Stanford’s freshman pitchers impressed, but the bats never awoke as No. 7 Stanford fell in its season-opening series to No. 17 Rice, two games to one in Houston.
Stanford (1-2) dropped the season opener Friday night, 5-1. Senior starting pitcher Mark Appel gave up all five runs — two earned — in just five innings of work. It was not the hometown return that Appel, a Houston native, envisioned in his first start since a 17-1 loss in game one of the 2012 NCAA Super Regionals at Florida State.
In the end, one bad play and a bit of bad luck ended up being the difference in Friday’s outcome. Both Stanford and Rice had seven hits, but the Owls bunched their hits more effectively, scoring two runs in the second inning and three more in the fifth while picking up only a bunt single in their other six innings at the plate.
The big play of the night for Rice came on the Owls’ other bunt single.
In the bottom of the fifth, Rice shortstop Ford Stainback laid down a bunt with runners on first and second with no one out. Stanford sophomore catcher Wayne Taylor tried to throw Stainback out at first — even though it looked like Stainback was going to beat it out easily — but Taylor’s throw got past Ragira and ended up in right field, allowing the lead runner to score.
To make matters worse, junior right fielder Austin Wilson’s throw back home bounced past Taylor for another error on the catcher and another Rice run. When the dust — or infield dirt — settled, Rice had doubled its lead to 4-0 with Stainback on third and nobody out.
Stanford made a late comeback push, but it came too late. Stanford had a runner in scoring position in every inning except for the seventh, but the Cardinal combined to go 1-11 in those situations. Only senior Justin Ringo could come through, knocking in Ragira with a single in the eighth. One inning later, Ragira flew out to deep left field to end the game with freshman Zach Hoffpauir representing the potential game-tying run on deck to give Rice a 1-0 lead in the series.
“I was down to my last strike so I was just thinking put something in play,” Ragira said. “I thought extra-base hit. I thought it was probably a double. They were playing no-doubles defense, and the guy made a great play.”
Frustrated with his team’s performance over the first six innings — Rice starting pitcher Austin Kubitza fanned 12 over six innings of work en route to earning the victory — Stanford head coach Mark Marquess made sweeping changes to the lineup.
Marquess inserted Hoffpauir, junior Brett Michael Doran, freshman Drew Jackson, sophomore Austin Slater and freshman Austin Barr in for junior Austin Wilson, freshman Jonny Locher, junior Lonnie Kauppila, sophomore Alex Blandino and sophomore Wayne Taylor.
On Saturday afternoon, only two of those changes stuck in the starting lineup: Jackson got the start at shortstop over Kauppila, and Doran got the start in left while Dominic Jose moved to right in place of Wilson — who Marquess mentioned was out with a sore elbow after the game.
The game featured a rematch of last season’s Sunday pitching duel, with sophomore John Hochstatter starting for the Cardinal against Rice’s Jordan Stephens. Last year, both Hochstatter and Stephens went 6.2 innings, but an unearned run gave Stephens a 1-0 win.
Hochstatter was spot on once again Saturday, except when facing Rice left fielder Michael Aquino. Aquino hit a solo home run in each of his first two at bats — the first on a fastball to take a 1-0 lead and the second on a first-pitch changeup to tie the game at two in the fourth.
“It was a lot different than the intersquads,” Hochstatter said. “I wasn’t able to locate everything exactly where I wanted, but the defense behind me was great and that made the difference in the game… As the season goes on, these close games are going to be important, and this defense is going to make a big difference in them.”
Stanford’s two runs came on a Brian Ragira double with the bases loaded in the third. A great relay throw and block of the plate by Rice catcher Geoff Perrott nailed Diekroeger attempting to score from first.
Freshman right-handed pitcher Daniel Starwalt impressed in his Stanford debut. Starwalt took over with a runner on second base and nobody out in the bottom of the sixth. The righty escaped the jam on his way to three and a third scoreless innings, picking up his first career win.
Ringo was the Rice Owl killer once again. For the third straight season, the senior secured a game-winning hit against Rice. With the game tied in the eighth inning, Ringo doubled in Brett Michael Doran to give Stanford a 3-2 lead that would remain as the final score.
“We were kind of struggling to hit the whole weekend,” Ringo said. “Our pitchers were doing well. I was looking for a pitch to drive because we needed something going for us…I wanted to just get on base for [Diekroeger and Ragira]. He left a fastball over middle-away, and I was able to handle it to left-center.”
Senior Garrett Hughes retired both batters he faced to earn the save and sealed Stanford’s first victory of the season. The big lefty added about three miles per hour to his fastball over the offseason, and he still doesn’t feel like he’s throwing his hardest.
“I just tried to remain composed,” Hughes said. “I knew my defense would be right there behind me like they are all season… The only goal right there is to finish the game, to close the game.”
In Sunday’s rubber game, one of Stanford’s freshman pitchers finally blinked, if only just for a moment. Southpaw Logan James got the start and looked shaky right from the beginning. James walked Leon Byrd, allowed a single to Christian Stringer and hit Michael Ratterree to load the bases with nobody out. After an Aquino groundout scored Byrd and moved all the runners up a base, Rice third baseman Shane Hoelscher singled — his first of four singles on the day — to give Rice a 3-0 lead.
In an impressive display of mental toughness, James settled down well, allowing only one more base runner in the remaining 3.2 innings he pitched. Fellow freshman Bobby Zarubin came in for James to start the fifth and had a debut to remember. Zarubin pitched four scoreless innings, allowing just four hits and one walk, to hold Rice at three runs for the rest of the game.
But Stanford’s hitters could not figure out Rice starter John Simms. The right-hander carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning before Barr doubled to right-center for what would turn out to be Stanford’s lone hit of the afternoon.
“Simms kept everything down,” said Diekroeger, who went 0-4 after combining to go 4-8 over the first two games of the series. “All those guys could get the breaking ball over. You couldn’t tee off because you never knew when the fastball was coming… The swings were defensive today.”
Stanford will look to get back to .500 on the season Tuesday, when the Cardinal hosts its biggest rival Cal in a non-conference game at Sunken Diamond.
Cal is coming off a weekend sweep of Michigan in Berkeley. The Bears didn’t make it easy but came through in the end, winning all three games in walk-off fashion by one run apiece.
Weather permitting, first pitch on Tuesday is scheduled for 5:30 p.m.
Contact Sam Fisher at safisher “at” stanford.edu.