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Tawa lifts Cardinal with three-run homer in the ninth

Stanford concluded its regular season second in the Pac-12

Sophomore shortstop Tim Tawa (above) hit a three-run go-ahead homer in the ninth inning of Saturday's series finale against Arizona State. Behind Tawa's blast, No. 4 Stanford claimed a 3-2 victory in the final game of the regular season and finished second in the Pac-12 behind No. 1 UCLA. (BOB DREBIN/isiphotos.com)

With one swing of the bat, sophomore shortstop Tim Tawa flipped the narrative on Saturday’s game, sending No. 4 Stanford (41-11, 22-7 Pac-12) to a joyous 3-2 win on the final day of the season. Tawa’s two-out home run in the top of the ninth clinched a second-place finish in the Pac-12, punctuated a season in which the Cardinal dropped just one series, and prevented the upset by a resilient Arizona State (37-17, 16-13 Pac-12).

Although his sophomore campaign has not lived up to the impressive numbers of his freshman year, the indefatigable captain of the defense was the happy recipient of the victory shower. Another player who has battled through struggles this season, junior RHP Jack Little (3-2, 3.71 ERA) came on for the final two outs of the game, recording his 26th career save in a Stanford uniform to tie the all-time record set by Steve Chitren, who recorded the final outs in both of Stanford’s College World Series championships.

“Tim has played such a great shortstop for us, and today we were playing underwater for eight innings until he stepped up and delivered for his teammates,” said Stanford head coach David Esquer.

It was a pitcher’s duel early, but Arizona State struck first off of junior LHP Erik Miller (7-2, 2.91 ERA). Miller sat down the first five batters, but Cole Austin (.208/.259/.250) doubled with one out in the second inning, and the next batter, Alika Williams (.332/.429/.470), walked to put a pair of runners on base. On an 0-2 count, Carter Aldrete (.286/.360/.487) singled in the run to provide the Sun Devils with an early lead.

Aldrete struck again in the fifth inning for a solo home run, ending a streak of eight consecutive outs for Miller, who faced the minimum in four separate innings.

On the other side, Arizona State’s Boyd Vander Kooi (4-4, 5.26 ERA) was impeccable in just his second scoreless start of the season. The sophomore looked much better than his underlying numbers would imply, as he settled in for perfect innings in the third and fourth after allowing singles in the first two innings. By the end of his 7.0 innings, Vander Kooi set a season-high for an individual Arizona State pitcher with eleven strikeouts.

Stanford’s best opportunity to phase Vander Kooi came in the fifth when back-to-back singles from redshirt junior Duke Kinamon (.327/.363/.509) and sophomore shortstop Tim Tawa (.246/.279/.419) started the Cardinal’s first rally. Vander Kooi, however, responded with three consecutive strikeouts to escape the jam as the Cardinal were unable to make productive outs.

Miller recorded the first two outs of the seventh inning before handing the ball over to freshman RHP Alex Williams (7-1, 2.48 ERA) for the final out with one runner on base. Williams had been the midweek starter for the Cardinal all season before making the transition to the bullpen for the final series.

After 7.0 innings, Arizona State finally went to the bullpen, opting for RHP Blake Burzell (5-0, 4.19 ERA), who pitched a clean eighth inning. Sophomore LHP Jacob Palisch (4-1, 4.35) trotted out for the bottom half, scattering a leadoff walk to hold the Sun Devils’ advantage at two heading into the season’s final inning.

Burzell surrendered a one-out single to junior DH Will Matthiessen and hit Kinamon with two outs to put two runners on base. Arizona State head coach Tracy Smith made the move to RJ Dabovich (6-1, 4.47 ERA) for the final out. Down to the final out, Tawa lost the ball out of the park for a three-run home run to take the Cardinal’s first lead of the game.

As for his approach, Tawa said he was hoping to “just get the next guy up.” The comeback win, meanwhile, was “a testament to our team,” despite the fact that it was Tawa’s bat that launched the ball into the sun. The home run was Tawa’s eighth of the year, one more than he had a season ago.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, Palisch returned for one batter to face Hunter Bishop with a favorable lefty-on-lefty matchup. Palisch got the top-5 prospect to fly out to senior right fielder Brandon Wulff. As the pitcher of record during Stanford’s comeback, Palisch earned the win in a familiar role out of the bullpen that he perfected a season ago. With the pitching change, Esquer went to his best option in the bullpen, Little.

The All-American struck out Austin on a slider, but lost Williams for a walk. In a sign of composure, Little calmly worked the inside of the plate against Gage Workman (.322/.411/.527) before burying a fastball low in the zone that caught Arizona State’s third baseman looking.

In the series opener, Little came on for the ninth inning with a three run lead, but surrendered four runs as the Sun Devils walked off. To say the least, successfully converting his tenth save of the season in a come-from-behind victory on the final day of the regular season was redemption.

“I’m really proud of Jack Little for saving up for it and coming back for us,” Tawa said in a television interview after the game, the 850th live-event broadcast on Pac-12 network.

Stanford’s pitching held the nation’s eighth best scoring offense to just four hits, and none from the top four batters in the lineup. The Sun Devils managed just one hit over the final four innings as Stanford buckled down.

Moreover, for the fifth-consecutive game, the Stanford defense did not commit an error, once again led by Tawa at short. “I just want to help the team,” Tawa said. “I’ve been needed at short this year.”

The Cardinal improve to 17-4 on the road, remarkably a better record than in the familiar confines of Sunken Diamond.

“It shows we can fight through adversity or a hostile crowd,” Tawa said. “It fires us up and makes us play better.”

Stanford finishes one spot behind No. 1 UCLA (47-8, 24-5 Pac-12) in the conference, the one team to hand the Cardinal a series defeat this season. No. 12 Oregon State (36-18-1, 21-8) dropped two games to USC (25-29-1, 13-15-1) during the final weekend to fall to third. For the second straight season, the regular season finale came down to heroics on the road, and once again the Cardinal came out on top.  

“This only reinforces the character of our team and this will give us some added momentum heading into the postseason,” Esquer said.

Now, the Cardinal will wait first for the announcement of NCAA regional sites on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. PT, then for the NCAA Selection Show 9 a.m. PT on Monday. Stanford, which has been ranked within the top eight of the national polls nearly all season, should be in line to host the first two weekends in Sunken Diamond. Still to be decided, however, is whether the Cardinal can put the sour taste of the past two postseasons behind them.

Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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