By Jose Saldana
It has been 14 years since No. 3 Stanford baseball (43-8, 21-6 Pac-12) were crowned Pac-12 champions. Back then, would-be MLB players Jed Lowrie and Sam Fuld roamed sunkissed lawn of Sunken Diamond.
14 years of coming up short in the regular season. All those ghosts on the diamond who tried their damnedest to win a conference title can be appeased when the Cardinal travel to the Evergreen State to play Washington (28-22, 18-9) in their final series of the season.
The magic number is only one, which means Stanford only needs to win one game to claim the Pac-12. However, even with the grandeur that can be and has been made of winning the conference, the players are focusing on something greater.
“We just we want to go in and sweep [Washington],“ sophomore Will Matthiessen said.“You know that’s the goal. But we also have in mind that we just got to win one to win the Pac 12 Championship. So we’re hoping to do that Thursday night and then continue to beat them on Friday and Saturday and keeping that momentum going into the postseason.”
The Cardinal haven’t made it to an NCAA Super Regional since 2014 and haven’t made it to the College World Series since 2008.
Even further still, the storied program hasn’t won a national title since winning it back-to-back in 1987-88.
On the first championship team was a shortstop named David Esquer, who just happens to be in his first year coaching the Cardinal. Esquer replaced his former head coach Mark Marquess (Nine) after 44 years of leading the team back in June of last year.
11 months and 43 wins later, Esquer has managed his team to an unprecedented season as they knock on a conference title and a deep postseason run.
“I know it’s been a goal of our team before the season,” Esquer said of winning the Pac-12.
Stanford only needs one game to do it, so do the Cardinal go all out on Thursday and win it and call it a regular season? Nope. That’s not how Esquer and this team operate.
“I jokingly have said that if if there’s anybody in that locker room that just wants to go win one game this weekend, I think I want to leave them home,” Esquer said.
The man who replaced Nine has preached playing their brand of baseball every single game, whether home or away.
The coaching staff has put more responsibility on the players and on the leaders of this team to motivate even when it’s not their best game. The players have responded as well as you could hope for.
“I don’t think that I’ve had a group that I trust as much as to internally and self-motivated and stay accountable to their teammates as much as this group,” Esquer said. “There are many times I have asked my assistant coaches kind of half jokingly if our team needed me for some extra motivation.”
“They usually say, ‘No, I think we’re good.’”
This responsibility that Esquer has given the players has been a huge reason for the success of this team. Games that they shouldn’t win like last Sunday against Washington State or the final game against No. 2 Oregon State on the road are deemed more like challenges than daunting obstacles.
A blossoming sophomore class and a burgeoning freshman class have been consequences of this mentality. Esquer isn’t afraid to put in less-used players, which has sped up the development of many players on the team.
And he’s had to do it with key injuries to players such as Duke Kinamon, Brandon Wulff and Matthiessen.
Sophomore first baseman Andrew Daschbach is the first Stanford hitter to have more than 16 home runs or more than 60 RBI in a season since the power-hungry 2008 squad. The home-run-hitting righty batted .183 in 60 at-bats with zero home runs as a freshman, a far cry from this season.
Freshmen Tim Tawa and Jacob Palisch have been key cogs since the start of the season. Tawa, who has played third base and center field this season, is hitting .295 and has the third most home runs on the team with seven, which includes one of the most indelible moments in the season when Tawa hit a walk-off three-run home run to defeat Michigan back in March.
“That was one of the coolest moments I have ever had in my entire sports life,” Tawa said after the Michigan game. “Just seeing the reactions from the rest of the guys — that was special for me.”
Palisch has had an unexpected rise, being forced into a larger role because of Matthiessen’s injury to start the season. But he has been the second best arm in the Cardinal’s bullpen (behind closer Jack Little). The southpaw sports an 1.74 ERA in 41.1 innings, which is the most innings pitched by a reliever in the Cardinal pen.
But if his performance were expected, it would have been news to most people.
“We didn’t know that Palisch was going to be like this,” Esquer said after the Washington State game on Sunday.
Esquer provided a challenge of accountability and self-motivation that allowed players such as Daschbach, Tawa and Palisch to grow and be ready whenever it was their turn to make something happen.
Even with how young this team is, the onus of success still falls squarely on the veterans.
Senior second baseman Beau Branton, who was not a starter to begin the year, leads the team in batting average (.383) and seems to get on base every single game.
“That guy never fails to impress,” Daschbach praised of Branton. “Every time I think he is going into a slump, he gets four or five hits. He is unslumpable.”
The junior group that features heralded players such as shortstop Nico Hoerner and pitching aces Tristan Beck and Kris Bubic.
Beck, the Friday starter, has become somewhat an extension of the coaching staff’s philosophy.
“He’s the most energetic guy on the team,” Bubic said of Beck. “He brings a lot of passion and is supporting guys every day, which is what you love to see.”
You can see how these players talk about each other with a respect and affection, from seniors to freshmen. Esquer has said that this group shares many of the qualities the ‘87 national title team had, which is high praise indeed.
It only needs one game to win the conference, but there is a good chance, that 14 years from now, this team is remembered for something greater.
Contact Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford.edu.