Vanegas gets Card past Pepperdine, 5-4

A.J. Vanegas

"This is why we came to Stanford, honestly," Kenny Diekroeger said after Stanford's 5-4 NCAA Regional win over Pepperdine. "To play in front of a packed house. There was a lot of electricity tonight."

Yes, the stands the were buzzing. But the primary voltage wasn't coming from the fans this time. Instead, the electricity emanated from Cardinal closer A.J. Vanegas, who popped Eric Smith's mitt with a plus fastball and a filthy, veering slider. The gas frequently reached 96 miles per hour.

For the 3.2 innings that his club needed him most, Vanegas rose to the occasion in a big way. He entered the game in the midst of a messy jam in the sixth inning and immediately induced a ground ball to drawn-in second baseman Danny Diekroeger with Waves runner Bryan Langlois at third base. A perfect throw home cut down the hard-charging runner and preserved a 4-4 tie.

With that bit of help from his defense, the beast inside Albert Vanegas III was unleashed. He struck out eight batters over his final 3.1 innings of work, perplexing even All-WCC second baseman Joe Sever twice with his simple-yet-effective fastball-slider combination.

The final line: 3.2 innings, one hit, eight strikeouts, 75 pitches, and credit for a win after the Cardinal's comeback from a 4-0 fourth inning deficit.

Quite the pick-me-up from a guy who had struggled mightily with his control earlier this season. Initially Stanford's Sunday starter, Vanegas found himself demoted from that role into middle relief before March rolled around. But as winter turned to spring, the sophomore was thrust by necessity into the closer's role. It ended up being a perfect fit.

Now, with summer officially approaching, Vanegas' velocity is sizzling. His shutdown role has given him an opportunity to showcase his scorching stuff in crunch time. Saturday's Regional performance was Exhibit A.

"It was an unbelievable job by AJ," Mark Marquess said afterward. "He had great stuff and won big spots all evening."

As Vanegas establishes his identity, so does the Stanford team. Friday's win over Fresno State saw the Cardinal reassert its trademarked top-to-bottom offensive onslaught, while Saturday's victory featured a scrappy effort that took full advantage of a gigantic break. Marquess' 2012 squad is talented enough to win in a bevy of different ways. Game Two of the Regional proved to be a complete novelty.

Three runs scored on one wild pitch in the sixth inning. It was a bizarre, lucky play that allowed Stanford to erase all of the early 4-0 deficit and a forgettable Brett Mooneyham start. And, wouldn't you know it, Mr. Scrappy himself was up at the plate when this game-defining delivery skipped to the backstop. Tyler Gaffney has been at the center of two downright weird run-scoring plays this season: the defensive interference call that scored the go-ahead run in Washington after a rundown, and now this.

To put icing on the cake, Gaffney also jetted around the bases to score the game's winning run on Kenny Diekroeger's eighth inning RBI double. That's two straight games in which the once-slumping Cardinal shortstop has played offensive hero. Remember, the good vibes all started when he laid down a successful sacrifice bunt during Friday's fifth inning.

It's fun to watch the small victories start to accumulate for the Stanford baseball team. From Vanegas' electric success settling into the closer's role to Diekroeger's timely winning adjustments at the plate, you get the feeling that the Cardinal are peaking at the right time. They're positioning themselves well to capitalize on the breaks that are needed to win championships.

As a result, they're one win away from securing their first title of the 2012 season. The winner of Sunday afternoon's Fresno State-Pepperdine game will await at 6 p.m. PT in the Regional final. Hear it all on KZSU 90.1 FM (kzsulive.stanford.edu).


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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