In the game that has plagued them the past two years, No. 1 Stanford (44-12, 22-7 Pac-12) found a way to win the Sunday night elimination game 8-6, forcing a decisive matchup on Monday with the same No. 3 seed Fresno State (40-15-1, 20-8-1 Mountain West) team. With a scoreless nine out save, career number 27, junior RHP Jack Little (3-2, 3.41 ERA) broke a tie with Steve Chitren ’88 to become the Stanford all-time saves leader.
“Of course it’s awesome, but I’m more excited for us to pick up the win tonight,” Little said after the victory.
On Sunday morning, freshman RHP Alex Williams (7-2, 2.56 ERA) kept Stanford alive with a complete game performance. The excellent starting pitching continued with junior LHP Erik Miller (8-2, 3.15 ERA) who set career-high marks with twelve strikeouts and 114 pitches. Miller had pitched the exact game the past three seasons, and lost both, but rebounded in the biggest way.
“This game has a lot of meaning to me,” Miller said. “I’ve lost it the last two years, so I had a personal vendetta going into this that I told myself I wouldn’t allow us to lose this one.”
“He came out with one of his best efforts of the year against a really good lineup,” added head coach David Esquer.
Miller retired the side and struck out two in the first inning, then worked around a two-out single in the second. After a pair of strikeouts to open the top of the third inning, Miller’s frame was lengthened by a two-out infield single, which forced Miller to throw extra pitches, walking one batter before striking out the next.
“Once he found his slider for a strike early in the count, it was pretty dirty,” said Fresno State head coach Mike Batesole.
By that time, the Cardinal had pushed four runs across the Bulldogs’ starter Nikoh Mitchell (3-4, 5.23 ERA), and would go on to score in each of the first five innings before the bats fell silent. Mitchell walked senior right fielder Brandon Wulff (.270/.392/.597) with two outs in the first inning, who stole second to remain a perfect 6-6 on the season.
A clutch automatic double from junior DH Will Matthiessen (.320/.399/.557) over the left center wall provided Stanford with another first inning run in the regional. The Cardinal could have tacked on more, but sophomore left fielder Kyle Stowers (.306/.370/.519) was robbed of a leadoff home run by his counterpart Jeff Jamison.
In the second inning, sophomore shortstop Tim Tawa (.252/.286/.417) hit a one-out single and was joined by redshirt junior third baseman Nick Bellafronto (.270/.397/.525) after his walk. Sophomore center fielder Christian Robinson (.278/.383/.361) kept a ball fair down the right field line for an RBI double, putting two runners in scoring position. With two outs, junior catcher Maverick Handley (.290/.399/.424) hit one to the wall, but a catch robbed him and stranded a pair.
The Cardinal did not relent in the third inning. A catch at the backstop screen by catcher Carter Bins retired Wulff, but Matthiessen and junior first baseman Andrew Daschbach (.295/.387/.620) drew a pair of one out walks. Redshirt junior second baseman Duke Kinamon (.316/.356/.489) singled, bringing home Matthiessen, as Daschbach went first to third on the play. A poor throw on a pickoff at third allowed Daschbach to score.
Kinamon was eager to run, and successfully took third on Tawa’s walk, but a pitch in the dirt did not skip far enough away from Bins, and Kinamon was tagged out at the plate. Two more walks from Bellafronto and Robinson loaded the bases and turned the lineup over, but Stowers was retired on a line drive to the second baseman. After three innings, Mitchell had allowed four runs on seven walks and four hits, recording a lone strikeout. There was a sense the Cardinal could have gotten more.
“We left a lot out there,” Esquer said.
After spending nearly half an hour in the dugout, Miller returned to the mound and surrendered the lead. McCarthy Tatum (.362/.403/.616) drove a leadoff home run into the trees, then Matt Ottino (.360/.429/.480) walked, stole second, and appeared poised to come home on a single by Nate Thimjon (.268/.312/.363). Stowers left his feet for a diving ball in left field that forced Ottino back to the bag, but upon review it was ruled that he trapped the ball. It did not matter, as Zach Presno (.224/.329/.415) hit an opposite field home run to tie the game.
“Erik pitched outstanding for us,” Esquer said. “We didn’t support him always with some defense.”
The Cardinal regained the lead in the bottom half, as the Fresno State arm out of the bullpen, Jamison Hill (2-2, 4.97 ERA), issued two more walks to Wulff and Matthiessen. With two outs, Kinamon singled up the middle to score Wulff, but was caught at second trying to stretch a double.
“When you give a punch and then you take one, you don’t want to get knocked down and stay down,” Esquer said. “That’s the character of our team, they’re not going to give up.”
The fifth inning belonged to Stanford, beginning with Miller striking out a pair and sitting the ‘Dogs down in order.
“We’re tougher than people give us credit for,” Esquer said. “People don’t expect Stanford kids to be as tough as they are, but they have a toughness in their character that’s unusual.”
In the bottom half, Tawa ripped a leadoff double down the left field line, then was joined with one out by Robinson, who was hit by a pitch. A single off the bat of Stowers brought Tawa home and Robinson to third. Bins’ throw down to second to catch the stealing Stowers caromed away and allowed Robinson to come home. Stanford’s final run, scored by Stowers, came on a Handley single through right side. The inning ended on a double play turned by Tatum at third base. Hill, however, was ejected for arguing with the umpire.
Miller struck out the first two batters he faced in the sixth inning, upping his career high to twelve, but his defense let him down. Daschbach was unable to dig Tawa’s throw out of the dirt, and a walk issued to Presno put two runners on. Jamison doubled to left center to put one run across, and an error by Kinamon allowed another to score. Miller was relieved on the mound by junior RHP Zach Grech (2-0, 3.32 ERA) with a final line of 5.2 innings, six hits, earned runs and three walks. Grech then froze Bins for a strikeout.
Out of the bullpen, Nik Cardinal struck out the side in the sixth around a two-out single by Tawa. Tawa was a perfect 3-3 on the day with a double, two runs and a walk. Stanford’s hit total, eight, matched its run total, with the same happening on Fresno State’s side. Both teams each committed a couple of errors.
“A hard fought game, and not always clean and pretty,” Esquer said. “When you play games at this level, it creates pressure, and you make mistakes you wouldn’t normally.”
Grech allowed a hit to begin the seventh inning and was relieved by Little, who made his first appearance in the regional. Tatum reached base when Little tipped a potential double play ball into the outfield. Little responded with a strikeout and Handley made it a double play with a perfect throw down to second to catch the runner stealing. Little then struck out the pinch hitter Emilio Nogales (.291/.417/.425) to escape unscathed.
After a hit by pitch, Little struck out the side in the eighth inning. In the ninth, Little worked around a leadoff single. In his 3.0 innings, Little struck out five and surrendered just two hits.
Both teams will be piecing together their pitching for Monday’s elimination game. When asked who they would start, both head coaches had similar responses.
“I’m not sure, what would you do?” Batesole asked. “We’ll have to figure that out.”
“I have no idea. We’re going to piece it together, somehow,” Esquer said. “This is how Stanford legends are made, for games like this when someone has to come up with a big performance.”
Even after 45 pitches, Little has no doubts about his availability.
“I’m definitely ready to go,” Little said. You can count on that.”
Clocking in at a minute over four hours, the game was the longest of the season for the Cardinal, buoyed by a pair of replay reviews, both of which went against Stanford.
Stanford will be the away team for Monday’s game at 7:05 p.m. PT from Sunken Diamond. The winner will head to Starkville to take on Mississippi State (49-13, 20-10 SEC) in the Super Regional.