Strike One: Cardinal Rules
As recently as April 10, Stanford was just 13-13 overall and 3-5 in the Pacific-10 Conference after losing its second straight game at home to Oregon. The young Cardinal was struggling mightily on the mound and was in danger of falling into a deep hole in the conference with a trip to Oregon State looming the following weekend.
Stanford responded to that adversity with eight consecutive wins, including sweeps of the Beavers and arch-rival California. All of a sudden, the Cardinal is sitting pretty at 10-5 in the Pac-10 (just a game behind first-place Arizona State) and No. 21 in the Ratings Percentage Index, according to Boyd's World.
The series against the then-No. 15 Golden Bears was tightly contested, but freshman third baseman Kenny Diekroeger delivered a walk-off sacrifice fly to give the Cardinal a 3-2 win Friday, then hit a walk-off RBI double to complete a ninth-inning comeback in Sunday's 11-10 win.
"That game was huge, even though we'd already won the series," Diekroeger said of Sunday's thrilling finale. "If we had lost that game, we would have been tied with them in the Pac-10, and now we're two games up on them."
Stanford now has eight wins in its last at-bat this season, and Diekroeger has been responsible for three of them. He also provided a walk-off, two-run single to complete an opening-weekend sweep of Rice.
"For whatever reason, we've been in that situation plenty of times this year—at one point, half of our wins at home were walk-off hits, so we've definitely been in that situation before," Diekroeger said. "I'm not sure why we've got so many walk-off hits, but I can tell you we've got great team chemistry, everybody likes coming out to the field and hanging out together. We just love playing for each other."
Pitching is still a work in progress for the Cardinal, which has a 5.16 team ERA and allowed 22 runs in the last two games against Cal this weekend. But sophomore lefty Brett Mooneyham's start on Friday was very encouraging. Mooneyham has the best arm on the staff but has battled control issues this year, and Friday he allowed just two runs (one earned) on four hits and three walks while striking out 10 over 7 1/3 innings.
For Stanford to make a postseason run, it will need its young pitchers to perform at a more consistent level the way many of its freshman hitters have. Diekroeger (.331/.436/.544) is one of three freshmen who have started at least 26 of Stanford's 31 games. The entire outfield is patrolled by freshmen, and Stephen Piscotty (.351/.413/.463) and Tyler Gaffney (.336/.430/.473) have hit well, while Jake Stewart (.234/.286/.360) has shown flashes but remains raw offensively.
If Stanford's young players continue to improve down the stretch and can avoid fatigue in their first college seasons, the Cardinal will be very dangerous.
"I think right now we're just getting hot at the right time," Diekroeger said. "The last eight games or so that we've won, we've had double-digit hits. It's all about momentum in baseball, and we're getting hot right now.
"With our pitchers, we know we have it in us, it's just a matter of executing."
Strike Two: Pilots Flying High
Heading into this weekend, Portland had played 33 games at Pepperdine, dating back to 1985.
The Waves had won 32 of them.
So it meant something that Portland swept Pepperdine in Malibu this weekend, even if the Waves are having a disappointing season (the sweep dropped them to 13-22 overall).
When asked if this was a statement weekend for his team, Pilots coach Chris Sperry started to downplay its significance—then allowed that "maybe it is."
"We just want to keep plugging along and doing what we're doing and try to keep making a statement each time out," he said. "But (Pepperdine is) a storied program. I don't know that this is a typical Pepperdine team in terms of being strong everywhere—they've pounded my brains in so many times with clubs that were better than we saw this weekend.
"But I was very proud of our guys. Our pitchers did a good job of holding the game close. When you're facing guys like those pitchers at Pepperdine, they're not going to make it easy for you, and they don't give you a lot of big innings. In the case of this weekend, it was mid to late in the game, the seventh inning in some cases, before some things started happening for us. I was proud of our guys—there was no quit, no panic."
Portland has won seven straight games to climb to 27-9 overall and 11-1 in the West Coast Conference, with a showdown against league favorite San Diego (9-0 in the WCC) looming in two weeks. The Pilots almost certainly need to win the WCC's automatic bid in order to make regionals for the first time since 1991, because their soft nonconference schedule hurts their RPI (76th).
But just being in position to make a run at the conference title is a huge development for a Portland program that has finished in the bottom two of the WCC each of the last seven years, including four last-place finishes. The WCC did away with its best-of-three championship series, so the Pilots need to win the regular-season title to claim the league's automatic bid. If the Pilots can win the series against San Diego at home, they will be in very good shape, because they lead the next team in the standings (San Francisco) by four games.
Portland's success has been one of the nation's more notable surprises in 2010, but Sperry isn't exactly shocked.
"I may not have been able to predict that we would have this hot a start, but at the start of the year we knew we would be pretty competitive based on a strong pitching staff and two very strong catchers and a strong middle infield and a very good center fielder," Sperry said. "If you buy into being strong up the middle, we felt like we had a chance to be good. Our pitching has been even better than expected, and we play pretty solid defense. We don't have a ton of offense, but we never seem to be out of a game, and I really credit our pitchers with that."
