For the first time in nearly two decades, Stanford’s back in Omaha, Nebraska for a second straight summer, this time as a betting favorite to win its first College World Series title since 1988.
It was always part of the plan for Stanford. Ever since an impassioned preseason team meeting when players vowed to get back to Omaha, where last season’s dreams ended with a crushing World Series elimination game loss on a wild pitch.
“We all talked about what we had to do to get back to Omaha,” said left fielder Eddie Park, a former Valley Christian-San Jose star who did his part as the MVP of the recent Stanford Regional. “We had a lot of ups and downs, but we knew at the end of the day we’d wind up back in Omaha.
“Now, we’re just excited to be back at college baseball’s holy mecca.”
As Park noted, it wasn’t the smoothest of journeys for coach David Esquer’s squad, which three months ago sat at the bottom of the Pac-12 standings at 1-5 following a three-game sweep by Oregon. After being ranked No. 6 in the nation in a preseason poll, Stanford suddenly found itself unranked. Esquer sat his team down and delivered a simple message.
“We hadn’t earned anything. The reality was the ranking was based off what we did last year,” Esquer said. “I said, ‘No one thinks we’re good enough, now’s your chance to make your own ranking.’ ”
It didn’t take long for Stanford to hit its stride. That stride has lately turned into a sprint — the Cardinal is 22-2 since May 1, which included a 17-game winning streak.
To further illustrate Stanford’s recent dominance, consider one of its two defeats in the last 45 days came in last weekend’s Super Regional opener – a 13-12 loss to UConn in which the Cardinals hit eight homers, including four during a ninth-inning rally.
Now, the Cardinal (47-16) is preparing to face Arkansas (43-19) Saturday at 11 a.m. PT to begin the eight-team, double-elimination tournament. The format in Omaha features two four-team brackets, with the two bracket winners meeting for the championship in a three-game series on June 25-27.
Stanford is in Bracket 2 with three SEC schools: Ole Miss (37-22), Auburn (41-20) and Arkansas, which the Cardinal beat 5-0 in February on its way to the Round Rock Classic tournament title in Texas. The other four-team bracket features Texas (47-20), which is making its record 38th CWS appearance, as well as Oklahoma (42-22), Texas A&M (42-18) and Notre Dame (40-15). Those four teams begin play Friday.
The Longhorns share co-favorite honors with Stanford – both teams are listed at +400.
Right-hander Alex Williams (8-3, 2.88 ERA) from San Lorenzo’s Redwood Christian High will start Saturday for Stanford. While Williams and left-hander Quinn Mathews (9-1, 2.62 ERA) have led a strong pitching corps, the real difference-maker has been the offense, especially lately as it’s averaged 9.0 runs per game with a stunning .374 team batting average in eight postseason games.
Those gaudy numbers make a lot of sense when considering the hitters Stanford sends to the plate.
Team leader and center fielder Brock Jones (20 home runs and a 1.120 OPS) is a projected first-round pick in MLB’s draft later this month. Both third baseman Drew Bowser (18 homers, .941 OPS) and freshman right fielder Braden Montgomery (18 homers, .970 OPS) are projected Top 10 picks in the next two MLB drafts, respectively. Montgomery, a freshman from Madison, Miss., is also a pitching prospect whose fastball reaches the upper 90s.
Then there’s junior catcher Kody Huff (13 homers, 1.005 OPS), whose grand slam in a six-run fourth-inning rally gave Stanford the lead for good in a CWS-clinching win over UConn Monday.
Not to be forgotten are the talented trio of Bay Area sophomores: Park (.318), designated hitter Tommy Troy (Los Gatos High, .347, .960 OPS) and shortstop Adam Crampton (Oakland Tech. .306).
Park, Troy and Crampton have contributed key hits during the postseason push while hitting next to one another in the lineup, which is quite appropriate for three guys who’ve spent nearly half their lives playing together in the Bay Area.
“I just think it’s really cool to still be playing with Adam and Tommy,” said Park. “I grew up playing with and against those guys since I was 12.
“Back then, we would have never expected that the three little guys running around doing what they love would someday wind up at Stanford playing together in Omaha. It’s amazing and just so cool.”