Admittedly, it’s been a tough year so far for Stanford baseball.
Stanford, a program with 16 College World Series appearances, faces the once-unbelievable prospect of missing back-to-back postseasons. The Cardinal have become accustomed to sitting near the top of the Pac-12 but currently sit in eighth in the conference with an 10-14 record, including 3-6 in Pac-12 play. Four of their losses — two 13-inning defeats to Kansas and Oregon State and two losses to USC in which the Cardinal led late in the game — could easily have turned into wins. From most perspectives, the season appears to be headed towards another early finish without a berth in an NCAA Regional.
Forget everything — well, at least a lot — you thought you knew about the Cardinal’s postseason chances.
Last Monday, the NCAA released its first Rating Percentage Index (RPI) rankings of the season. RPI rankings factor in a team’s record and strength of schedule to determine the top teams in the country. The selection committee for the college baseball postseason uses RPI as a large determinant in deciding who will make the postseason. When the rankings were released, the Cardinal stood at 24th, the only team in the nation with a losing record to be in the top 25.
The RPI ranking served as a sign that the Cardinal are very much alive in their quest for the postseason. While their record may not reflect a strong start to the season, the Cardinal have played arguably the nation’s most difficult schedule — No. 5 Vanderbilt, No. 7 Oregon State, No. 8 Oregon, No. 11 Texas, No. 14 Rice, USC and Kansas have been the Cardinal’s weekend opponents so far. The same schedule that has caused the difficult start is currently keeping Stanford on the early bubble of postseason qualification and the exceedingly difficult non-conference schedule — three of four non-conference series were against top-15 teams — should continue to differentiate them from other teams also playing in talented conferences.
Now, the brunt of the difficult schedule has passed. Other than No. 17 UCLA and No. 24 Washington, the Cardinal will face unranked opposition the rest of the way. The slight decrease in strength of schedule hopefully will be accompanied by an improved record. The last three series of the season pit the Cardinal against some of the weaker Pac-12 teams: Arizona, Washington State and Utah.
Even with an easier final stretch of the season, the Cardinal’s strength of schedule should remain among the top in the nation, giving the team a chance to use that final stretch to earn more wins and potentially finish with a modest record, a great strength of schedule and a good RPI.
The great strength of schedule comes largely as a result of Stanford’s non-conference opponents. While many other teams chose to fill their non-conference slate with easy contests (neither UCLA, Oregon nor Oregon State played more than one ranked team in non-conference play), the Cardinal challenged themselves. Thus, if Stanford manages to finish five or ten games above .500, its strength of schedule could lift it into the postseason.
I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy for the Card to make the postseason. The team could easily fall into a bigger hole against Washington and UCLA that it fails to overcome. An inconsistent offense might continue to hurt the Cardinal in close games. Stanford could never even reach .500 again this season. But at least there’s a chance.
The poor record should not spell failure for the Cardinal’s season. It’s easy to see the Cardinal’s record and assume that it’s too much to overcome, considering that last season’s team missed the postseason after finishing 10 games over .500. However, last year’s team finished in the 60s in RPI. This year’s squad should finish higher given its strength of schedule.
It’s still early in the season, and that’s exactly why it would be foolish to assume that Stanford doesn’t have a realistic shot at the postseason despite sitting at 10-14. Even I have been guilty of this assumption, but the RPI ranking reminded me that Stanford is by no means eliminated from contention. Stanford has a long way to go, but where there’s a will there’s a way, and I get the feeling there’s a strong will about this team, shaped by the toils of a difficult schedule.
Whilst writing this column, Michael Peterson was blasting Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” so loud his RA flew into a paternalistic furor. Give this city boy some advice on how to repair the tattered relationship at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu and Tweet him @mpetes93.