It’s one of the iconic images that sets the postseason stage apart – a player’s fired-up fist pump to a burst of applause from a frenzied crowd. Stanford saw two of these moments Saturday night, and both belonged to the Diekroeger brothers.
Sophomore second baseman Danny Diekroeger made a game-changing defensive play in the sixth amid a 4-4 tie, cutting down a runner at home plate. Then, Danny’s older brother Kenny Diekroeger scorched the eventual game-winning hit in the eighth, as the Cardinal won their second straight Regional Playoff game, downing Pepperdine 5-4 in a weird and wild thriller.
Right-hander A.J. Vanegas earned the win with 3 2/3 innings of electric relief to pitch Stanford back from the brink of an early deficit. The Cardinal are now one win away from advancing to the Super Regional playoff round – the penultimate tier on the road to Omaha.
“It was a very exciting game,” Stanford manager Mark Marquess said. “Probably too exciting … but it was good for us.”
Playing as the visiting team at Sunken Diamond by virtue of a coin flip, it didn’t look so good for Stanford early on. Starting pitcher Brett Mooneyham got chased after 2 1/3 innings of work. The unpredictable left-hander came unhinged in the third inning by issuing a leadoff walk, then committing a throwing error on the ensuing bunt play. Pepperdine pushed across four runs (three earned) in the inning, while Mooneyham made way for junior right-hander Dean McArdle.
Stanford cleanup hitter Brian Ragira answered back in the top of the fourth with a majestic solo home run off the batting eye in straightaway center. But, the tide really turned in the sixth, with Stanford dancing through the Twilight Zone to tie it up.
After loading the bases, Pepperdine starting pitcher Scott Frazier uncorked a wild pitch which ultimately cleared the bases to tie it at 4-4. The initial run scored from third in the person of Ragira, but the ball apparently slipped out of Pepperdine catcher Miles Silverstein’s hand as he attempted to throw to Frazier covering. The ball squirted towards the Stanford dugout, and while Ragira was jogging towards his jubilant teammates in the on-deck area, he inadvertently kicked the ball into the dugout. Alex Blandino scored from second on the initial throwing error, and Eric Smith was allowed two bases by virtue of the ball ending up in the dugout. Having already advanced to second, he was entitled to cross the plate with the tying run.
In the bottom of the inning, Danny Diekroeger turned in an emotional defensive gem as the game hung in the balance. With Pepperdine freshman Bryan Langlois on third base and one out, Matt Gelalich hit a hard high chopper to the drawn-in Diekroeger at second. The sophomore leapt to snag it, and came up firing home to gun down Langlois in a dust up at home – to which Diekroeger reacted with an animated fist pump.
“It was a tough snag,” Cardinal shortstop Kenny Diekroeger said. “But I knew once he had it, he had to make a good throw to the plate, and he did. It worked out for us. So, it was a great play.”
Even though Danny Diekroeger had to thread the needle with a perfect throw to make the play, Marquess said he was entirely committed to wanting his second baseman to throw home.
“That’s a big run there. Absolutely,” Marquess said. “When we play in, that’s where we’re looking to go. If I didn’t want him to go home, I wouldn’t play him in. He knows that, and he made a good throw there.”
In the eighth, Kenny Diekroeger doubled down on the fist-pump fun, when he shot a double down the left-field line to score Tyler Gaffney from first, giving Stanford a 5-4 lead. As he stood on second, the elder Diekroeger threw a Kirk Gibson-style body-blow fist pump, only with both hands.
With the loss, Pepperdine must take on Fresno State in an elimination game Sunday at 1 p.m. The winner of that game plays Stanford at 6 p.m. for the tourney championship, with the Cardinal needing to be beaten twice. In the event Stanford losses Sunday, a winner-take-all game is scheduled for Monday at 6 p.m. if necessary.