before a sixth-inning triple from junior catcher Eric Smith set up the Cardinal’s seventh run.
Appel (6-1) did give up eight hits in his seven innings, but stranded seven UCLA baserunners and struck out 10 more. Bloom gave up a ninth-inning homer to sophomore Pat Valaika to narrow Stanford’s lead to 7-2, but the Bruins didn’t have it in them for a comeback and the Cardinal took the opener.
On Saturday, UCLA took advantage of an off day from redshirt junior Brett Mooneyham, whose recent struggles have seen his ERA jump to 3.98, the highest for a Cardinal pitcher with at least 10 appearances. The lefty gave up seven free baserunners — walking four and hitting three — in just a four-inning start.
Stanford grabbed the early lead on a two-run double by Ragira in the top of the first, but the advantage was gone as quickly as it was achieved, as Mooneyham gave up four runs in the bottom of the same frame.
The game stayed at 4-2 until the fifth, when Mooneyham allowed another run to score and loaded the bases before departing. Fellow lefthander Garrett Hughes came in and struck out his first batter, then proceeded to walk in a run before getting out of the inning.
Back-to-back homers from rightfielder Austin Wilson and designated hitter Danny Diekroeger in the sixth cut the four-run Bruin lead in half, but the sophomores’ effort would cap the Cardinal’s scoring on Saturday afternoon. Junior rightfielder Jeff Gelalich added a bit of unneeded insurance for UCLA with his RBI single in the seventh, as the Bruins evened the series with a 7-4 win and set up an intriguing rubber game for Sunday.
Stanford took the decisive third game between these teams a year ago, coming up with a four-run comeback that lasted down to the last out in the bottom of the ninth. This time, the two-out rally would come much earlier.
Down 2-0 after UCLA tallied in the first and second, the Cardinal had two outs in the top of the fifth when junior shortstop Kenny Diekroeger was hit by a pitch. Sophomore second baseman Brett Michael Doran followed with a double and Gaffney — who reached base five times on Sunday — drew a walk to load the bases.
With the count full, Piscotty got an unconventional RBI by taking one off his back, and Ragira grabbed a 3-2 lead with a two-run single. After Wilson walked to load the bases yet again, Smith brought home two more runs with a single of his own, and Blandino tacked on a sixth run with another base hit, giving the Cardinal its biggest lead since Friday night.
Stanford head coach Mark Marquess turned the game over to Bloom for the final five innings, and the junior only needed to face one over the minimum number of batters to secure his second relief win of the season. A five-pitch bottom of the ninth finished off the weekend for the Cardinal, which gained a game on UCLA in the standings with the series win.
Stanford now turns its sights to San Jose State, the only team to beat the Cardinal in a midweek game this season. The squad will look to avenge that 3-2 loss from two weeks ago at Blethen Field on Tuesday afternoon in a 2:30 p.m. matchup.