Two years in a row, Stanford hosted Cal State Fullerton in its regional of the NCAA Tournament.
Two years in a row, the Titans eliminated nationally-seeded Cardinal teams from postseason contention, won the Stanford Regional and advanced to the Super Regional.
Except this year — with one of the best Stanford teams in recent memory, one that had swept a Fullerton team on the downswing earlier in the season — that wasn’t supposed to happen again.
Stanford had found answers to four-seed Wright State on Friday evening and two-seed Baylor on Saturday afternoon. It could not do the same against third-seed Fullerton, which added a new chapter to the historic Stanford-Fullerton rivalry, the second-most played matchup in the NCAA tournament, when it handed the Cardinal both their losses to end their season.
The final dagger came Sunday evening, when Stanford (46-12), the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament, fell to the Titans (35-23), 5-2 in an elimination game at Sunken Diamond.
“It sucks,” junior Brandon Wulff said. “There’s no other way around it.”
The Cardinal came into the season with the program’s highest-scoring offense (runs per game) since 2008’s College World Series team. But it was those same bats that let Stanford down the most this weekend and most fatally in both Fullerton matchups.
“Sometimes you get into tournament baseball and you just don’t get your stride like you’d like to,” Stanford head coach David Esquer said. “We fell victim to that a little bit, but the effort was there and our guys were fighting until the end.”
Stanford hit .200 (2-for-10) with RISP in its first matchup against Fullerton on Saturday, but faced a more acute problem on Sunday: The offense couldn’t put the ball in play, as Stanford struck out 15 times, tying a season-high.
And when Stanford faced its best chance at catching up to the Titans, a bad baserunning mistake by Nick Oar gave Stanford its third out with the tying run set to come to the plate.
An inconsistent strike zone from home-plate umpire Brandon Cooper also did not help the Cardinal offense find its groove.
Fullerton starter Tanner Bibee recorded 11 strikeouts, including eight called third strikes. Before the second Fullerton game, Stanford had only been struck out looking four times in the entire tournament versus 21 times swinging.
Cooper’s inconsistent strike-three calls evoked ire from Cardinal batters. With runners on first and second and two outs, Kyle Stowers, a generally calm player, faced a 2-2 count and erupted at Cooper’s strike-three call on a pitch that was clearly off the plate.
Things only escalated from there. In the fifth, Bibee struck out the side on three called third strikes, and Stanford hitting coach Tommy Nicholson was promptly ejected after trying to argue with Cooper.
“Our kids seemed to be reacting to the strike zone,” Esquer said. “I probably won’t be able to tell until I get a chance to look at the film, but it seemed a little loose in the sense that our guys were just a little bit upset.”
Yet it would be unfair to attribute Stanford’s loss entirely to officiating.
“[Bibee] hit his spots, he was pounding the zone,” said Wulff, who had a team-high three hits on Sunday. “Maybe getting a couple extra calls that we didn’t like… [but] he was able to throw his fastball and his curveball for a strike, get us off balance, mix it inside and outside. [We] just couldn’t make the adjustment quick enough.”
Though it wasn’t as acute of a problem as it was on Saturday, Stanford also struggled to take advantage of its baserunners.
The play during which Stanford scored its two runs also represented its greatest missed opportunity. After Wulff and Will Matthiessen’s hits put them at third and first, respectively, Nick Oar, whom Esquer usually brings in when Stanford is looking for a home run, was inserted into the lineup to pinch-hit for Christian Molfetta. Oar drew the walk, but when Alec Wilson’s two-out single to center plated Wulff and Matthiessen, Oar tried to make it to third and got caught in a rundown, ending the inning for the Cardinal.
Stanford hit .182 with runners on against Fullerton this weekend, but that was, in many ways, part of its greater offensive slump that plagued the team throughout the regional.
“We had been such a good offensive team throughout the year and had been able to generate runs and get some big swings,” Esquer said. “The reason we got those wins [earlier in the season] was because we found a way to score runs when we needed to.”
Though the score might suggest otherwise, Stanford’s pitching staff — starter Erik Miller and relievers Austin Weiermiller and Zach Grech — had a respectable outing. Fullerton’s unconventional ways to find scoring opportunities hurt Stanford the most: The Titans took advantage of a hit by a pitch and a balk to plate their first two runs before they pulled ahead by five with Cardenas’ three-run homer off Weiermiller in the fifth.
Whatever promise Stanford had this season, what it brought to the regional was simply not enough to get it done against a Fullerton squad that, at least comparatively, might be peaking at the right time. Fullerton, who outscored its regional opponents 13-5 this weekend, advanced to its 14th Super Regional in school history (second-best in the nation behind Florida State) and third in four years.
But the season had its share of highs that the results of the regional should not overshadow: a promising crop of underclassman talent, the program’s first conference title since 2004, and an outstanding first year for Esquer on The Farm.
“It’s a sad ending for our club. What a great year and what a lot of fun with this team,” Esquer said. “They took us on a great ride. Some of the greatest wins I’ve ever been associated with we’ve had this year: comebacks out of nowhere and a Pac-12 championship that they’ll never take away from us.”