By Jose Saldana
The last time David Esquer was in a Stanford baseball uniform before 2018, he was celebrating the first national title in the program’s history — as a player.
Thirty-one years later, Esquer dons the uniform again, but this time, as the first-year head coach of his alma mater. He will try to end this season as he did in his final start of his career — with a championship.
The first-seeded Cardinal (44-10) begin their postseason quest when they host fourth-seeded Wright State (39-15) in the first round of the NCAA Stanford Regional tonight at 7 p.m. at Sunken Diamond.
The road to Omaha, the historic backdrop to the College World Series, is always daunting, and this year’s road seems particularly so, as Stanford has been dealt a tough regional.
The Raiders, the champions of the Horizon League, are joined by Big 12 champion Baylor, the second seed, and third-seeded Cal State Fullerton in the regional.
Wright State fields a team with a RPI of 69, which is the second-highest RPI of a fourth seed in the tournament.
“[Wright State] offers a couple problems,” Esquer said. “They steal a lot of bases, and they’ve got a little bit of power. Not your typical fourth seed, and I think many people projected them to be the best fourth seed in the tournament.”
Stealing a lot of bases is an understatement. The Raiders have stolen 110 bases, eighth-best in the country. That number is nearly double the amount of bases stolen by UCLA, which led the Pac-12 in steals.
One remedy to stopping this base larceny is to have a great defensive catcher. Unfortunately, the best defensive catcher in the conference, Cardinal sophomore Maverick Handley, is out with an injury, and according to Esquer, he will be out until a possible super regional.
Junior Christian Molfetta has replaced Handley in the backstop and has done a solid job filling in, but it’s tough to replace Handley’s arm strength, accuracy and instincts.
So if you don’t have your elite defensive catcher, then what other elixirs can you draw up?
Having a pitcher as good as junior Tristan Beck certainly helps.
The veteran right-hander sports a 2.99 ERA this season, which ranks 12th in the conference, and pitched a team-high 84.1 innings a year after missing his entire sophomore season due to injury.
He missed out on a chance to pitch in front of home fans when Stanford hosted a regional last season, so his start on Friday is special for him.
“It’s an honor to be in the position to pitch the first game of our regional,” Beck said. “The Sunken [Diamond] crowd is always great. It’s going to be a great experience playing in front of a huge crowd with a lot on the line.”
Other returners have been waiting for this moment, too. The Cardinal lost in the regional to Fullerton last season despite hosting it, and the defeat left a bad taste in the players’ mouths.
Those players, including junior shortstop Nico Hoerner and sophomore first baseman Andrew Daschbach, have been the fulcrum of the Stanford offense in the three and four spots in the lineup. They have led an offense that is fourth in the Pac-12 in runs (361) and second in home runs (54).
The Cardinal, although balanced in pitching and hitting, have at times struggled to find all elements of their game against elite opposition, and as a result, have dropped their last two road series.
Those performances came against top Pac-12 teams in Oregon State and Washington, but Wright State has the tools to aggravate the Cardinal, too. The Raiders have a bona fide ace in starting pitcher Ryan Weiss, who was an all-conference selection in the Horizon League.
However, he might not start against the Cardinal, as his coaches might opt to let his arm recover an extra day after he pitched twice in last weekend’s Horizon League Tournament.
If he can’t go, then Horizon League Freshman of the Year Caleb Sampen could be the Raiders’ starter. Sampen is unbeaten in six starts this season.
Wright State is also on an upswing, winning its last eight games, whereas the Cardinal have lost two consecutive road series.
However, negative momentum means nothing to this team, and instead it will rely on the resilience it has shown all season.
“We know that until the scoreboard says final that we are still in it,” Beck said.
“No matter the score.”
First pitch is at 7 p.m. at Sunken Diamond. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2 and the radio call will be on KZSU 90.1 FM.
Contact Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford.edu.