Stanford Eyes Future After Return To College World Series Cut Short
OMAHA—Stanford on Wednesday suffered heartbreaking tough 6-5 walkoff loss to Vanderbilt to end its stay in the College World Series, and by extension, its season.
Holding a 5-4 lead, Friday starter Brendan Beck was pressed into duty in relief and was excellent through the seventh and eighth innings and up until two outs were recorded in the ninth. It was then that three straight Vanderbilt batters reached base, including a game-tying RBI single off the bat of Enrique Bradfield, Jr., with the winning run scoring on a wild pitch that sailed well over the head of catcher Kody Huff.
It was a tough loss for everyone wearing a Stanford uniform, but it was particularly tough for Beck, who had been so good to that point and without him the Cardinal almost certainly don’t get to Omaha.
“This loss is not on him whatsoever,” center fielder Brock Jones said. “He's one of the biggest reasons why we were able to even get this far. We can't expect him to be perfect. We can't expect anybody to be perfect on this team. And it's baseball. It happens.”
It ends up being a 1-2 showing for Stanford in the CWS, with the win coming against Arizona on Monday, but the impact of just getting to this stage is far greater than the wins and losses will show. Given time to properly process the abrupt and heartbreaking end to the season, these players and coaches will look back fondly on this achievement as a return to prominence for a proud program that had not been on this stage since 2008.
Coach David Esquer, who won a national title as a Stanford player in 1987 and also took California to Omaha as a head coach in 2011, was already able to access some of that perspective immediately after the loss.
“Well, hey, it's something that you shoot for,” he said. “And it's something that we know that our program has experience doing. And I'm driven every day by the experience I had as a player here at Stanford, going to Omaha a couple times and winning a national title, and then watching my brothers go ahead and do it again the year after. And just understanding what it does for just for you as a person and how it changes your perspective on everything that you do as far as what you're shooting for, once you get a chance to play professional baseball or go to work or go to graduate school. You just—all of a sudden what you expect out of yourself expands.”
A big part of why there should be plenty of optimism about a CWS appearance, even one that ended relatively early, is that this season was a masterful turnaround from 2020, when a painfully young squad limped to a 5-11 record.
This season, despite not having any fall practice and a limited spring practice schedule due to local and campus-wide Covid restrictions, it was a very different story, as those young players clearly grew up quite a bit.
Perhaps no player did so more than Jones. After arriving as a two-sport athlete who also played safety on the football team, Jones struggled to a .228 average and one home run in 16 games as a freshman.
This season, he finished with a .311/.453/.646 slash line, 18 home runs and 62 RBIs, and he was right in the middle of everything in the Cardinal’s last two games in the CWS. Against Arizona and Vanderbilt, he was a combined 6-for-10 with two home runs and eight RBIs.
“Just watching him to be able to perform and grow, where he was a year ago when he was just starting to concentrate on baseball and at this level, and it wasn't easy—and to watch him just put in the time and effort and just be selfless and humble and work really hard,” Esquer said. “And he just drags people with him. People follow him. They know that if a player like Brock Jones is working that hard, there is no excuse for anyone in our program not to follow his lead.”
Jones, while acknowledging the pain of the loss, is already looking ahead to what Stanford can accomplish next season, when he will once again be the centerpiece of the lineup.
“I'm proud of a lot of things that this team did, obviously making it this far,” he said. “But, you know, we can always do more. And there's more work to do. And I think next year we're going to go even further.”
With as big a jump as Stanford made in 2021, it should be said that this was still a pretty young team, so Jones should have plenty of help next season.
Third baseman Drew Bowser, shortstop Adam Crampton, catcher Kody Huff, DH Tommy Troy and outfielder Eddie Park are all set to return. Even with the likes of outfielder Christian Robinson, first baseman Nick Brueser and second baseman Tim Tawa likely to depart via the draft, the returning players make up a great start to another fantastic Stanford lineup in 2022.
Ultimately, the bugaboo for this year’s team was pitching depth. It’s part of the reason the Cardinal ended up allowing 10 runs to NC State last Saturday and part of the reason why Esquer and his staff felt compelled to go back to Beck in relief Wednesday after he started the game against the Wolfpack.
The good news for Stanford is that there’s reason to believe that the pitching staff was in a place this year that the lineup was last year, which is to say that the next standout crop of Stanford pitchers are likely on the roster now but just weren’t quite ready to hold major roles as the team played for a national title.
First-year pitchers like righthanders Joey Dixon, Brandt Pancer and Tommy O’Rourke, and lefthander Drew Dowd all got plenty of innings in 2021, with mixed results. That group will now go into the fall looking to compete for major roles in 2022, alongside lefthander Quinn Mathews, who started the game against Vandy. If they collectively make the jump that Jones and his lineup mates did this season, the 2022 Cardinal could be just as good, if not better, than the 2021 version.
And if that’s the case, Wednesday’s loss against Vanderbilt, as painful as it was, will look less like a setback and more like one of the inevitable speed bumps that come with a climb back up to a spot among the sport’s upper echelon.