Catastrophe, though, was not only avoided; it was turned on its head. Everything that had been going wrong for Stanford started going right. The bats roared to life to the tune of 34 runs and 43 hits on the weekend. The lineup mauled one of the nation's best pitching staffs with its don't-try-to-do-too-much, disciplined approach.
The fireworks were saved for the freshman Blandino, who yanked eight hits that included three bombs and a Saturday walk-off single. Two months ago, who could have predicted that a freshman would be hitting cleanup in the midst of a bevy of possible first-round prospects? The freshly named Pac-12 Player of the Week is quickly earning a reputation with a lightning-quick bat that jumps on any ball middle-in.
The Sun Devils were hesitant to pitch The Great Blandino outside because of how he crowds the plate. They paid when baseballs began sailing into the Sunken Diamond trees. All of the freshman's team-leading six home runs have landed near the same light post in left field - even the eye-level delivery that he tomahawked out to left for his second home run on Friday.
Mark Appel registered a gutsy performance to earn the series-opening win in Stanford's 17-5 Friday romp. The Cardinal ace labored through arm fatigue following last Friday's 149-pitch outing.
"I'm not going to lie," Appel said. "My arm felt a bit tired. But it was one of those games where I just had to go compete."
Brett Mooneyham also battled admirably under Saturday's searing sun, bouncing back from three consecutive losses to deliver a three-run quality start and set the Cardinal up for the series victory.
The biggest pitching news of the weekend, though, came courtesy of A.J. Vanegas. The projected Sunday starter instead appeared in relief during Saturday's pivotal game. He raised eyebrows by pumping 97 mile-per-hour gas into the strike zone right out of bed, earning the win, and coming back out Sunday to pick up the two-inning save behind more career-high velocity.
"AJ has finally fully gotten his confidence back," his father told me. "He's throwing hard now."
Mark Marquess may have found his closer in Vanegas well past the halfway point of the season. That's a huge development for a team whose bullpen has remained a question mark deep into April. It also means that lefties John Hochstatter and Garrett Hughes, who only faced one batter Sunday and will likely start Tuesday against BYU, are likely now vying for the third starter's role behind Appel and Mooneyham.
Making up ground
The struggles of the rest of the Pac-12 elite made the resounding weekend even better for Stanford. UCLA dropped its series at Oregon State, Oregon was surprised at home by Washington State, and Arizona wasn't able to finish off Washington in 12 innings on Sunday. That means that the Cardinal (8-7) made significant progress in their trek to catch the league's top three. They're now tied with the Bruins and Beavers (both 11-7) in the loss column and have only more loss than Pac-12 leader Arizona (12-6). Of course, the Farm Boys still have a lot of work to do, but the sweep over the Sun Devils has taken their title hopes off of life support.
A road showdown with second place UCLA is next. The Cardinal's next six conference games will take them through Los Angeles and Corvallis, making this the most difficult stretch of the 2012 schedule. If Stanford can weather the storm of the next two weeks, they'll be greeted with a manageable stretch featuring Washington State (home), Utah (road), and Cal (home) to close the regular season.
In short, now is the right time for this team to catch fire.
Jake Stewart didn't play this weekend. His recovery after turning his ankle stepping on a loose baseball in the dugout last Friday has proceeded slower than expected. The junior center fielder, however, was walking without a limp at Saturday's player/family postgame barbecue. He is expected back soon.
Part of the reason that Stewart was not rushed back this weekend was because of Brett Michael Doran's solid, fundamental play in Stewart's place at the leadoff spot. Stanford had laid down only eight sacrifices all season heading into Friday, but Doran laid down two critical bunts on the day. Tyler Gaffney has moved to center field in Stewart's absence, while Stephen Piscotty has manned left field. Piscotty's strong arm came into play on Saturday, when his great throw from the corner dissuaded ASU from waving home the potential go-ahead run in the ninth inning.
Dean McArdle looked sharp in his return after being hit in the hand by a comebacker last Tuesday.
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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