Portland has a bona fide college ace in junior righty Zach Varce (5-1, 2.86 with 79 strikeouts and 17 walks in 69 innings), who has built upon his dominant summer in the Northwoods League. Varce commands a solid four-pitch mix, including an 88-91 mph fastball that touches 93 now and then, a good slider and good curveball, and a split-finger.
"He's been so effective throwing strikes, and hitters can't sit on any pitch because he's been so effective with all of them," Sperry said. "Hitters are constantly off-balance against him."
Varce had a good sophomore year serving mostly as Portland's closer, but the addition of junior college transfer Chris Dennis (4-0, 1.12 with 12 saves and a 41-8 strikeout-walk ratio in 32 innings) has shored up the back of the pen and allowed Varce to focus on starting.
The best arm on the staff, though, belongs to redshirt sophomore righty Owen Jones (3-1, 2.78), who had Tommy John surgery right before the 2009 season started. Jones worked his way back into the rotation gradually this spring and turned in six strong innings Sunday against the Waves in his fourth start, allowing just two unearned runs on four hits and a walk while striking out nine.
"He was touching 94 (Sunday) with his fastball, with a real firm slider and a good changeup, and he's got a curveball that he'll mix in," Sperry said. "He might have the best stuff we have on the club. It's just a matter of getting consistent with it and regaining that pitching feel."
That strong pitching core takes pressure off the lineup, which features only one player with more than five home runs—sophomore catcher/DH Beau Fraser (.378/.434/.580 with six homers and 39 RBIs). The strength of the team is up the middle, as Sperry said. Second baseman Riley Henricks and shortstop Kris Kauppila form a steady double-play tandem, and center fielder Craig Smith has excellent range in center field.
Smith did not make the trip to Malibu because of a hyper-extended knee, so Portland plugged freshman Nick Armento into center field and did not miss a beat. It will take more than that to slow down these Pilots.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Mike McGee
At the end of a long weekend of dramatic comebacks from both sides, Florida State found itself one strike away from losing a key series to arch-rival Miami on Sunday afternoon.
Moments earlier, Hurricanes righthander Taylor Wulf had blown away FSU All-Americans Tyler Holt and Stephen Cardullo with outside fastballs. With two outs, a runner on first base and Miami clinging to a 6-5 lead, Mike McGee came to the plate as Florida State's last hope.
He battled the count full, and later he said he was looking for an outside pitch to drive the other way because that's how Wulf had worked him in the past and how he'd worked the other two hitters in the inning. Sure enough, Wulf came with a fastball away, and McGee hit it over the right-center-field fence for a game-winning two-run homer. It was Florida State's second walk-off victory in two days, and it set off mayhem at Dick Howser Stadium.
"I can't really express to you the exhilaration from everybody that saw it," Seminoles coach Mike Martin said. "The noise, the decibel level, you could have heard it a mile away—I mean, it was deafening. The guys were coming out of the dugout, and (assistant coach) Jamey (Shouppe) is normally a very mild person, but he pushed me, and I was headed to the bat girls, so I spun out of the way to miss the bat girls and ended up on my back on the bench. I was laughing—it was total exhilaration."
It's safe to say, then, that McGee's home run was huge for the Seminoles. But his ninth-inning at-bat might have been meaningless if not for his heroics on the mound in the eighth inning.
"There's no doubt, the key to the ballgame was when he came in in the eighth inning with one out, the bases loaded, and the fifth hitter at the plate, and he struck him out, and then the next guy popped up, and we're still in it," Martin said. "That was really big. Then he got them out quickly in the ninth, and he was obviously special. Michael is a very poised young man. He's very much in control of his emotions, but yet, inside he's an intense competitor."
That combination of traits has made McGee a perfect fit at the back of Florida State's bullpen. In 17 innings over 11 appearances, McGee is 3-0, 0.53 with seven saves and a 20-8 strikeout-walk ratio. And, of course, he starts every game in left field and bats in the No. 3 hole in the lineup. After a slow start with the bat, McGee has come on strong lately and is now hitting .327/.457/.585 with nine homers and 41 RBIs. He went 3-for-3 with two home runs in Friday's 6-5 loss to the Hurricanes.
McGee was a second-team All-American last year as a two-way player. He was a key member of the weekend rotation as a sophomore in 2009, going 6-2, 4.04, but the Seminoles needed him to stabilize their bullpen this spring, and that's exactly what he has done. McGee attacks hitters with an average fastball and gets plenty of swings-and-misses on his biting curveball. He also mixes in a solid changeup at times. His ability to pound the strike zone and his aggressive approach give the Seminoles peace of mind in tight spots.
"He enjoys that role," Martin said. "He was very receptive to it when we posed it to him. Some guys that play in the field just want to hit, but this guy really grabs that opportunity to help his team with the game on the line. I'm glad that that decision was made, because it's been a long time since we've gotten a guy that we are that comfortable with as a closer. Now, there's a lot of baseball left, no doubt about it, but Mike McGee gives you that comfort. He's certainly a huge part of our baseball team, that's for sure."