By Jose Saldana
Coming off their first conference title since 2004, the Stanford Cardinal (44-10, 22-8 Pac-12) will host their 17th NCAA regional this weekend. With their dominant pitching and high-scoring offense, the Cardinal have had, in Year 1 of head coach David Esquer’s tenure, one of the program’s best seasons in recent years, ultimately earning them the No. 2 national seed in the tournament. Yet the road only gets more difficult from here: The Stanford Regional is arguably one of the most competitive in the entire tournament, as it includes red-hot Big 12 champ Baylor, powerhouse and rival Cal State Fullerton and one of the best four-seeds in the tournament, Wright State.
We asked Daily managing editor of sports Jose Saldana, Stanford insiders R.J. Abeytia (The Bootleg) and Jacob Rayburn (Cardinal Sports Report) to reflect on the Cardinal’s trajectory going into the postseason, what’s different from last year and the team’s prospects for advancing to Omaha.
Earlier in the season, Stanford topped good non-conference teams like Fullerton, Rice, Michigan and Texas (on the road) in non-conference play. More recently, though, the Cardinal have struggled in conference play against other top Pac-12 teams: They lost two out of three at UCLA, Oregon State and Washington — but granted, those were all on the road. Given this, do you think Stanford doesn’t have the momentum now that it seemed to have earlier in the year against elite competition? Could it not be peaking at the right time?
R.J. Abeytia: Momentum, Schomentum. Stanford played all those series while missing key personnel (Wulff vs. UCLA, Maverick Handley vs. OSU, UW) and the postseason means it’s basically a clean slate. As soon as Tristan Beck throws the first pitch on Friday, the past becomes prologue and nothing more. What matters more than momentum is that they won’t have Handley’s services for the regional.
Jacob Rayburn: I might have been a little worried if not for the epic rally Saturday to clinch the Pac-12 championship. Until that ninth inning, it appeared the Cardinal were going to become one of those marathon runners of YouTube infamy that dominates until wobbly crashing in sight of the finish line. But this team’s success has been built by resilience in the face of injuries and everyone on the team feeling empowered to be the hero on any given day. Stanford flew home with Big Mo after that win and the Cardinal’s 30-3 record at Sunken Diamond this season is a great comfort.
Jose Saldana: I agree with R.J. and Jacob that lack of momentum going into the regional is nothing that we should be worried about. All of those bad losses took place on the road against the best teams in the Pac-12, and Stanford worked hard all year to be able to host a regional and, potentially, a super regional. With home cookin’, the team should perform better. Ace Tristan Beck has only yielded 11 earned runs in 48.0 innings in the comfy confines of Sunken and only allowed one combined run to Arizona State and Cal in 13 innings, which featured some of the best hitters in college baseball. The Cardinal probably drew the toughest regional, but these Stanford players are molded for this moment.
Last year’s Stanford team was a national seed but lost in the regional, getting knocked out by perennial postseason rival Cal State Fullerton, which happens to be in Stanford’s region again this year. In what ways do you think this year’s Stanford team and postseason potential are different from those of last year?
R.J.: Last year’s team had a much more readily identified core of pitchers and hitters on which it relied. This year, we’ve been beating the drum of the “25-man approach” to winning games that has carried this team. Guys like Beau Branton, Kyle Stowers, Will Matthiessen, Christian Robinson and Jacob Palisch have emerged without much expectation this season, and many different players have impacted victories this year. In terms of postseason potential, this Stanford team is going in with two starters with elite talent, a deeper bullpen and what appears to be a stronger offense. Last year’s team scored 327 runs and hit 39 homers in 58 games. This squad has scored 361 runs and hit 54 ding dongs in 54 games so far. Finally, this is a team with a much younger core than last year’s team.
Jacob: Stanford is deeper and more talented this year than the squad that won 21 of 23 games to last year’s regular season and earned the No. 8 overall seed in the tournament. That team was a good example of how meaningless momentum can be when transitioning from the regular season to the postseason. The return of Brandon Wulff also is very important. It was a great sign for Stanford that he hit a two-run home run Saturday. And whenever you’re in a tournament, the bullpen is almost certainly going to be tested at some point. Last year, Stanford relied entirely on three relief pitchers, including an All-American closer. Stanford again has an All-American caliber pitcher at the back end in Jack Little. He’s supported by Jacob Palisch, Will Matthiessen, Zach Grech, Austin Weiermiller and either Brendan Beck or Erik Miller, depending on who is tabbed to be a starter instead. No one wants to be in the loser’s bracket, but Stanford’s pitching is built to get out of it.
