Of the 64 teams to make the NCAA Tournament every year, 63 end their seasons with a loss. But for Stanford baseball, Sunday’s loss may have hurt just a bit more than the others.
The Cardinal’s postseason run came to a crashing end in their Super Regional finale, as Vanderbilt (46-19) exposed the lack of depth in the team’s pitching staff and fended off a comeback effort to clinch a College World Series berth by a 12-5 score.
“We couldn’t stop them all day,” said head coach Mark Marquess. “Right from the first inning, they hit the ball and they ran the bases well. We came back and got within one, but they just kept the pressure on us. They beat us every which way they could today.”
Stanford (35-26), despite facing a 5-0 deficit in the first inning, battled back as it has this entire postseason to come within one run and the team even had the tying run in scoring position with no outs in the bottom of the fifth.
But in the top of the seventh, with the Commodores still up 6-5, the Cardinal bullpen imploded, allowing four runs — three earned — on four hits and two walks. Five Stanford pitchers threw in the inning, all with varying levels of ineffectiveness.
Sophomore Marcus Brakeman was relieved after allowing a leadoff single in his sixth full inning of work after relieving sophomore starter Logan James. From there, freshman Chris Castellanos allowed two consecutive hits — one a RBI double off of Vanderbilt’s Hawkins Field’s equivalent of the Green Monster in left field. Senior A.J. Vanegas allowed a run on a hit and a walk, just recording one out in his final appearance in a Stanford uniform. Junior John Hochstatter faced one batter and walked him, and was then relieved by freshman Tyler Thorne, who induced a double play to stop the bleeding.
The four runs increased Vanderbilt’s lead to 10-5, essentially putting the game away with the Cardinal offense having just nine outs to work with. The turning point of the inning was a sharp grounder hit by Zander Wiel to junior Alex Blandino at third base that he stopped on a diving attempt. He threw the ball from his knees to catcher Brant Whiting to try to cut off a run, but the ball took a short hop and Whiting, slightly out of position, missed the pick attempt. The ball went by and the runners moved up to second and third, still with no outs in the inning.
“That happens because you try to make a play and you’re off-balanced,” Marquess said. “But that’s a credit to Vanderbilt, they put a lot of pressure on us today.”
The Cardinal’s five-run first inning deficit came after James was roughed up in his third consecutive postseason start. In just two-thirds of an inning, he allowed four runs on four hits before being relieved by Brakeman. James was not able to make it out of the third inning in any of his three NCAA Tournament starts, as he allowed 10 combined runs over 4.1 innings (20.77 ERA). His performances of late were a far cry from his five starts at the end of the regular season, in which he allowed just seven runs over 29.6 innings for a 2.12 ERA.
Brakeman once again gave Stanford a gutsy pitching performance in relief of James — in the final game of the regional last Monday against Indiana, he threw 4.2 innings of one-run ball to keep the team within striking distance. On Sunday, Brakeman pitched 5.1 innings, allowing three runs on six hits and two walks. He pitched to contact, but was able to eat up key innings in the middle of the game.
“What our coaches always preach is to get the ball over the plate, to throw strikes, and if they hit it, they hit it,” Brakeman said. “That’s the number one way you can stabilize the defense and stop, or at least, slow their scoring to the point where I can give our offense a chance to come back like we almost did. You’re not out there just trying to be perfect on the mound, which is the key.”
The Cardinal offense made up most of the deficit in the bottom of the third, as the top of the order had three consecutive hits to lead off the frame. Freshman Tommy Edman and senior Danny Diekroeger hit back-to-back singles, and junior Alex Blandino doubled down the right field line to score Edman. That 1-2-3 combination at the top of Stanford’s lineup combined to go 7-for-13 (.538 AVG) with three runs scored and two RBIs in the game.
Later in the inning, Saturday’s walk-off hero in junior Wayne Taylor struck again, tripling down the right field line to score sophomore Zach Hoffpauir, who reached earlier on an error. Taylor was Vanderbilt’s worst nightmare over the three-game set, as he combined to go 4-for-12 with two runs scored and five RBIs.
While Stanford narrowed the gap to 5-4 in the third and the teams exchanged runs in the fourth to make the score 6-5, the team had few opportunities later in the game. Aside from Hoffpauir’s fifth-inning double, the Cardinal had just one other runner reach scoring position for the rest of the game, as they were stymied by Commodore freshman righty Hayden Stone and his hard-breaking splitter.
“They have great arms and they do a good job and they throw a lot of strikes,” Marquess said. “Anything you get off them, you have to earn it. They don’t usually give you very much.”
Though the loss ended Stanford’s season with a trip to Omaha one game away, the Super Regional berth itself was an unexpected accomplishment for a team that started the season with three freshman starters and got out to an 11-15 start in the first half. The team’s comeback effort on Sunday epitomized a wild postseason run that included four comeback victories with two walk-off wins amongst them.
“I never doubted in my mind that we would fight back and have a chance to win [Sunday’s] game. We put ourselves in a position to fight back and we were in that game towards the middle there,” Blandino said. “So I’m just really proud of this team and how we fought throughout the year, but especially this weekend.”
Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.