The road ahead appears daunting for Stanford baseball (30-23, 16-14 Pac-12), as the Card prepare to enter a hostile postseason environment in Bloomington, Indiana, where thousands of relentless fans and tough competition await.
However, the Cardinal are up to the challenge of NCAA tournament baseball. All season long, Stanford has faced elite competition, and has emerged from each matchup undeterred and ready to fight in its next time out.
Stanford certainly was not even supposed to be here, as “Mark Appel” and “Friday night baseball” are no longer synonymous on the Farm. In turn, Brian Ragira, Justin Ringo and Austin Wilson are also no longer around to rattle opposing pitchers. In short, the 2014 rendition of the Card was expected to be nothing more than a less talented version of last year’s squad, a team that failed to even make the postseason.
When Stanford begins its postseason journey against the Indiana State Sycamores (35-16, 14-7 Missouri Valley Conference), the appearance in the Regional is more than just a testament to a good season — it will mark a major milestone for a team that was counted out at every conceivable point, but never bought into the pre-written narrative of its demise.
Beginning Friday, the Card will see just how much magic they have left. As head coach Mark Marquess — who’s set to make his 29th postseason appearance in the last 34 years — knows from experience, absolutely anything is possible.
“Normally the team that wins the national championship wins one or two games that they shouldn’t have won…It’s totally unpredictable. That’s just where we are right now,” Marquess said.
While the task is daunting, the situation is nothing new for a team that has faced challenges all season. From opening with an extremely difficult schedule of Rice, Texas, and Vanderbilt in successive weekends, to starting a freshman pitcher in 42 straight games, to facing Pac-12 powers Oregon State and Washington on the road and finishing the season strong with their backs against the wall, the Card are playing some of their best baseball right now.
Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Cal Quantrill (5-5) — the Card’s Friday night starter for most of the year — will probably take the mound in Friday’s game against the Sycamores. Quantrill faced arguably the harshest debut of any first-year player in college baseball, as he opened the season with successive starts against Rice and Texas.
The brutal competition, coupled with the unenviable task of replacing last year’s number one overall draft pick in Appel, proved to be tough on Quantrill. The Port Hope, Ontario, native saw his ERA balloon to 13.50 before losing his spot at the top of the rotation to fellow freshman Brett Hanewich (3-4).
However, the standout right-hander regained the Friday night position in the middle of Pac-12 play, helping guide the Card to a 19-7 record in their final 26 games.
Another indispensable force behind Stanford’s late-season turnaround was lefty John Hochstatter (10-1), who has not lost a start all season since entering the rotation on April 12 against the Washington Huskies. Before April, the junior, who will likely start the second game of the regional, was little more than an afterthought in the Stanford bullpen shuffle. However, Hochstatter could not lose down the stretch, finishing the season with a 2.62 ERA.
With the possibility of playing five games in four days in Bloomington, productive starting pitching and a consistent bullpen will be paramount to Stanford’s success. Fortunately for the Cardinal, they do have the necessary personnel in these departments; sophomore lefty Logan James has held down the third spot in the starting rotation during Stanford’s successful month of May, and Hanewich also has the experience to start and deliver a quality performance.
Finally, senior closer A.J. Vanegas, who was named to the All-Regional team in Stanford’s last postseason trip in 2012, will be the elder statesman for a Cardinal bullpen that possesses the talent to be a real asset against the Sycamores.
Offensively, Stanford enters the postseason firing on all cylinders. Junior center fielder Austin Slater has notched a .455 batting average since the end of April, and is in the midst of a 17-game hitting streak. Along with Slater, sophomore outfielder Zach Hoffpauir, the current Pac-12 Player of the Week, and junior third baseman Alex Blandino, who finished second in the conference with 11 home runs, will be looked upon to drive in runs and help the Card get out to early leads. Senior first baseman Danny Diekroeger is also a big threat at the top of the lineup.
“The big difference between now and the beginning of the season is that we were getting hits, but what we didn’t do early was get hits with people on base. Now we’ve gotten the same amount of hits, but we haven’t left as many people on base,” Marquess noted.
The Cardinal certainly have a travel disadvantage among the squads competing at the Bloomington regional, as Stanford will face three Midwest teams, beginning with Indiana State.
The Sycamores are the second-seeded team in the regional, behind number one seed, host and in-state rival Indiana. Indiana State earned an at-large bid into the field of 64 despite sputtering down the stretch and getting bounced early in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
Nevertheless, the Sycamores are a talented team. With an RPI of 21 and a potent lineup, featuring seven qualifying players batting over .270, Indiana State can put up runs at will. The Sycamores are led by senior infielder Derek Hannahs, the son of first-year head coach Mitch Hannahs, who comes into the regional with a .305 average.
Moreover, with just 60 short miles separating Terre Haute from Bloomington, expect the Indiana State faithful to make the drive up to Bart Kaufman Field, creating — for all practical purposes — a road game for Stanford.
On Friday, Indiana State will likely send out junior David Stagg (7-4) to square off against Quantrill. Stagg, a junior college transfer, will also make his first postseason start against the Cardinal, so Friday’s game just might come down to which hurler can maintain his composure in a pressure-packed environment.
In the double-elimination format of the Regionals, Stanford will face either Indiana (42-13, 21-3 Big Ten) or Youngstown State (16-36, 6-17 Horizon) in the second game. The Hoosiers, the No. 4 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, enter the postseason scorching hot — with 30 victories in its last 33 games. The Hoosiers have a wealth of talent and experience both behind the plate and on the mound, including senior Dustin Demuth, a consensus All-American infielder. IU will also lean on junior Sam Travis, who helped Indiana outscore its conference opponents 161-48. On the rubber, the Hoosiers also boast the NCAA’s active leader in wins — senior lefty Joey DeNato.
Without a doubt, the Hoosiers are heavily favored to come out on top in this regional, with their impressive roster and home field advantage. For Stanford to make a serious run, it will have to play some of its best baseball of the season.
Meanwhile, fourth-seeded Youngstown State may not look imposing with its poor regular-season record, but the Penguins come to Bloomington with the momentum of an improbable conference championship run, and could make things really interesting with one or two victories.
Stanford and Indiana State will meet on Friday at 11 a.m. PST. The game will be broadcasted on ESPN3. Regardless of the outcome, the Cardinal will play again on Saturday at a time to be determined.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at [email protected].