By Jose Saldana
No. 2 Stanford (22-3, 5-1 Pac-12) baseball faces its toughest test of the season when it heads down to Southern California to play No. 21 UCLA (17-7, 6-3) for a pivotal three-game series.
The Cardinal have the best conference record in the Pac-12 and are now the No. 2 ranked team in the nation according to D1Baseball.com and are No. 1 in RPI. This is also their best start since 1998.
This isn’t surprising given the talent on the team, but it may seem surprising that it has happened under a first year head coach, David Esquer.
Coach Esquer, who previously coached at Cal for 17 years, took over for the legendary Mark Marquess after Marquess retired at the end of last season. It’s usually difficult for players to adapt to new coaches as strategies, practices and managerial tendencies differ from one coach to another.
But it seems the players have bought on to the former Stanford shortstop’s ideals, as Coach Esquer was named the midseason Coach of the Year.
The reason for the success in the first half of the season was that this team has few, if any, holes.
The bullpen, which was a concern coming into the season, has been nothing short of dominant. Sophomore closer Jack Little has not allowed a single run in 20.1 innings pitched. He is first in the Pac-12 and fifth in the nation in saves with nine and he has two nine-out saves under his belt.
Freshmen Brendan Beck, Jacob Palisch and Austin Weiermiller have also churned out quality innings with Beck starting five games and sporting a 1.63 ERA.
The starting pitch has lived up to its billing. Juniors Tristan Beck and Kris Bubic form the two heads of monster pitching staff. Bubic, in particular, has been the best player on the Cardinal. His 0.96 ERA is the best in the Pac-12 and is sixth in the nation. Bubic also has 42 strikeouts in 37.2 innings.
Bubic’s performance netted him a spot on the midseason All-American team.
Beck, besides two subpar starts, has been effective as well. He has already been named Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week twice for his starts against Cal State Fullerton and Michigan.
The offense has been solid as well, despite suffering an injury to incumbent starter junior second baseman Duke Kinamon before the first game of the season. Junior shortstop Nico Hoerner has lived to his preseason hype with .316/.383/.463 splits.
Freshman center fielder Tim Tawa has been the biggest revelation on the offensive side. He is third on the team in batting average (.323), second in runs (20), second in home runs (4), second in RBI (22) and tied for first in slugging (548).
Tawa had the highlight of the season when he sent a three-run walkoff home run to defeat Michigan in the first half of a doubleheader.
Sophomore first baseman Andrew Daschbach has shown plenty of power as he leads the team with five home runs — tying for fifth in the Pac-12. Daschbach really hits the cover off the ball.
Despite all the contributions made, the Bruins could be the most important test for the legitimacy of this Stanford squad. UCLA has the fourth best team ERA at 2.37 (Stanford is second at 2.21).
However, this is only the Cardinal’s second true road series with Texas being the first. UCLA can counter the Cardinal’s duo of Beck and Bubic with a formidable duo of their own in Jake Bird and Zach Pettway, who have combined for 99.2 innings and a 1.63 ERA.
The offenses of each team seem to be comparable as both programs rank in the 4-5 range of many offensive statistics.
The fate of the series could very well depend of the depth of each team’s bullpens.
The series begins underway on Friday 6 p.m. at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles.
Contact Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford.edu.