If this were an academic competition, Texas and Stanford would have opened the season against very similar opponents. Both school played Southern academic powerhouses, private schools with excellent scholastic reputations and social reputations that make each seem like a country club for super rich kids where a fraternity party may occasionally break out.
But while Vanderbilt and Duke may be indistinguishable as institutions, they are worlds apart in baseball. Vandy has built itself into a powerhouse over the last several years, asserting itself as a force to be reckoned with in the mighty SEC and coming off its best year ever in 2011. The 'Dores went 54-12 a year ago and made its their first trip to Omaha; the only thing that kept them out of the national title series was that Florida had their number. They lost to their SEC East rivals twice at The Stadium That is Not Called Rosenblatt before the Gators lost to South Carolina in the championship series, but were two wins away from facing the Gamecocks themselves. This year's version of Nashville's Finest went to Palo Alto last weekend as the #10 team in the nation. Duke? Duke is not terrible, but Duke is less good than Vandy.
Both Texas and Stanford won their series last weekend then sleep-walked through midweek games. But Texas took two of three from Duke in a very Texas-like manner: strong pitching, some timely hitting, and losing the one game because of a complete lack of offense even against a third-tier opponent's third starter. Then they lost Tuesday to UT-Arlington to fall to 2-2 on the young season. Stanford hammered Vanderbilt. They won all three games by scores of 8-3, 9-5, and 18-5. After a midweek extra-innings victory on the road over Pacific, the Cardinal now stand at 4-0 with their lowest run output being that season-opening eight. This might finally be the year Stanford makes the jump from the excellent but flawed team of the last several years to absolutely elite with an inside track to the national championship. This year's Cardinal certainly carry the torch for West Coast baseball this year, and we'll take a closer look at why they're so scary after the jump.
Perhaps the scariest hitter on the Stanford squad is junior infielder Stephen Piscotty, who started at first base last season but played some third against Vandy. He has three homeruns in the Cardinal's last two games, including a grand slam in the 18-5 shellacking on Vanderbilt and an extra inning game winner against Pacific. Piscotty was a first-team all Pac 10 selecion as a sophomore in 2011 and has picked up where he left off. But he's not the only source of power in the lineup. As a team, Stanford has five bombs and 10 doubles through their first four games, despite starting the year against what is supposed to be a strong Vandy pitching staff.
Oh, they can pitch too. As the scores last weekend show, they held a (supposedly?) strong Vanderbilt lineup under wraps for the most part. Saturday starter Brett Mooneyham did struggle a bit, giving up three runs on five hits in just six innings of work. Potential Sunday starter Dean McArdle actually also had some trouble spots against the 'Dores--5.2 innings and nine hits, though Vandy could only convert that into two runs.
On the whole, this is a very tough early-season test for the Longhorns. It could be a disaster. Or a good performance could propel Texas forward. Or, as we kind of expect, the Horns could snag one of three from Stanford and call it a solid weekend.
This will be your open thread for Game One.
PROBABLE PITCHING MATCHUPS
Friday, Feb. 24, 2011 - 7:30 p.m. Central
Texas: RHP Nathan Thornhill (1-0, 0.00)
Stanford: RHP Mark Appel (1-0, 1.29)
Saturday, Feb. 25, 2011 - 3 p.m. Central
Texas: LHP Hoby Milner (1-0, 3.60)
Stanford: LHP Brett Mooneyham (1-0, 4.50)