To be the best, you've got to beat the best. That's the challenge facing the Stanford Cardinal this weekend, and it's one they've confronted all season. The young Stanford team played the most difficult schedule of any West Coast school this year, then swept through the Fullerton Regional as a No. 2 seed. Now they have their toughest assignment yet: travel to Chapel Hill and take two of three from the third-ranked team in the country.
Despite very different reputations entering the postseason, North Carolina and Stanford have a lot in common. They are two of best programs in recent history, both squads rely heavily on the contributions of underclassmen and while neither stood out in conference play, both showed occasional bursts of brilliance against some of the nation's top teams. Starting on Friday, they'll fight it out for one spot in Omaha.
Friday afternoon's game might be the best pitching matchup of the day, even though neither team sports a first-round draft pick for an ace. Stanford's Mark Appel, one of the Cardinal's star underclassmen, fashioned a complete-game gem to defeat Kansas State last weekend, generating 15 ground-ball outs to go with eight strikeouts. Appel hasn't put up elite numbers this year, losing six decisions with an ERA above 3.00, but he improved throughout the season. In-conference highlights include a shutout against Arizona and a win over Gerrit Cole and UCLA, making Appel the team leader in wins above replacement (WAR), with 2.6.