Stanford wants to make up
for missing out in 2009
Brett Mooneyham happily looked forward to Wednesday's bus ride to Fullerton. It beats having to wear a suit and tie when flying. "That can get uncomfortable by the end of the day," said Stanford's sophomore left-hander.
Bus rides have become a luxurious way to travel, with 30-inch television sets available and accommodations more in tune with the sightseeing car of a train than the dark, dank aisles and lack of leg room usually associated with bus travel. The players also get to dress comfortably, listen to music, watch movies on their computers, or even carry on a conversation.
The second-seeded Cardinal (31-23) hopes to get plenty of rest before taking on No. 3 seed New Mexico (37-20) at 4 p.m. Friday in the opener of the Fullerton Regional of the NCAA baseball tournament at Cal State Fullerton.
The top-seeded Titans (41-15) take on fourth-seeded Minnesota (30-28) in the later game. The losers meet in an elimination game Saturday at 4 p.m., and the winners meet at 8 p.m.
Stanford returns to the postseason after missing out last season; which remained a sour point all year.
"Missing the playoffs last year gave us a little bit of fire," Stanford junior shortstop Jake Schlander said. "We went to Omaha when I was a freshman and I thought it would always be that way. So last year was a reality check and we had to put in the extra work."
The addition of a talented group of freshmen pumped new life into the team last fall, and its paid huge dividends as the postseason looms.
"Early in the fall you could tell they were a talented group," Schlander said. "They just started playing. They weren't intimidated in any way. It's like they were never freshmen."
Menlo School grad Kenny Diekroeger is one of five (including DH Eric Smith) freshmen in the starting lineup and he's been spectacular offensively, leading the team with a .351 batting average. He recorded a 23-game hitting streak during the season and had three of the 10 game-winning hits in the team's final at bat over the course of the season.
"He was drafted in the second round by the (Tampa Bay) Rays," Stanford freshman first baseman Stephen Piscotty said. "You know he knows how to play the game. He has a great work ethic and he prepares for baseball in every aspect of his life: nutrition, weights, conditioning, everything. He's carried us at times."
Piscotty, drafted in the 45th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers out of Amador Valley High in Pleasanton, has a .321 average entering the postseason and has started all 54 games. He was part of an all-freshman outfield with Tyler Gaffney and Jake Stewart until moving to first base as junior Dave Giuliani developed into a solid contributor.
Piscotty played every infield position during the fall as the Cardinal had a wealth of infield talent that includes Schlander at short, Colin Walsh at second, Diekroeger at third and two-year starter Adam Gaylord, who has played short and third.
"I wasn't sure what to expect," Piscotty said. "In the fall I was able to see where I stood and saw there was a lot of room for improvement. I made sure to put in a lot of work and was fortunate to get the first start."
Stanford lost Toby Gerhart to the NFL draft before the season started and its top power hitter Kellen Kiilsgaard to 'Tommy John' surgery in the first week of the season.
The Cardinal, thanks largely to the freshman class, never missed a beat. Gaffney, teammates with Gerhart on the football team, stepped in and hit .319 during the regular season. He missed fall ball because of his commitment to football.
"From the start you knew he had a lot of potential," Piscotty said. "He's strong, he's fast and he has all the tools. He played football in front of so many people and got the experience of playing at the Division I level and maybe got accustomed to that level. You knew he would be an integral part of this team."
Freshman Dean McArdle has emerged as Stanford's No. 3 starter behind Mooneyham and sophomore right-hander Jordan Pries while freshman Mark Appel has been an important member of the bullpen and Sahil Bloom has emerged late in the season as a solid pitcher.
Chris Jenkins and Garrett Hughes have been hindered by injuries and haven't seen a lot of action this season but Piscotty touted their abilities, too.
"We have a talented staff," he said. "The hitters faced all the pitchers in the fall, which was helpful. We got used to that nasty stuff they threw. Jenkins and Hughes are really good too and they will be right there next year."
Mooneyham, who finished last year strong, seems to be hitting his stride again after struggling early. He's 3-2 with a 3.54 ERA over his past nine appearances and says he feels even better than he did at this point last season.
"The walk-to-strikeout ratio is something I look at and I've been able to make a big improvement on it in conference games," Mooneyham said. "I've been in a rhythm and I'm trying to keep everything the same to stay in that groove."
Stanford has played four teams ranked in the top five this season, with its final regular-season series against the tournament's overall top seed Arizona State a benchmark.
"We're going into the tournament with a lot of confidence," Schlander said. "Those games showed we could play with anybody. We got swept in Texas and then had three great games with Arizona State. It was a good indication of how far we've come."
And, perhaps, how far the Cardinal may still have to go.