Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - June 8, 2012

Stanford pitching in spotlight in during regional title

Cardinal does what needs to earn a berth in an NCAA Super Regional after sweeping through its own regional with three straight wins

by Rick Eymer

The Stanford baseball team did just enough, twice, to earn the title of the Stanford Regional last weekend and a trip to the Super Regional in Tallahassee this weekend to take on Florida State, the national third seed.

Mark Appel set the stage with his complete-game effort in the Cardinal first game Friday night and Sahil Bloom wrapped it up Sunday night.

Inbetween, Brian Ragira, Alex Blandino and a cast of dozens, did everything necessary to give Stanford (41-16) a chance to play for a berth in the College World Series.

Appel made very few mistakes in throwing a four-hit complete game in Stanford's 9-1 victory over Fresno State in the first round of the NCAA regional Friday night.

Appel avenged his lone loss of the year and even took a measure of satisfaction of holding his main nemesis hitless.

"It's pretty rare you get to face the team that beat you earlier in the season in the first game of the playoffs," Appel said. "We were watching the selection show and when Fresno State was put in our region and seeded fourth, I thought 'Alright, this will be pretty fun.'"

Appel had all the fun against the Bulldogs and center fielder Aaron Judge, who blasted a pair of home runs off him in the earlier game, a 7-4 loss. Judge went 0 for 3, striking out twice and drawing a walk.

"I have been getting a lot of grief from my teammates about letting The Judge came in and do that," Appel said. "I've even heard it from Fresno State fans. He hit two home runs off me. I didn't want to throw that pitch again."

Austin Wilson drove in three runs and Kenny Diekroeger drove in two in support of Appel's effort. Danny Diekroeger and Eric Smith each had two hits and drove in a run for the Cardinal.

"Kenny has been swinging the bat a lot better lately," Marquess said. "He's been struggling offensively the past couple of weeks but he had a great sacrifice bunt that helped us today too. More importantly for us is he's playing great defense."

Wilson drove in the game's first two runs, fighting off a 2-out, 2-strike pitch and driving it up the middle to score Stephen Piscotty, who also had two hits, and Ragira, who also drove in a run.

As Kenny Diekroeger was pulling into second base following his dramatic hit in Saturday's 5-4 win over Pepperdine, there were so many thoughts and emotions swirling through his head that he became tongue-tied trying to explain it all. The Menlo School grad simply let the scoreboard do the talking for him.

Diekroeger doubled sharply down the third-base line to drive in the go-ahead run as Stanford rallied to beat Pepperdine.

"All I know was that I was screaming real loud; it's hard to put into words something like that," said Diekroeger, who was drafted in the second round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. "This is why we came to Stanford: to play in front of a packed house (attendance was announced at 2,277) with a lot of electricity."

There were moments early in the game when it appeared Stanford's season was slowly slipping away, but Ragira pulled the Cardinal away from the edge of disaster and, given a second chance, Stanford was not going to allow any more misfortune.

Much of the credit goes to Dean McArdle and A.J. Vanegas, who combined on 6 2/3 innings of shutout relief pitching. They allowed three hits, walked three and struck out 10. Vanegas (4-0) earned the win with an overpowering performance, which included eight strikeouts, against a tough lineup.

"That was an unbelievable job by A.J.," Cardinal coach Mark Marquess said. "He was fantastic. He had big strikeouts."

Vanegas struck out the final four batters he faced and got Pepperdine's big slugger Joe Sever, who hails from nearby Bellarmine Prep in San Jose, twice on strikes.

"Once I get to two strikes I want to throw a careful pitch," Vanegas said. "It's either a strikeout or a bad ball. That's how I approached it. I try not to worry about velocity but just to attack the zone. I might have been a little more pumped up in attacking the zone. I don't remember striking out that many in such a big situation."

Blandino drove in four runs, three on a home run during the decisive rally in the fourth, to help Stanford beat Pepperdine, 8-7, in the championship game on Sunday night.

"Alex has had a great season for us," Marquess said. "He's playing a new position defensively and really solidified third base. He doesn't get down. I'm on him all the time and he's come through a lot. He's matured as a player."

Stanford already had taken a 5-4 lead a batter early, when Austin Wilson singled home two runs. Blandino then delivered the big blow.

"The key was to try and not get caught up in the moment," said Blandino, who dropped a foul ball that led to three Pepperdine runs in the first. "Obviously, the dropped foul ball cost us a couple of runs. I knew I was going to get something to hit there and wanted to put a good swing on it."

Appel was named the tournament Most Valuable Player. He was joined on the all-tournament team by Kenny Diekroeger, Danny Diekroeger, Eric Smith, Ragira and Vanegas.

Stephen Piscotty had two hits, drove in a run and pitched into the seventh inning.

"He hits third in our lineup, he's our RBI leader and he's won four straight as a starter," Marquess said. "He's a fantastic competitor and a fantastic player. I just don't want him thinking he's a pitcher first."

Piscotty (5-2) pitched 6 1/3 innings for the win. He gave up seven runs, four earned, on 11 hits, walking one and striking out two. Sahil Bloom went the final 2 2/3 innings for his first save.

Ragira reached base in 11 of his 14 plate appearances over the weekend. It was out of respect for his offensive power that Pepperdine walked him intentionally ahead of Wilson, who made the Waves pay with his two-run single.

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