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Baseball prepares for Regional showdowns

The Cardinal embarks on 38th postseason appearance

Junior catcher Maverick Handley (above), was named the Pac-12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year. Handley is one of the fewer catchers in college baseball who calls pitches, which is a testament to his game knowledge and skill. He leads the conference with seven pickoffs. (KAREN AMBROSE HICKEY/isiphotos.com)

For the third straight season, No. 1 Stanford (41-11, 22-7 Pac-12) is hosting the Stanford Regional to begin postseason play. The double-elimination tournament will also feature No. 2 seed UC Santa Barbara, No. 3 seed Fresno State and No. 4 seed Sacramento State.

In being selected as a host, Stanford is one of just four programs to have hosted an NCAA Regional in each of the last three seasons alongside Oregon State, Arkansas and Texas Tech.

The All-California affair was rated one of the top-three hardest regionals by Baseball America. In terms of sacrifice flies, there is no question. The Hornet’s 36 ranks 14th in the nation, the Cardinal have one more for the seventh best mark, and the Gauchos lead the nation with 44.

Sacramento State and Stanford square off at Friday at 1:00 p.m. PT, followed by the nightcap of UCSB and Fresno State. After that, it gets messy.

Scouting Stanford

Despite a ranking as high as No. 2 in the polls, the Cardinal were given the eleven-seed for the postseason. While the committee relied less upon RPI for its rankings overall, Stanford’s seed appears to based on its tenth place overall in the power index.

“We’ve garnered a little bit of disrespect all year long, [with] people not thinking we were as good as our ranking,” said Stanford head coach David Esquer. “A little bit of a chip on our shoulder that we’ve been as high as two seed in the country but we’re an eleven seed in the tournament.”

Stanford’s only series loss came at the hands of the nation’s No. 1 overall seed UCLA (47-8, 24-5 Pac-12), and a season after winning the conference, the Cardinal placed second, ahead of fellow regional host and reigning national champion Oregon State (36-18-1, 21-8 Pac-12).

“We’ve been two, three or four and dropped in the polls a couple weeks with winning records,” Esquer said. “People have been questioning our ability, whether we deserve the ranking we’ve had all year.”

Now, heading into its 32nd postseason appearance, the two-time national title program will be hosting its third consecutive and 18th overall NCAA Regional. For Esquer, who won a title as the shortstop at Stanford in 1987, experience will be a benefit.

“Our team is pretty experienced in terms of postseason experience,” Esquer said. “They’ve been around a lot. Our hope is that they can play relaxed and play like they’ve been here before.”

While not guaranteed to host a Super Regional if they are fortunate enough to advance, the Cardinal will be playing in front of their home crowd with a typical routine this weekend.

“No difference in approach,” Esquer said. “The way we’ve gone about this all year is preparing ourselves, regardless of the opponent.”

Stanford claims a 143-76 all-time record in the postseason, including a 65-18 record in games played at Sunken Diamond, but the Cardinal have a College World Series drought extending to 2008.  

Under the 40-year reign of legendary head coach Mark Marquess, a tenet of the Stanford baseball program was pitching and defense. That tradition has continued in the nascent Esquer era. The team wields the 17th best fielding percentage in the sport (0.979), and their 0.96 double plays per game is 16th.

Five Cardinal were named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive team or were an honorable mention. Nearly the entire infield was honored, with redshirt junior third baseman Nick Bellafronto (.264/.381/.482) and redshirt junior Duke Kinamon (.327/.363/.509) recognized as honorable mentions and Daschbach leading the way on the first team. Of course, anyone who has seen sophomore shortstop Tim Tawa (.246/.279/.419) transition from outfield and third base to the everyday six would know that he was also deserving of his honorable mention.  

Sophomore outfielder Kyle Stowers (.299/.369/.508), with numerous web gem grabs, was named to the first team alongside Pac-12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year junior catcher Maverick Handley (.291/.387/.417). Handley has taken the mantra of pitching and defense to another level this season as one of the few catchers in college baseball to call pitches to any extent.

“Stanford prides itself on pitching and defense, and pitching and defense wins championships,” Handley said. “The catcher is the glue of that.”

Handley’s head coach has certainly taken notice, and is effusive in his praise. “His catching ability and his blocking ability is unparalleled in the league,” Esquer said. “He’s the cornerstone of our defense and he means a lot to us.”

Handley shares the Defensive Player of the Year honor with another catcher, Oregon State’s Adley Rutschman, the consensus No. 1 pick in the upcoming MLB draft.

“I feel like it’s a testament to how hard coach [Jack] Marder has pushed me defensively and how much the coaches have given me the ability to go out and play,” Handley said.

One of the most spectacular skills in Handley’s arsenal is the pickoff, a stat in which he once again led the conference with seven.

“As of now [junior first baseman Andrew] Daschbach and I have played together for a long time. It’s a look: ‘Uh-oh this guy messed up,’” Handley said. “It’s one of the biggest momentum shifts in the game.”

