Stanford continues its tough schedule this weekend, when fourth-ranked Rice (12-2) visits for a three-game series beginning with Friday's 5:30 p.m. opener, which pits two of the nation's marquee pitchers in Cardinal Mark Appel (2-1, 3.68) and Owls' Matthew Reckling (2-0, 0.82).
Rice sports a team ERA of 2.88, with Andrew Benak (2-0, 1.04) and Jordan Stephens (1-0, 1.88) also expected to pitch this weekend.
Appel will be followed by Brett Mooneyham (3-0, 1.71) and Josh Hochstatter (3-0, 1.50) for Stanford, which carries a 2.81 team ERA.
Hochstatter, a freshman who worked out of the bullpen over the opening weekend, has latched onto the third starting spot for now, although A.J. Vanegas, who threw five scoreless innings in Stanford's 5-0 win over host St. Mary's in a nonconference game Wednesday, continues to push his way into the mix.
"Starting is definitely different," Hochstatter said. "It allows you to warm up with a lot of time. I can't say enough about the run support and the defense behind me. I'm excited for the season."
Stanford's offense is almost an embarrassment of riches, with Jake Stewart's team-leading .404 batting average leading the way for a team average of .327. The Cardinal has outscored its opponents 111-35 so far this year.
"This is a lineup you can't make mistakes against," Stanford catcher Eric Smith said. "One through nine, anyone can drive in a run, hit the ball over the fence or hit one into the gap."
Rice not only brings a top pitching staff to Sunken Diamond, but a worthy offensive lineup as well. The Owls are hitting .294 with 11 home runs, led by Michael Fuda's .424 average.
"I look for some great baseball," Stanford's Stephen Piscotty said. "They are a great team and are always pretty solid."
Stanford brings a three-game winning streak into the series. Rice has won three of its last four as both teams opened strong. The Cardinal won eight straight before losing, 7-5, at Fresno State. The Owls won their first nine games, including a three-game sweep over Dallas Baptist, the school California beat in last year's Super Regional, before losing to Texas, 11-8. Rice also lost, 3-2, to Texas State. California also ended Rice's season last year in Houston.
Not many teams can match Stanford's productivity though. The Cardinal has five players with at least 10 runs scored and matches the Owls with 11 home runs in two fewer games.
Stanford took two of three from the Owls to open last season, with the only loss to Reckling, who threw six shutout innings at the Cardinal. Chris Reed started the game for Stanford, was moved to the bullpen and, well, that turned out pretty good.
Appel pitched well, but did not earn a decision against the Owls, while Dean McArdle also got a win.
The Owls, of course, beat Stanford to win the 2003 College World Series in Omaha, the school's first national title in any sport.
Stanford pitchers are allowing opponents to hit a meager .195, and, combined with an improved defense (one unearned run all year), separates the Cardinal from the rest of the nation.
Rice is not far behind, though, allowing opponents to hit at the lowly rate of .229.
"I think we can win the national championship," Appel said. "We have the tools to do it, the guys to do it. It's just putting it all together. With the tough schedule we learn quickly how to win."
Menlo School grad Kenny Diekroeger had a big day against the Gaels, collecting two hits and driving in three runs. He has six hits in his last 13 at bats (.462) and has driven in six runs. He's fourth on the team with a .360 batting average. He finished at .293 last year.
"We want to be as good as we can," Diekroeger said. "We're working as hard as we can to get there."
Younger brother Danny Diekroeger has made the most of his appearances, collecting a pair of hits in three at bats.
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