When the 2012 college baseball season started the Pac-12 looked like Stanford and 10 other teams. Mark Marquess spent the last four years bringing in some of the nation's top recruiting classes and this year, it was going to pay off. They had the talent, that talent was experienced after reaching the Super Regionals last year and they were led by one of the top coaches in the country. Everything was set up for the Cardinal to dominate.
Preseason polls pegged Stanford at second in the nation and their early play confirmed everyone's suspicions -- the Cardinal were really good. Vanderbilt, Texas and Rice, all highly ranked in the preseason, visited Palo Alto and left with a combined 1-8 record. A weekend trip to Fresno St. showed the Cardinal could win on the road as they won that series.
As Pac-12 play got underway in mid-March, there was no doubt that the conference was Stanford's to lose, but in one month, they've lost the conference, or at least the stranglehold that everyone thought they would have on it. A series win against USC opened up the Cardinal's conference slate and sent them down to Tucson for a match-up against one of the top teams in the Pac-12. Scratch that, the top team in the conference.
Arizona swept Stanford and they did it in rather convincing fashion. The Cardinal were the cream of the crop no more and taking two of three from mediocre Washington this weekend did not exactly restore confidence in Stanford.
Mark Appel, who some felt could go number one overall in June's MLB Draft, has been good, but not ace-like. Despite being chock-full of fantastic athletes, their defense has been pedestrian and most surprisingly, their offense has not been incredible.
Stanford's offense was supposed to be one of the best in the country, but no one with more than six at-bats are among the Pac-12's best hitters in conference play. In fact, in conference play, the Stanford offense has been downright dreadful. Eric Smith and Kenny Diekroeger are the only two Cardinal hitting above .300 in conference with Tyler Gaffney all the way down at .167 and most disappointingly, Stephen Piscotty at .216. They've hit just three home runs as a team in nine conference contests and are slugging just .332 as a team against their league opponents.
For a team that is, to put it simply, loaded at the plate, such disappointing numbers are shocking. Any number of players, from Brian Ragira, to Diekroeger, to Austin Wilson, to Piscotty, were all thought to be legitimate Pac-12 Player of the Year candidates. Instead, the offense is just limping along and the losses have come with it.
In a matter of three weekends, or really just two, Stanford has gone from not just Pac-12 favorite, but one of the favorites to win the national title, to underachievers. Fair or not, people are wondering what is going on with the Cardinal. And that cloud will hang over their heads at least until they host Oregon beginning on Friday, but probably until they play at UCLA and Oregon St. at the end of April and beginning of May.
At 4-5, Stanford are in sixth place in the Pac-12 and 3.5 games behind first place Arizona. It's not an insurmountable deficit, no longer are simple series wins going to be enough. They're going to have to toss in some series sweeps to get back in the race and even that might not be enough.
Before the Cardinal can worry about the Pac-12 title they need to worry about the basics, namely hitting and fielding. A few dominant starts from Appel wouldn't hurt either. And to think, a month ago this team was being handed the conference title and being handed one of the eight spots in Omaha for the College World Series.