<
>

Cardinal prove they're back with convincing win over Fullerton

6/8/2008

FULLERTON, Calif. -- Stanford baseball was like clockwork for years.

The ticking stopped last season when the Cardinal failed to make the postseason for the first time since 1993, a shortcoming that made Stanford's five consecutive trips to the College World Series from 1999 to 2003 seem very long ago.

One season later, the Cardinal are headed back to Omaha after completing a sweep of Cal State Fullerton with an 8-5 victory Saturday, defeating the team that was seeded fifth nationally on its home field to win the Fullerton Super Regional.

Stanford players who saw the postseason on TV last year are on their way to Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium.

"It was tough to watch it," said catcher Jason Castro, whose three-run double in the sixth inning broke a 5-5 tie Saturday. "That was one of the motivating factors for all the guys who were returning. We got here and played like we can, and now we're on our way to Omaha."

They did it the hard way, but the Cardinal are rolling now. The victory over Fullerton was the sixth in a row of the postseason for Stanford, which had to win four in a row to get out of the regionals after losing its opening game to UC Davis.

Stanford (39-22-2) put itself in position to clinch Saturday with a 4-3 victory over Fullerton in Game 1 of the super regional on Friday. Castro, who was drafted 10th overall by the Houston Astros on Thursday, played a key role Friday, too, with a two-run homer in the fifth inning of Game 1.

[Playing in the College World Series is] one of those things you dream about. When I was growing up, it seemed like Stanford was there every year.

--Cardinal pitcher Austin Yount

Center fielder Sean Ratliff contributed a home run in that game, his 21st home run of the season and third of the postseason. The Cardinal also got a strong pitching performance from left-hander Jeremy Bleich, who won for the first time since February after missing much of the season because of elbow tendinitis.

Fullerton (41-22), which had played in four of the past five College World Series, went 0-2 in a super regional for the first time.

"In this program, we'll always believe we came up short unless we are in Omaha playing for the national championship," Fullerton coach Dave Serrano said. "I'm disappointed for these young men who worked hard all year long. It's unfortunate for the older guys. We'll be back in this situation again, and hopefully we'll get the job done."

One of Fullerton's best opportunities Saturday slipped away in the top of the sixth, before Castro's bases-loaded double in the bottom of the sixth inning nullified a two-run Fullerton rally that had tied the score at 5.

But in that top half of the inning, Fullerton failed to capitalize with the bases loaded and one out when designated hitter Brian Wilson lined to first and Brent Milleville stepped on the bag for the double play.

Titan right fielder Erik Komatsu, who went 3-for-3 and drove in a run, could only shrug, saying, "That ball was smoked."

It was only one of a number of shortcomings.

"When it counted today, we didn't get it done. We didn't take advantage of some opportunities, and it hurt us," Serrano said.

"Castro is a great player. He came through for them in the clutch. It's what superstars do. He hit a good pitch."

Stanford won Saturday despite a shaky performance from starter Erik Davis, the Cardinal's No. 1 pitcher most of the season while Bleich was out. He lasted only 2 1/3 innings and allowed three runs, two of them earned. He also walked two batters and hit three.

But Austin Yount (6-3), a nephew of Baseball Hall of Fame player Robin Yount, came on in relief and earned the victory, allowing two runs, one unearned, over 5 1/3 innings. Freshman Drew Storen faced the final four batters to earn his eighth save, ending the game with a double-play ball.

Fullerton reliever Jason Dovel (3-4) took the loss.

Stanford, which won back-to-back College World Series titles in 1987 and '88, reached the World Series for the 16th time and for the first since 2003.

But the program has muddled along lately, most notably last year, when the Cardinal were only 28-28 and finished eighth in the Pac-10.

The chief culprits were pitching and defense. The team's 6.01 ERA was last in the Pac-10 and the worst in the school's recorded history. The Cardinal's .963 fielding percentage was also last in the Pac-10.

"This team, whether it won or lost, is a special team," Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. "There were not very high expectations at the beginning of the year, and we were picked, probably justifiably, sixth in the Pac-10. "

Better pitching and defense -- and more predictably, good hitting -- helped Stanford turn it around and get back to being more like, well, Stanford.

"It's one of those things you dream about," Yount said of reaching the College World Series. "When I was growing up, it seemed like Stanford was there every year."

Robyn Norwood is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer.