Wheels fall off for baseball, swept by OSU

Conference coaches picked a talented Stanford baseball team to win the Pac-12 before this 2013 season began. That seemed decades ago when Oregon State swept Stanford away at Sunken Diamond this weekend, all while exposing the Cardinal's major weaknesses. Following a stretch of 24 consecutive NCAA appearances, The Farm Boys will likely miss the postseason for the fourth time in seven years.

The Wheels Come Off
For the second time this season, Stanford (26-20, 11-13 Pac-12) faced a matchup with a juggernaut in which they were allowed next to no margin for error. And, as was the case in Eugene, Stanford was swept. This weekend, Oregon State (40-8, 19-4 Pac-12) played like a Cal Ripken baseball fundamental instructional video. The Cardinal bumbled in comparison to the Beavers' relentless approach.

Fittingly, an error led off the series: third baseman Alex Blandino's off-target throw turned into three free bases to kick-start Oregon State's attack on Friday. From there, the Beavers drained Stanford ace Mark Appel in a textbook effort of working counts and pressuring the defense. They exhausted him, forcing 60 pitches through the first three frames. They were as prepared as any team that has stepped into the batter's box against the flamethrower this season, striking out only four times on a night Appel needed 15 punchouts for the Cardinal career record.

As the assault on the defense mounted, the dam soon ruptured, producing a 7-3 Oregon State Friday victory before similar sloppiness opened the door for 10-4 and 5-4 Beaver wins the rest of the weekend. John Hochstatter was ineffective following Appel Saturday, while the Cardinal desperately turned to Sam Lindquist, normally a closer, to salvage the series Sunday, but to no avail.

Stanford's offensive counterpunches were too weak. Mark Marquess' squad ran into the buzzsaw of a pitching staff that paraded three consecutive starters featuring sub-2 ERAs. Whenever the Cardinal did manage to start something promising with the bats, spectacular Oregon State defense stymied it, unless the Farm Boys ran themselves out of the rally first. Beavers centerfielder Max Gordon made two sensational plays on the weekend to quell Cardinal uprisings, the first on a headlong diving catch that kicked up warning track dirt. Then Austin Wilson tried to score from third base on an infield grounder with only one out Sunday. He was gunned down at home plate, and Stanford could not complete the last-gasp comeback.

Difference Maker: The Connective Tissue
This Stanford team does not lack for talent, and that much was evident through Brian Ragira's weekend six-hit parade and Wilson's many laser beams, one of which hooked around the left field foul pole on Saturday. But in an intricate game of millimeters like baseball, only truly inferior competition can be simply overpowered.

Oregon State's prowess is the sum of so many well-oiled parts: the aforementioned pitching and defense, plus a crafty precision based on perfectly-placed surprise bunts and scores of hard-earned walks. Of course, the occasional moon shot helps the Beavers too (see Danny Hayes' Sunday effort), but it was the superior connective tissue -- the stuff built of situational hitting, good baserunning, and crisp defense -- that again outclassed Stanford this past weekend.

The Cardinal have registered only 18 sacrifices in 46 games this season, by far a league low. They've hit only 16 sacrifice flies, the third fewest in the conference. Of course, Stanford does love to mash the ball out of the ballpark instead, with 33 homers good for second in the Pac-12, but this season's disastrous 0-6 stand against the Oregon schools has demonstrated the radically different nature of the college game, given the newer, weaker BBCOR bats. Home-run hitting power didn't matter when poor defense and a walk-off squeeze bunt doomed the Cardinal in Eugene, and it didn't matter when Oregon State unleashed its versatile assault on Sunken Diamond this past weekend.

Never mind the preseason projections that had Stanford winning the Pac-12: Barring a miracle, the Cardinal will miss the postseason here in 2013, while the Beavers will likely enjoy a national seed in their bid for Omaha. The difference in those two markedly contrasting trajectories was on full display this past weekend, a disappointing display for Stanford fans who may have been reminded by earlier failures to meet expectations at nearby Maples Pavilion.

A Bright Spot
Stanford pitcher Jordan Kutzer, who made his season debut three weeks ago against San Jose State, enjoyed a chance to pitch in front of the first big-time crowd of his career. With Mark Marquess trailing 7-3 in the seventh inning of Friday's game and looking to conserve his bullpen for the rest of the weekend, he summoned Kutzer to relieve freshman Logan James. The 3,576 fans who had packed into Sunken Diamond for Fireworks Night saw the lanky sophomore deal 2.2 scoreless innings and strike out a pair of Oregon State batters.

That evening marked followed another memorable moment in Kutzer's season. A day prior to Stanford's season-opening road trip to Rice, he found a travel bag waiting in front of his locker. That's the coaching staff's way of informing a player that he's made the travel squad.

The Strikeout Record
Mark Appel struck out only four Oregon State batters Friday, bringing his college career total to 352, just 11 shy of the Stanford record co-owned by Kyle Peterson and Justin Wayne. Since the Cardinal's postseason chances are looking dim, Appel will likely only have two more chances to break the cherished record: at Cal next Friday and at home versus UCLA on May 24.

Up Next
Stanford hosts Santa Clara in a midweek game on Tuesday evening before heading to Berkeley for a three-game set this weekend. Ed Sprague's Pacific Tigers come to Sunken Diamond next Tuesday before UCLA visits to close out the regular season in a three-game series May 24-26. The Cardinal, whose RPI currently hovers around the No. 80 spot, likely must win all of their remaining eight games and receive outside help to qualify for the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.

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