Gaffney, Piscotty, Card take 2 of 3 at UW

Stephen Piscotty: closer?

SEATTLE - The Cardinal have begun to patch together the problems that have dogged them over the past couple of weeks, and it has all started in the effort and intelligence departments. The improved play paid off as Stanford notched series victory Washington, 5-2 (Thursday), 4-6 (Friday), 8-6 (Saturday).

Nothing had been going right for Tyler Gaffney. He was in the midst of a career-worst 1-for-22 slump. Even balls that he was hitting hard were finding their way into spectacular plays by diving outfielders. The numbers weren't pretty, either. The scuffle had dragged his average down from a respectable .299 clip to the .230 range.

In the midst of another 0-for-4 performance, Gaffney came up to the plate in a crucial ninth-inning spot. His Stanford team, bloodied by Washington's second game-tying rally, needed someone to stop the bleeding and restore order on getaway day in Seattle.

Facing hard-throwing Husky closer Joshua Fredendall, Gaffney's odds appeared long. He had been swinging the bat poorly, while Fredendall, Washington's top reliever, had been lights out the night before. Fredendall looked primed to mow Stanford down again and set the purple and gold up to complete a comeback rubber-match victory.

But, despite his struggles, Gaffney clenched his teeth and battled. He laid off several tough pitches to draw a one-out walk from Fredendall. It was only his first major contribution of the inning in the face of adversity.

Immediately, those in attendance were reminded that hitting slumps don't affect speed. With Austin Wilson at the plate next, Mark Marquess immediately called for a hit-and-run. Gaffney's wheels were on their full blazing display there. He raced all the way to third on a chopper through the wide-open left side.

For the second game of the series, putting the wheels in motion paid dividends for the previously vanilla Stanford attack looking to rediscover its groove.

Then, everyone present was reminded that a hitting slump doesn't affect baserunning intelligence, either. When Stephen Piscotty bounced a chopper to Jacob Lamb, Gaffney was naturally stuck in a rundown between third base and home plate.

Again, though, the Cardinal left fielder refused to go down without a fight, and that made all the difference in Stanford's pivotal 8-6 win.

Instead of surrendering himself into an easy putout at home plate, Gaffney fought until the death in a valiant rundown. His objective was to allow trailing runner Wilson to at least reach third base, so that not all would be lost on the play. But his effort caused something far better to happen. Washington catcher BK Santy ran into Gaffney on the baseline and committed defensive interference.

Gaffney was awarded home plate. Just like that, the lead belonged to the Cardinal. Count it as the winning run for Stanford in the ninth inning and one of the scrappiest scores in recent memory.

The Cardinal are finding ways to win despite their struggles at the plate. Gaffney's ninth-inning trek around the bases was a microcosm of the larger grind that is slowly but surely fixing Stanford's offensive problems. Don't forget Monday's five-run ninth inning rally against St. Mary's in the wake of the Arizona exhaustion, either.

Return of the offense

Entering Saturday's game, Marquess' squad was averaging only 3.9 runs per weekend game since the team's finals break. That was a drastic drop-off from the hefty 8.8 runs of weekend production the club had enjoyed prior to the recess. Something had to be done to wake up the Farm Boys' bats, and the solution came from intelligent, aggressive play on the bases this weekend. The Cardinal finally approached their pre-break average; they fittingly scored eight runs before boarding their plane back to the Bay Area.

Hot hitting is the healthy flame following small ball's fire-starting spark, and the bats began their resurrection Saturday. Eric Smith's 10-pitch war against Austin Voth was the at-bat of the season for Stanford. It culminated with a bases-loaded, two-run, two-out single to right field. Brian Ragira and Kenny Diekroeger later blasted home runs out of Husky Ballpark to announce the return of the Cardinal attack.

(Kind of) clean defense

Throughout the first two games of the series, Stanford showed significant fielding improvement by playing error-free ball on Washington's carpet surface. In game three, though, the fielding plague struck again.

Lonnie Kauppila's throwing miscue wasn't all too concerning. His errant toss to first base came under extreme hurry after he made a magnificent diving stop. Jake Stewart's two gaffes, though, were both due to nonchalant play in center field. One time, he simply dropped a fly ball that he was trying to one-hand. Then, on a play reminiscent of the one that cost the Cardinal the series opener in Arizona, he let a base hit up the middle sneak under his glove.

Stanford hopes that Stewart's errors will serve as a wake-up call so that the junior tightens up loose ends as games progressively take on more meaning. It certainly isn't an ability issue for him; Jake Stewart is the team's most gifted athlete.

Piscotty: RBI leader and closer?

David Schmidt's 90-plus mile per hour sinking fastball is nasty, but the freshman's control has still been an issue. He has walked 12 batters while striking out only nine, and it's becoming clear that Marquess is hesitant to burden the youngster with the pressure-packed closer's role. Over the past week, Schmidt has gradually shifted into the set-up man's position, while Piscotty has emerged as Stanford's new secret weapon out of the bullpen.

In his second clutch pitching performance of the week, Piscotty earned the win Saturday with a gutsy effort in relief of Schmidt and starter A.J. Vanegas. Keep in mind that Piscotty is no stranger to the mound. He pitched frequently this summer for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the Cape Cod league. He's a veteran who isn't afraid to challenge hitters with his 93 mile per hour velocity. It's possible that Marquess has found the cog that his bullpen has been missing.

Nothing bland about Blandino

Barring injury, it's evident that the highly touted freshman is going to enjoy a great Stanford career. He's not big, but Alex Blandino is a natural baseball player who demonstrates a feel for the game that far exceeds his young age. He's had the most impressive batting practice sessions of any Stanford hitter over the course of the past two weeks, and that swing has produced two home runs and nine RBIs in recent games. Blandino's baserunning instincts are phenomenal, and his defensive versatility will be invaluable for the Cardinal moving forward.

********** ********** **********

The pieces are beginning to fall in place for this Stanford baseball team. Winning a Pac-12 road series accounts for a successful weekend. With the offense and defense re-entering their groves, the Cardinal are primed for a big stretch that should thrust them back into the upper echelon of the conference standings. At Cal (Monday, non-conference), vs. Pacific (Tuesday), and vs. Oregon (Friday-Sunday) are next.

Fasten your seatbelts.


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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