By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
The Stanford baseball team has started winning again and that's the good news as the 21st-ranked Cardinal prepares to take on seventh-ranked Arizona State in the Sun Devils' backyard.
It doesn't count in the standings, but an important 9-5 victory over visiting California on Monday night, against a pitcher who brought a sub 2.00 ERA into the contest, has to feel good on the heels of taking two of three from UCLA last weekend.
"It's huge for us," sophomore center fielder Jake Stewart said. "We hit a patch where we weren't doing as well as we would have liked. Saturday showed us we can do anything."
Stewart referred to the dramatic come-from-behind victory in which the Cardinal (5-7, 20-14) scored four times, after two were down and the bases empty, to stun the Bruins.
Stewart, who had three hits and drove in four runs against California, singled home the first run of the ninth inning against UCLA.
"It was huge for the team, for momentum and confidence," Stewart said. "It wasn't the best of weekends for me personally but after working with Brock Ungricht every day, he helped me with simplifying the process, going short to the ball and to just stay calm."
Ungricht, in his first year as a volunteer assistant, has been credited for turning several Stanford hitters around.
Perhaps his best student is senior catcher Zach Jones, a valuable member of the team regardless of his offensive production.
"He's huge for this team," Stewart said. "He's the leader in the locker room and in the dugout. He knows what to say to motivate us."
At one point this season Jones was teetering on the brink of a complete hitting meltdown. His average had fallen to a season low .128 and he had yet to drive in a run. To watch him go about his business during the tough stretch, you would never know if he was succeeding or failing.
"That's the most impressive thing about him," Stewart said. "He was down but he never showed it. He was still our emotional leader. The way he battled through it set an example for the rest of the team. He showed what we could do."
Ungricht, a career .318 hitter at San Diego State, played professionally for a couple of years before taking on a high school coaching job in 2008. He returned to the Aztecs' program under Major League Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn before coming to Stanford.
"He's been our hottest hitter the past three or four weeks," Stewart said of Jones, who doubled home the tying run against the Bruins last weekend and then added two more hits and an RBI against the Bears and drove in a run in Tuesday's 3-2 setback at St. Mary's.
"This can be a changing moment," said Jones, who also hit a three-run homer against the Bruins last Thursday. "Things had been going bad for us lately. For us to squeeze out a win like this, it could turn us around."
That momentum will be needed against Arizona State, second in the Pac-10 with a .312 team batting average and 21 home runs. The Sun Devils, the hardest team to strike out, are also the top fielding team in the conference and lead the conference with 66 stolen bases.
Stanford ranks third in the league with a .296 average, but is near the bottom in field percentage and is the only team not to throw a shutout this year.
The Cardinal pitching staff remains solid, with a team ERA of 3.41, above the conference average. They also allow the fewest home runs in the league.
"The whole staff has done a great job for us," Jones said. "They've all learned a lot and are coming into their own as a group."
The Sun Devils (11-4, 28-9) have a hold on second place, a half-game behind Oregon State, in the Pac-10 standings.
UCLA remains in third, followed by California and USC. The Cardinal is in sixth place, knocking on the door of the upper half. A good showing against Arizona State and Stanford can make a crowded situation at the top even more