Stanford baseball hopes that Friday's fiasco in Fresno, a 7-4 defeat at the hands of the Bulldogs, will be its most painful fall of the season. The pipe dream of an undefeated year is over for the 8-1 Cardinal.
And even though this team carried an aura of invincibility with it throughout the first two weeks of the year, a full season of unblemished baseball was never going to happen. Some chinks in the team's armor have finally been exposed.
Count it as a blessing in disguise: just as iron sharpens iron, a championship-caliber team must be tested early in the season to be strengthened. Stanford's demolitions of Vanderbilt and Texas (by a combined score of 63-18) didn't do anything to foster Cardinal growth.
Friday's sixth-inning meltdown in front of a raucous, barking crowd at Beiden Field, on the other hand, did.
Most notably, there was the double defensive lapse in the critical sixth inning. With Stanford clinging to a 4-3 lead with the bases loaded and two men out, it appeared that Cardinal ace Mark Appel had induced Fresno State catcher Austin Wynns to ground into an inning-ending comebacker. After knocking the ball down, Appel had plenty of time to rifle a throw to first to beat the slow-footed catcher to the bag.
But Appel instead opted for a desperation flip home to catcher Eric Smith, who only had to step on home plate to force out Trent Garrison barreling down the line from third base. The problem was that Smith – newly converted to the catcher's position and probably expecting Appel to throw to first – didn't register that it was a force-out situation. In his surprise, he dove to try to tag Garrison instead, and the Bulldogs' designated hitter eluded him with a headfirst dive to tie the game 4-4 and prolong the inning.
That was just the stabbing. Touted freshman shortstop Chris Mariscal would make sure to twist the sword. He drove Appel's very next pitch into the right-center field gap to clear the bases and give Fresno State a 7-4 lead, an advantage that the stellar relief of Justin Haley would not relinquish. The Bulldogs' reliever retired Stanford's final 10 batters of the game. For the first time all season, the Cardinal offense did not respond to a deficit like an angry schoolyard bully, and the team's winning streak exited with a whimper.
With last year's departure of steady backstop Zach Jones to graduation, the catcher's spot was the only question mark in Stanford's lineup entering this season. And while the miscommunication between Appel and Smith at the dish in the sixth inning proved costly, it will go a long way in ensuring that the Cardinal smooth out the transition at that crucial position for the longer season.
Then there was Aaron Judge, the 6-foot-7, 255-pound behemoth of a center fielder ("Dave Winfield Jr.") who finally found his power, blasting two home runs off Appel to position the Bulldogs for the win.
The scouting report on Judge was that he looked middle-away to poke off-speed pitches to the opposite field without much power. But both of his first two at-bats, he yanked Appel fastballs out to left and crushed the scoreboard, the first time this season a hitter has beaten the hard-throwing righty's premiere pitch in such grand fashion.
That definitely didn't match the scouting report.
Going forward, though, Appel is certain to be more careful with the location of his pitches, because he has now seen it with his own eyes: the best college hitters can make 96-mile-per-hour gas look silly if it's lazily located.
For those reasons, Friday's loss was a necessary step in the maturation of a massively talented Stanford baseball team. It just stung a bit more than usual because, after such an invincible start, this team had forgotten what it felt like to lose.
Tune into 90.1 FM, or kzsulive.stanford.edu at 6 p.m. tonight and 1 p.m. Sunday to listen to Stanford right the ship in the final two games of the series.
About the Author: David Lombardi is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for several years and is currently contributing to the Cardinal Channel. You can check several of his Stanford calls out at www.davidmatthewlombardi.com, where you can also read his West Coast-oriented blog via this direct link. For Stanford baseball insights, follow David on Twitter at davidmlombardi.
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