John Hochstatter has become the ace of the Stanford pitching staff. It just took a little longer than expected.
Stanford won its final four games of the regular season, including a sweep of Utah to end Pac-12 play, to clinch its spot in the postseason. The Cardinal opens the tournament in Bloomington on Friday against No. 2 seed Indiana State (35-16) at 11 a.m. (PT) with freshman Cal Quantrill (5-5, 2.92) slated to start.
Quantrill was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year on Wednesday.
The Cardinal enters regional play as one of the hottest teams in the country, compiling an 11-4 record in May.
"The last few weeks have been a roller coaster," said Hochstatter, who'll pitch on Saturday at 11 a.m. or 3 p.m., depending on Friday's outcome. "We knew we had a chance to make it, but that Tuesday loss to San Jose State killed the vibe."
Beating the Utes three straight to end the year clinched Stanford's berth in the postseason. The Cardinal finished in a fifth-place tie with USC in conference play and five Pac-12 teams advanced.
Palo Alto resident Alex Blandino, Menlo School grad Danny Diekroeger, Hochstatter, Austin Slater and Quantrill were named to the all-conference team, while Zach Hoffpauir and A.J. Vanegas earned honorable mention. Blandino and Diekroeger also were named to the All-Defensive Team.
Hochstatter (10-1, 2.62) opened the season as a long reliever despite a successful sophomore season, in which he was Stanford's No. 2 starter behind Mark Appel the overall No. 1 pick in Major League Baseball's 2013 First-Year Player Draft.
Hochstatter started 22 of the first 26 games he appeared in, winning his first three decisions as a freshman. This year, his first six games were out of the bullpen.
An influx of quality freshmen pitchers, each of whom found success during the fall season, pushed Hochstatter (nicknamed "Papa Hoch" by his teammates) to the background.
"Coach (Rusty) Filler and I had long conversations about what my role would be this year," Hochstatter said. "Early on it was more of a support role. Coach wanted me to help the freshmen and I wanted the same thing."
Stanford's first 27 games were started by freshmen. Hochstatter broke that streak with a start at Washington on April 13.
His return to the starting rotation came the old-fashioned way: he earned it through hard work and diligence.
"Hochstatter turned it around for us," Cardinal coach Mark Marquess said. "He's always pitched well for us but he has better command and added two or three miles per hour to his fastball."
In relief appearances against California, Oregon and Oregon State, Hochstatter threw a combined 12 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing six hits.
Against the Ducks, he earned the win in extra innings with four shutout innings.
"He was lights out after that," Marquess said. "He knows how to pitch."
Hochstatter will have an interesting decision to make following this year's draft, which is set to begin on June 5. After a successful season, his stock may not get much higher. He still has the bargaining chip, as Appel did two years ago, of returning to Stanford.
"I'm going through the process," Hochstatter said. "I did it in high school but it's different now."
Blandino and Slater, both juniors, also are also possible high draft picks, with Blandino considered a first- or second-round choice.
"My focus is on the playoffs right now," Blandino said. "The draft is not something I am thinking about too much. I want to get to the regional and come out on top."
Diekroeger and fellow senior Brett Michael Doran also may go somewhere in the early rounds. Blandino most likely will be the first Stanford player selected.
"It's hard to evaluate," Marquess said. "I know they like his power tool but he plays good defense too. They like him as a second baseman and I think he can play there. A first- or second-round pick? He deserves that."
Marquess thinks Slater, who brings a 17-game hitting streak into the regional, could be the steal of the draft.
"There's nothing he can't do," Marquess said. "He can play shortstop, second base, third base or the outfield. He can play anywhere. He can hit and has arm strength."
Slater is hitting .455 over his past 17 games, raising his season average to .349. He has 14 doubles, six triples, a home run and has driven in 36 runs.
Blandino, hitting .306, has 13 doubles and a team-leading 11 home runs and 37 RBI. He's also reached base via a hit or walk in each of the past 23 games and has scored a team-leading 41 runs.
Diekroeger takes a .307 career average into the postseason. He's hit .375 with runners in scoring position this season.
"We have a good blend," Marquess said. "Diekroeger and Doran, our two seniors, have done a fantastic job leadership-wise. We're also a young team. Tommy Edman, a freshman, took over at shortstop when (Drew) Jackson broke his finger."
Defense has also helped Stanford. The Cardinal, 10-6 in one-run games, has a fielding percentage of .9763, just off the program record of .9773 in 2005.
Hoffpauir, a sophomore outfielder who also plays football, has been the biggest surprise for Stanford. He's the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week after hitting go-ahead home runs in each of the final two games. He opened the Utah series with a 5-for-5 effort.
"Most improved player," Marquess said. "The beginning of the year he was striking out a lot on breaking balls. He's been working on it. In baseball, you have to play. He didn't play in the summer or fall."
Hoffpauir, who could win the starting safety job in football, said he used the winter to get up to speed in baseball.
"After having a rough time last year I have been able to put it all together," Hoffpauir said. "Once we figured out how to win the close games, we got on a run."
The Cardinal hopes the road leads to the College World Series in Omaha.
A victory on Friday will earn Stanford a game against either top-seeded Indiana (the No. 4 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament) or Youngstown State on Saturday at 3 p.m. The championship game is Sunday with a if-necessary game in the double-elimination tourney set for Monday.
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