The expectations game is as central to college baseball as it is the rest of life. You can restrain your enthusiasm for a new favorite restaurant to your friends, because effusive praise will only raise the culinary bar for them. Presidential candidates tell the press they hope to come in third place days before a primary, knowing that coming in second (as they expect to do) will then be heralded as an unexpected victory.
So it is with Stanford Baseball. After a disastrous 2015 campaign, many expect the Cardinal to reside in the bottom half of the Pac-12 when all is said and done.
Tell that to head coach Mark Marquess. His players took two games out of three against a nationally ranked #22 Cal State Fullerton squad. And with a chance for a sweep on the line on Sunday, Stanford came tantalizingly close, losing by just one run. While it is almost always inadvisable to extrapolate much out of a three-game series, at least for one weekend, the Cardinal confounded the cellar-dweller expectations many had for them.
Is last weekend's triumph sign of good things to come on the Sunken Diamond? Or just a statistical anomaly against a superior Cal State Fullerton team?
Saturday Double-header Game 1: Fullerton 0, Stanford 2
We can say this about Mark Marquess at the start of his 40th season as Stanford's head coach: he's not holding anything back. He'll send one freshman out onto the mound on Opening Day, and start another freshman in the cleanup spot--whatever it takes to put the Cardinal in a position to win.
And win is exactly what freshman starter Tristan Beck did in his Stanford debut. As we've written before, Beck is the latest in a long line of starting pitching talent to forego the pros for the Sunken Diamond. Had he not chosen to come to The Farm, he would have been a 1st-round pick in last year's MLB Draft.
That level of potential was on display on Saturday against Cal State Fullerton. Beck spun a gem of a pitching performance, allowing just 3 baserunners (2 hits, 1 walk) and striking out 2 in 62/3 innings. For a stretch he completely stymied the Titans, retiring 11 straight batters. Beck has a chance to be a very special pitcher for Stanford, and Coach Marquess has to be pretty impressed with the Opening Day effort by the youngster.
Because Beck and reliever Tyler Thorne shut out the Titans, the Cardinal offense wasn't asked to do much. But the offense, led by another freshman, Nico Hoerner, did just enough to get the win. He contributed 2 hits, one of them a double, and scored a run in his first collegiate game. Marquess showed a lot of faith in Hoerner's bat by putting him in the cleanup spot, and the freshman came through.
For Stanford's sake, it will hopefully become ho-hum to discuss another proficient day at the plate for third baseman Mikey Diekroeger. Opening Day was no different, as the sophomore started 2016 off with a bang by taking Fullerton ace Blake Quinn deep for a solo shot in the 5th.
Last season, Diekroeger was the slugger Stanford needed whenever he was healthy. Opening Day was, hopefully, a harbinger of good things for the Cardinal third baseman.
Saturday Double-header Game 2: Fullerton 1, Stanford 2
If one were to pick a theme for Stanford's success during the double-header, it'd be excellent pitching. Not content to let a freshman take all of the day's attention, Chris Castellanos started his junior campaign with an exclamation point. The southpaw allowed just 1 run on 5 hits in 6 innings. Castellanos also exhibited his usual excellent control, surrendering zero walks while striking out two.
Reliever Colton Hock, who should play a prominent role in high-leverage innings for the Cardinal, was masterful in relief. He struck out 4 without surrendering a single baserunner in the game's 3 innings.
We can't let a doubleheader go by without mentioning Stanford's star shortstop, Tommy Edman. The pre-season All-American had a web gem of his own in Game 2, robbing Fullerton's Dakota Wix of a single with a diving stop to end the inning. Edman also chipped in a single on offense.
The rest of the lineup was led by, not surprisingly, Mikey Diekroeger. The slugging third baseman had 2 hits, driving in what would be the winning run with an RBI single in the 5th inning.
One area of concern for the Cardinal this season is the plate production from their outfielders. At least for one day, those concerns were allayed. Corner outfielders Jonny Locher and Quinn Brodey contributed a hit each. Locher's hit was a leadoff double in the second that led to Stanford's first run after an RBI groundout from centerfielder Jack Klein.
Sunday: Fullerton 4, Stanford 3
The pitching giveth, and the pitching taketh away. While Beck and Castellanos impressed in their 2016 pitching debuts, Andrew Summerville had a rougher go of things on Sunday. The talented southpaw ran into trouble in the 2nd inning, surrendering 4 straight hits (2 singles and 2 doubles) and 3 Fullerton runs. He settled in afterwards, retiring 10 straight batters until the 6th inning.
T5: After giving up 5 hits in the second, Summerville has retired 10 straight.— Stanford Baseball (@StanfordBSB) February 21, 2016
B5: Locher robbed of hit up the middle. No baserunners yet
In that inning, the Titans ruined Summerville's new groove with a leadoff single. A sacrifice bunt and a wild pitch put the runner on third, which Fullerton cashed in with an RBI single. Summerville settled down, retiring the next two batters and escaping without any more damage in the 6th. His final line for the day was 6 innings with 4 runs on 7 hits (and no strikeouts or walks).
Unfortunately, Summerville put Stanford in a hole they could not dig themselves out of. That doesn't mean they didn't try. Fullerton's Colton Eastman was perfect on the mound through 5 innings, before Beau Branton ruined Eastman's chance for history with a pinch-hit single in the sixth.
Eastman quickly unraveled thereafter, with Branton scoring thanks to an Alex Dunlap pinch-hit double. Tommy Edman then joined the RBI hit parade, plating Dunlap with a single up the middle. That chased Eastman from the game, but he received an ovation from the Cardinal crowd for his attempt at perfection.
Edman continued to torment Fullerton pitching. The Cardinal shortstop moved to second on a wild pitch from Titan reliever Dylan Prohoroff, then to to third on a groundout. Mikey Diekroeger sent a grounder to third that Fullerton's Jerrod Bravo misthrew, allowing Edman to score on the error. That left the Cardinal down just a run, with a score of 4-3 after 6 innings. The offense brought Stanford to the brink of a comeback, and it would be left to the bullpen to hold the Titans at bay.
For the weekend, Stanford's bullpen:— Stanford Baseball (@StanfordBSB) February 22, 2016
0 R, 4 H, 10 K, 1 BB pic.twitter.com/zGWldftXQN
Yes, the Cardinal bullpen was indeed excellent this weekend, and reliever Chris Viall joined in with 3 scoreless innings of relief, striking out 4 while surrendering 2 hits. His resolute effort put Stanford in a position to come back, but the Cardinal could not deliver. Leadoff walks by Austin Barr and Dunlap in the 7th and 8th respectively went unredeemed by their teammates.
Three Trees for the Weekend:
1: As expected, Mikey Diekroeger led the offense this weekend with 3 hits and 2 RBI, including his first homer of the year. He projects to be that cornerstone bat the Stanford lineup will so desperately need.
2: Starting at second base and cleanup as a freshman can't be easy, but no one bothered to tell that to Nico Hoerner. The youngster introduced himself to college baseball with 3 hits (including his first double) and 1 run scored over the weekend.
3: Speaking of pressure-laden freshman debuts, starter Tristan Beck shut out the Titans for six-plus innings on Opening Day. If he can continue to develop and impress, he could provide Mark Marquess with a potent one-two punch atop the rotation once Cal Quantrill returns from Tommy John rehab.
UPDATE: After beating #22 Cal State Fullerton, Stanford climbed into the rankings itself, being ranked #21 by Collegiate Baseball.
Up Next: Stanford will take a day trip to Davis to face the Aggies on Monday at 2 PM, with Brett Hanewich expected to take the mound for the Cardinal.