In an instant classic, No. 1 seed Stanford baseball (45-12, 22-7 Pac-12) survived No. 3 seed Fresno State (40-16-1, 20-8-1 Mountain West) by a 9-7 score to advance from the NCAA Tournament Regionals for the first time since 2014.
The Cardinal will travel to Starkville, Mississippi for a best-of-three series with Mississippi State (49-13, 20-10 SEC) in the Super Regional round. Stanford’s advancement did not seem likely after Fresno State outclassed Stanford on Saturday, marking the third consecutive year the Cardinal dropped to the loser’s bracket, meaning they needed to win three games in a row at Sunken Diamond.
“They knew we were here,” said Fresno State head coach Mike Batesole.
It took multiple miraculous performances from the Cardinal to escape the Bulldogs on consecutive nights.
“That if necessary game, sometimes it requires that you have a number of heroes,” said Stanford head coach David Esquer. “We got those tonight.”
The most unexpected performance belonged to sophomore center fielder Christian Robinson (.287/.392/.376), who plated four Stanford runs, all with two outs, from the nine hole.
“Tonight our nine-hitter got the RBIs,” Esquer said. “Christian Robinson had an absolutely great ball game for us offensively and defensively.”
At the back end, after completing a nine-out save the night before and claiming the Stanford all-time career saves record, junior RHP Jack Little (3-2, 3.32 ERA) struck out the side in the ninth.
“Jack Little has never been better at the end of the game,” Esquer said.
The effort came after a perfect 3.1 innings from sophomore RHP Brendan Beck (5-3, 3.25 ERA), who had started and thrown 101 pitches just two days prior in Friday’s win. Beck was one of just three pitchers, the only in a Stanford uniform, to be named to the All-Regional team.
“[Beck and Little] did what they do all the time, which is pound the zone where they want the ball,” said junior catcher Maverick Handley.
Stanford pitching held the Bulldogs’ best batters — three hitter JT Arruda and clean-up hitter McCarthy Tatum — hitless in eight at bats with three strikeouts.
Pac-12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year Maverick Handley (.293/.399/.451), who shared the honor with MLB draft first-pick Adley Rutschman of Oregon State, showed off his offensive side with a pair of home runs in the first multi-home run game of the junior catcher’s career.
Entering the regional with just two long balls on the season, Handley upped the total to five with a trio over the long weekend that earned him the Most Outstanding Player of the Stanford Regional. Reaching base four times, junior first baseman Andrew Daschbach (.300/.396/.626) recorded a couple of hits, walks and runs.
Stanford went down in order in the opening frame, the first time in this regional the Cardinal failed to score a first-inning run. Jaime Arias (1-3, 3.28 ERA) froze senior right fielder Brandon Wulff (.270/.392/.590) with two outs to finish his first inning of work.
In the second start of his career, freshman RHP Cody Jensen (1-0, 3.82 ERA) worked around a leadoff single to retire the side, including a nice play by Handley to catch a foul tip for the third out.
Stanford quickly put two runners in scoring position in the second inning with a single from junior DH Will Matthiessen (.322/.399/.533) and a double off the bat of Daschbach. The offense then stalled, as both redshirt junior second baseman Duke Kinamon (.309/.352/.478) and sophomore shortstop Tim Tawa (.248/.279/.410) made unproductive outs. The Bulldogs made the decision to intentionally walk redshirt junior third baseman Nick Bellafronto (.270/.398/.516) to bring up Robinson, who singled through the right side to score two.
“It’s definitely nice when they put someone on ahead of you,” Robinson said. “It felt great to come through.”
Back on defense, the Cardinal could not record the shutdown inning, hampered by a throwing error from Tawa. Jensen allowed a double, and Stanford went to the bullpen with sophomore LHP Jacob Palisch (5-2, 4.77 ERA). After a strikeout, Palisch fell behind 3-0 to the next hitter, and intentionally walked to load the bases.
After Jeff Jamison (.227/.292/.303) plated two with a single up the middle shortstop, Palisch responded with a strikeout, but a two-out RBI single from Carter Bins (.280/.385/.427) gave the ‘Dogs the lead.
“That’s a quality team,” Esquer said. “A lot of respect for Coach Batesole.”
Handley took the first pitch of the third inning into the left field shrubbery for a leadoff home run to knot the game at three. Palisch maintained the tie with a trio of fly outs, although the final out took Robinson against the wall in center.
“It really showed that we can be a tough team and come and win these games,” Robinson said.
Stanford went down quietly in the top of the fourth, as Arias needed just nine pitches. Palisch retired the first two batters in a similarly quick fashion, but he then issued a two-out walk. Bins took a full count pitch to left center to reclaim the lead for the ‘Dogs 5-3. Palisch earned the win with 3.0 innings of relief, allowing three runs (two earned) on three hits and two walks while striking out four.
“We had a lot of big at bats, we just didn’t come through when we needed to,” Bins said.