This year, Handley has thrown out 10-26 stolen base attempts, a stat which makes even the most aggressive teams hesitant to run. In his time on the Farm, Stanford is 97-23 when Handley starts in the squat.

What this does not include is the postseason a year ago, when a fluke electric skateboard accident prevented Handley from leaving his mark. Despite a No. 2 overall seed and a series sweep in the regular season, Stanford was eliminated by Cal State Fullerton for the second consecutive year.

“Based on the last two years, seeding doesn’t really matter,” Handley said. “We know we can’t take any opponents lightly.”

In line with Stanford’s rotation all season long, Handley will receive from sophomore RHP Brendan Beck (4-3, 3.68 ERA) in Friday afternoon’s matchup. After that, the matchup will determine whether junior RHP Will Matthiessen (6-2, 3.91 ERA) or junior LHP Erik Miller (7-2, 2.91 ERA) will get the start.

In the event of a fourth game, the midweek starter, freshman RHP Alex Williams (7-1, 2.48 ERA), will be the arm of choice. Williams has issued just 0.99 walks per nine innings, the fourth best rate in the entire nation.

As a staff, the Cardinal dole out 3.07 walks per nine, which places them at 13th. The 3.47 staff ERA is 11th, which the Cardinal will need to quell the bats of postseason competition.

This season, Stanford will be able to mash with the best of them, as no small part in finishing the season with the fifth-best win percentage in baseball was the 1.44 home runs per game, the nation’s ninth best rate.

Daschbach (.310/.392/.642) and senior outfielder Brandon Wulff (.264/.383/.582) are currently locked in a home run battle, which Wulff currently leads, 17-16. Along with Matthiessen and Handley, the foursome are the only Cardinal to appear in all 52 games.

As for his part, Matthiessen is a finalist for the John Olerud Award, presented to the best two-way player. In his seven starts, Matthiessen is 5-1 with a 3.62 ERA and a .212 opposing batting average. At the plate in those games, Matthiessen sports a .520 batting average, .571 on-base percentage and .920 slugging percentage, with nine RBI, 23 total bases and two home runs.

However, Esquer maintains, “the strength of our team is our bullpen.”
The ninth inning is safely in the hands of junior RHP Jack Little (3-2, 3.71 ERA), who tied the program record with his 26th career save in Stanford’s regular-season finale. Sophomore LHP Jacob Palisch (4-1, 4.35 ERA) has transitioned to the bullpen, where he has logged a 2.11 ERA in 21.1 innings across 15 appearances. Sophomore LHP Austin Weiermiller (6-0, 1.71 ERA) leads the entire staff in ERA, carrying a .212 opposing batting average. With the most appearances (27) of any Stanford pitcher, junior RHP Zach Grech (2-0, 3.32 ERA) will be paramount to the Cardinal’s success.

Scouting Sacramento State

Stanford’s first contest will be with Sacramento State (39-23, 18-9 WAC), the automatic qualifier of the WAC. It did not come easy for the Hornets, who lost their first round game before an improbable six-game winning streak to eliminate all five other teams in the tournament. The win in the championship was the 400th for Sacramento State head coach Reggie Christiansen.

The Hornets have reached the postseason just three times previously, with all three occasions coming in the past six seasons. This season, the team has been led by its pitching staff, which ranks 27th in the sport with a 3.69 ERA. The Hornets’ best starter is Scott Randall (8-1, 2.50 ERA), but Parker Brahms (4-4, 4.52 ERA) made the start in the Hornets’ Game 1 loss in the WAC tournament.

Catcher Dawsen Bacho (.277/.363/.455) was named the tournament MVP after hitting a team-high .323 with three home runs and eight RBIs. Reliever Travis Martizia (4-1, 3.16 ERA) threw a tournament-high 10.2 innings, recording two wins and a save without blemishing his ERA.

Outfielder Matt Smith, the only Hornet hitting over .300 on the season, had ten hits including two home runs, and Ryan Walstad scored seven times and logged doubles to make all-tournament team.

In the tournament, the Hornets won the six games by a combined 12 runs with an offense that leaves much to be desired. Sacramento State carries five players on or below the Mendoza line who have at least thirty at-bats, including two with over 100 at-bats. The team batting average is just .235, having hit just 36 home runs this season.

However, the lineup does see the ball well, and with a team walk rate of 14.6 percent, the Hornets reach base at a .344 clip. The leading walk artist is infielder Keith Torres (.243/.380/.313), whose 49 walks are 25th in the nation.

Sacramento State has also shown an ability to play with the best in the nation, matching Stanford’s record against No. 1 UCLA by taking a game off the Bruins in the finale by a 2-1 score. That was one of just 11 wins in 26 attempts on the road.

Scouting UC Santa Barbara

The Gauchos (45-9, 19-5 Big West) are the lone representatives of the Big West conference, the only league outside of the Pac-12 to not hold a postseason tournament. UCSB was pegged as a potential No. 1 seed while ranking No. 14 in the two most recent polls before dropping two of three games over the weekend to Cal Poly.