Jose: Starting pitching matters so much this time of the year, and the Cardinal have better starters this year than last season. Bubic, who was the No. 1 last season, is even better this season, but is only the No. 2 this season with the return of Tristan Beck from an injury that sat him out last year. The bullpen is better this year because the pair of closer Jack Little and freshman Jacob Palisch have been sensational in the late innings. The fact that Little-Palisch has somehow been better than last year’s elite duo of Colton Hock-Tyler Thorne just reveals how amazing Little and Palisch have been this season.
On the offensive side, the team is filled with depth despite injuries to key players in Duke Kinamon, Brandon Wulff, Maverick Handley and Will Matthiessen. Different players have stepped up to fill these roles, such as Beau Branton and Kyle Stowers, who have excelled after getting starting reps. Now, the team has Wulff and Matthiessen back, the latter of which won Perfect Game National Player of the Week earlier this season after a five-home run week. Nico Hoerner improved on his productivity from last season and Andrew Daschbach has had the best power-hitting season for a Cardinal in a decade. Top to bottom, this team is better than last year’s iteration of Stanford baseball.
While Stanford has been very balanced this year, in each of its big conference matchups, one aspect of the team failed to show up (pitching against UCLA and OSU, hitting against UW). Which phase of the game concerns you most as the Cardinal face more elite competition in the postseason?
R.J.: There are arguments to made for being concerned about each phase of Stanford’s game, but if forced to choose, I’d say, overall, the offense is more of a variable than the team’s pitching and defense. That being said, I will say that Stanford doesn’t want any of these games coming down to somebody other than maybe Stowers having to make a throw from the outfield.
Jacob: Stanford’s bats have gone quiet at times this season. This weekend will be the first significant postseason experience for several of Stanford’s most important hitters. Keeping their minds right will be key. If I had to name a second concern, it’s which versions of Tristan Beck and Kris Bubic we will see. Both of them have gone through stretches in the past month when they weren’t pitching to their typical standards. The good news for Stanford is that below average for them is still good enough to win games against tough competition.
Jose: The offense has definitely laid eggs at times this season, where the bats strike out a ton and many men are left on base. There will be tough pitching facing the Stanford offense, so it could prove a major concern even if the Stanford staff is limiting the opposing lineup. Another thing that worries me is sophomore catcher Maverick Handley’s absence. He’s an excellent defensive catcher, as he still leads all players in throwing out baserunners, with 17 caught stealings despite not having played since May 8. The Cardinal’s first opponent, Wright State, is seventh in the nation in stolen bases per game at 2.04, and if runs are at a premium, then the aggression of the Raiders could prove the difference. Additionally, Handley is just a great presence for the pitchers, and he has the most familiarity with the pitching staff. Christian Molfetta has done an admirable job filling in, but Handley makes me more comfortable in tight games.
What does Stanford need to do to win the regional? What’s your prediction for how Stanford fares in the regional — and if you have them advancing, the rest of the tournament?
R.J.: Play downhill, and that means winning the first game on the strength of a good Tristan Beck start. That would allow the team to go into the weekend without taxing its bullpen on the first night, without having to play an elimination game until Sunday at the earliest, and with a sense of normalcy that the task in front of them is well within its capabilities. Baseball is an insane sport, and anything can happen from here on in for Stanford. That being said, I will not be surprised to see this group in Omaha in two weeks. They’ve been one of the best teams the entire season, and they’ve bounced back from the kind of body blows you need to take to handle the ebbs and flows of the postseason.
Jacob: Any time a team earns the right to host all the way to Omaha, it’s an upset when they don’t get there. Stanford should be in the College World Series later this month for the first time since 2008. The first step is that Tristan Beck comes out ready to deliver the first punch Friday. Pitching coach Thomas Eager and head coach David Esquer have each said Beck has to start games stronger. That was a problem Friday at Washington. If Beck dominates Wright State like he’s able to, I think that will steady the team and allow the Cardinal to roll through the weekend like they have more often than not on the way to winning 44 games.
Jose: I echo Daschbach’s sentiments before the Oregon State series when he said that the Cardinal could beat any team in the country if they play a complete game. The potential of Tristan Beck and Kris Bubic is a duo that will shut out opponents for seven innings each, but that hasn’t been the case for them in the past month. Given the absurd difficulty of the opponents, if Beck and Bubic can prove that they can compete at a high level, then the Cardinal have a real shot at a third championship banner.
Contact Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford.edu, R.J. Abeytia on Twitter at @rj_abeytia and Jacob Rayburn at @jnrayburn.