After surrendering a leadoff walk to junior left fielder Kyle Stowers (.305/.371/.519), Arias exited the game in favor of Kevin Larson (2-1, 4.06 ERA). Arias lasted 4.0-plus innings, allowing three runs on four hits, striking out five and walking three. Handley greeted Larson with his second home run of the game to even the score in the top of the fifth.
“They both got us back in the game,” Handley said. “It was about getting on base and getting it to the next guy.”
Larson, who went 3-0 to Handley, then lost Wulff for a walk. Matthiessen, who hit a team-high .368 in the regional, stayed with a pitch to put it through the right side, and Wulff took advantage of a ball that skipped away from Bins to take third, a call that was upheld on replay review.
Back-to-back walks to Daschbach and Kinamon brought Wulff home, and the crowd got up to a “Ball Seven” chant before Tawa hit a deep sacrifice fly for a seventh Stanford run. With two outs, Robinson recorded his second two-RBI single down the right field line to push the lead to four and chase the erratic Larson.
“Hearing the crowd get into it, especially with the way their fans came at us on Saturday, it was great to hear our fans respond show us, show them, they were here for us and get loud and raucous,” Beck said.
As Ryan Sullivan (2-2, 3.27 ERA) came in to pitch for the Bulldogs, it was announced that Stowers, who was on deck, was drafted 71st overall by the Baltimore Orioles in the MLB draft, to which the junior received a standing ovation. Stowers, who had led off the inning on a walk, grounded out to end the frame.
“A lot of teams talk about being family,” Esquer said “We actually live that.”
“We all felt like we got drafted when he got drafted,” Handley added.
Junior RHP Zach Grech (2-0, 3.80 ERA) started the bottom half of the fifth, and struck out a pair around a single. With two outs and two strikes, Nate Thimjon (.267/.310/.379) disposed of a baseball in the trees to cut the deficit to two. Stanford called on Beck out of the bullpen, and he delivered with an inning-ending strikeout of Zach Presno (.221/.328/.409).
“It made it a lot easier coming in with a lead,” Beck said. “I was just trying to throw up zeroes and control the game.”
Wulff’s one-out single was the only Stanford offense in the top of the sixth, and the offense fared no better in the seventh. Beck shut the Bulldogs down in the bottom half of the sixth, which was punctuated by a strike three call at the knees to end the frame. The seventh inning was equally clean, despite a pair of well-struck balls to center field.
Unable to replicate the success of Sullivan, the Fresno State arm out of the bullpen Robbie Peters (0-0, 5.51 ERA) hit Robinson with a pitch. Stowers then hit a chopper over the first baseman Presno’s head that landed inches fair of the line for a double. The ‘Dogs made the switch to Oscar Carvajal (4-0, 2.68 ERA), who stranded both runners with a groundout and a pair of strikeouts.
With two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, after an unassisted play at first by Daschbach and a swinging strikeout, a ball was hit softly into center that forced Robinson to come in for a sliding catch. Even after the ground forced him to bobble, Robinson stuck with the play to record the inning’s final out. Beck needed just 36 pitches to retire all ten batters he faced, including a trio of strikeouts.
“We knew that both staffs were on fumes,” Esquer said. “Our goal was to get the game to Brendan at some point and then finish with Jack.”
Unable to come up with his third two-out hit in the top of the ninth, Robinson struck out with a pair on base, but he still finished with a game-high and career-high four RBIs. Daschbach had led off the inning with a single and was replaced on the bases by Kinamon after a fielder’s choice. Tawa was robbed of extra bases on Jamison’s diving catch in the left field corner before Bellafronto pushed the inning to Robinson with a single.
“It’s all about making the routine plays, that’s what gives your pitchers’ confidence to pump it in there,” Batesole said. “We did that and some.”
Little, who had been in the bullpen since the sixth inning, jogged out for the bottom of the ninth inning. With the NCAA in charge of music, there was no “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones on the sound system, but there was no doubt in Little’s comfort after he zipped in his first strike. Three strikeouts later, Little secured career save number 28 and was rushed by the Stanford bench.
“Little came in and when his fastball is on — it doesn’t get hit,” Handley said. “I wasn’t shocked.”
Matthiessen, Stowers, Tawa and Wulff were all named to the All-Regional team.
Despite a top-five ranking almost all year, Stanford dropped to No. 11 in the NCAA tournament and will travel south to take on No. 6 Mississippi State. After two years of falling short of expectations to host a Super Regional, the Cardinal does not seem fazed.
“We weren’t looking ahead to see if we were hosting a super regional,” Handley said. “We had to get there first.”
Now that Stanford is there, the next step is winning the first game in the best-of-three series, which takes place at 12 p.m. PST on Saturday. Game two is set for 6 p.m. PST on Sunday, and game three — if necessary — will be held at 4 p.m. PST on Monday.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.