Nevertheless, the win against the Mustangs in the finale broke an eleven-game winless streak against their conference foe and clinched the Gauchos’ first conference championship in 33 years. For the effort, Andrew Checketts was named the Big West Coach of the Year in his eighth season. Now, UCSB will play in the postseason for the first time since a run to Omaha three years ago.

The previous two years, the Gauchos failed to end with a winning record and were picked to finish fifth in the conference in 2019. Instead, Santa Barbara will be making its fourth regional appearance at Stanford after playing there in 1983, 1987 and 1996. Unlike in those sub-.500 seasons, the Gauchos are no strangers to winning in 2019, and their 45 wins are the fourth highest total in the nation.

UC Santa Barbara boasts a 20-30 all-time record against the Cardinal, most recently dropping a series in Sunken Diamond 2-1 in 2010. Against the Bulldogs, the Gauchos are 41-52 all-time and split a two-game meeting with their former Big West rivals a season ago. Although UCSB is 32-26-2 all-time against Sacramento State, the Hornets have taken the recent history with a 2-1 series win last year.

Catcher Eric Yang (.383/.492/.567) leads the team in batting average and on-base percentage. For his efforts, the junior was named to the Collegiate Baseball All-American third team and a semifinalist for the Buster Posey National Collegiate Catcher of the Year. In the squat, Yang threw out 10 runners trying to steal in 29 attempts alongside a .995 fielding percentage. The catcher now enters the postseason with 12-game reached-base streak.

The Gauchos have a pair of base-stealing threats in outfielder Tommy Jew and infielder Tevin Mitchell, who each have 20.

The Gauchos offer a formidable pitching rotation, opening with Collegiate Baseball All-American second team member Jack Dashwood (9-2, 2.17 ERA), then Ben Brecht (10-1, 3.76 ERA) and Rodney Boone (8-0, 2.78 ERA). Also available is Jorge Arellano Jr (4-1, 2.30 ERA), who made seven starts for UCSB.

In the back end, Chris Lincoln’s (4-1, 3.60 ERA) 13 saves ranks eleventh in the nation, but the Gauchos also have the arm of Michael McGreevy (5-1, 2.01 ERA), who has closed the door on six games. As a staff, the 3.21 ERA ranks sixth in the country, and the 1.16 WHIP is fourth.

On offense, Santa Barbara’s opponents will need to worry about the triple, of which the Gauchos have hit 29, the third most in the country. In terms of long-ball power, catcher Thomas Rowan (.324/.402/.599) leads the team with 13 home runs and the team’s .501 slugging percentage is seventh in the nation.

While Santa Barbara outscores its opponents in every inning, by far the widest margin is in the third, where the gap is 70-28. Their next closest run-total is 47 in the sixth.

Scouting Fresno State

The only opponent the Cardinal have faced this season, Fresno State (38-14-1, 20-8-1 Mountain West) is one of the nation’s hottest teams, having won their past seven games to take the conference title. As such, they were named one of the most dangerous lower seeds by Baseball America.

Fresno State will be making its 35th appearance in the NCAA Tournament after sweeping the Mountain West tournament. Going on the road should be no problem, as the ‘Dogs are 18-6 in true road contests, with 13 straight road wins dating back to their last road loss on April 6.

The Bulldogs last played in the postseason in 2012, and once again Stanford hosted the regional. Despite names like Aaron Judge, Jordan Luplow and Austin Wynns all on the Fresno State roster, Stanford won 9-1 behind a future No. 1 draft pick Mark Appel’s complete, four-hitter game.

A clear strength is the offense, whose round .300 batting average is 20th in the game and 7.1 runs per game 31st. Both shortstop JT Arruda (.347/.458/.551) and third baseman McCarthy Tatum (.353/.397/.601) carry into the NCAA Tournament on-base streaks longer than 20 games. Behind 12 home runs and the eleventh most RBIs in the nation (71), Tatum was named to the Collegiate Baseball All-American third team. Another name to watch is outfielder Zach Ashford (.386/.496/.543) who leads his team in average, on base percentage and runs.

When the ‘Dogs reach eight runs, they are a near-perfect 22-1. Another key for Fresno State is scoring first, which has produced a 31-5 record.

The staff’s 31st ranked ERA of 3.72 is paced by their ace, RHP Ryan Jensen (11-1, 2.92 ERA). Jensen is locked in a seven-way tie for first in the nation in wins, and was named to the Collegiate Baseball All-American second team. Jensen’s past seven starts have all been victories, and he was recently honored as the Mountain West tournament MVP and Pitcher of the Year.

Close behind Jensen is RHP Davis Moore (9-1, 4.12), whose win total is 22nd in the country. In the back end, LHP Jaime Arias (1-3, 2.74 ERA) recorded 12 saves to make the Collegiate Baseball All-American third team. Arias tallies a strike out nearly five times the rate as he issues a walk and has held opponents to a .225 average.

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

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