Sports

Stanford hopes to jumpstart its NCAA hopes against Cal

Danny Diekroeger has prepared for stressful situations all his life. That's what athletes do. Thus, stepping up to the plate with a baseball game on the line is one of the easier moments of his sporting life.

Stanford (17-17, 6-9 in the Pac-12) will need a few more heroics from Diekroeger, one of four seniors on the team, and his teammates if it wants to participate in the NCAA tournament after missing out last year.

The last time the Cardinal went longer than one season without advancing into the postseason was a 13-year gap between 1967, when Stanford finished third at the College World Series, and 1981, when the Cardinal lost in the championship game of the Central Regional.

"We have a lot of work to do this season," Diekroeger said. "We definitely look at this week as an opportunity to get back into it. We're fighting for our lives every game."

Stanford, which hosts California (16-19, 5-10 Pac-12) in a three-game series this weekend, is in the midst of playing six games in eight days.

The Cardinal has won six of its past seven games, giving the team some much needed momentum heading into its important series with the Golden Bears, which begins Saturday at 2 p.m.

California enters the weekend on a slightly different curve. The Bears started the season winning 10 of 15 games and have been sinking ever since. A series win over the Cardinal would give Cal some life.

Diekroeger has been a main reason Stanford has been able to climb out of its hole. The Cardinal lost eight of its first 11 conference games before stabilizing in a series win over Arizona State last weekend.

The Menlo School grad singled in the bottom of the ninth to drive in the winning run in Stanford's 4-3 victory over the Sun Devils in the series opener and followed that a day later by hitting his first home run of the season in a 1-0 win.

Those two games were preceded by Diekroeger's walk-off single in Stanford's nonconference win over St. Mary's last week. For those efforts, he was named the Pac-12 Conference Player of the Week.

"It's my thing. It's what I do," Diekroeger said. "I always hope to get into those situations. It's a lot of fun. Coming up to hit in a tie game, you can't lose."

Diekroeger currently ranks third on the team with a .286 batting average, behind Palo Alto resident Alex Blandino (.310, with a team-best six home runs and 21 RBI) and Austin Slater (.308, also with 21 RBI).

Blandino slammed two homers Wednesday in a 6-2 nonconference win at St. Mary's.

Diekroeger, meanwhile, does more than hitting in helping Stanford's offense. He's always one of the team's top bunters and has produced seven sacrifice hits to go with three sacrifice flies. He's also four of six in stolen-base attempts and has an on-base percentage of .389.

Freshmen pitchers and the return from injury of senior closer A.J. Vanegas have also given the Cardinal a boast. Vanegas has yet to allow an earned run in 20 innings and has accumulated five saves. Freshman Tyler Thorne has saved two others and freshman Chris Castellanos has allowed one run in 11 1/3 innings.

Freshmen pitchers have started 31 of Stanford's first 33 games, with Cal Quantrill (10), Brett Hanewich (9), Chris Viall (7) and Thorne (5) taking care of things. Griffin Weir has appeared in seven games out of the bullpen.

"I'm not surprised," Diekroeger said. "I saw how talented they were in the fall. They are very competitive."

John Hochstatter (5-1, 2.18) has pitched his way into the starting rotation and will be making his third start of the season this weekend. The junior has made 24 career starts at Stanford.

Perhaps the biggest boost has come from Vanegas, once a high school opponent of Diekroeger at Valley Christian-Dublin. He has been limited for two years due to injury and is making the most of his current situation.

"He jumped right back in," Diekroeger said. "It's amazing to have him come into a game as a closer. Being a senior he wants to put the team on his back."

Vanegas was named to the NCBWA Stopper of the Year award list on Wednesday.

Diekroeger, who played two years with older brother Kenny (currently playing for the Wilmington Blue Rocks in the Kansas City Royals organization), won't get the chance to play with his younger brother, Mikey Diekroeger, who committed to Stanford in November.

It's possible that a Diekroeger could grace the baseball roster at Stanford for 10 consecutive years, beginning with Kenny in 2009.

Like Danny, Mikey who will graduate from Menlo School this spring will have some big shoes to fill.

"That's how it's been all our lives," Diekroeger said. "Kenny went through everything first and I had to live up to his standards. Mikey has two older brothers who are pretty good. But he likes the attention."

For now, Danny Diekroeger is focused on helping the Cardinal finish strong, earn a bid into the NCAA tournament and then see what happens.

Those game-winning hits?

"They will be a nice memory someday," he said.

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