For the third straight season, No. 4 Stanford (12-3) won three straight against No. 12 Texas (12-6) after dropping the first game.
“We’ve played regional-quality teams all season long, and this was our biggest test as we head into Pac-12 play,” Stanford head coach David Esquer said.
The mandatory Game 1 loss
In the opener, Texas broke through with four runs in the ninth inning to spoil an impressive start from sophomore RHP Brendan Beck (0-2, 2.33 ERA). In a career-high 8.0+ innings, Beck allowed one earned run, seven hits, five strikeouts and one walk. The number of innings and 104 total pitches were the most for a Cardinal pitcher since 2017.
“These are the kind of pitching performances we will need to beat quality teams,” Esquer said. “We definitely struggled at the plate.”
In four starts, Beck has failed to record a win despite striking out 28 batters in 27.0 innings and allowing just four extra-base hits.
“His record is not indicative of how he’s pitched,” Esquer said. “He’s given us a chance to win every single time.”
Stanford stranded 10 runners in the game, whereas Texas stranded just four.
“It’s not the pitcher’s job to win the game,” Esquer said. “It’s their job to give the offense a chance to win the game, and he did his part.”
Texas freshman RHP Ty Madden (2-0, 0.57 ERA) dealt a gem in the second start of career. In 7.0 scoreless innings of work, he allowed just five hits and three walks while striking out seven Cardinal.
“He was beating up our bat,” Esquer said. “He was getting onto the label and the handle pretty consistently against all of our hitters.”
Beck faced the minimum through two, but Stanford was only able to manage two baserunners on a hit and walk.
Texas led off the third with a single up middle, but Stanford doubled up the runner on a fly out to right. The Cardinal threatened in the bottom half, but with two outs and two runners in scoring position, Junior DH Will Matthiesen popped out to first.
In the fifth, Handley erased a single, throwing out just the second runner to attempt to steal a base on his watch. In the bottom of the frame, however, he was unable to come through with a bunt.
“He’s got a presence behind him and he receives the ball well,” Esquer said of his catcher. “His block and recover is the best I’ve ever coached.”
Stanford had runners on first and second after poor defense by the Longhorns, but Handley struck out on a failed bunt attempt. After a sophomore infielder Tim Tawa pop out and Matthiesen ground out, the Cardinal had nothing to show for their opportunity.
“They got the bunt down and we didn’t,” Esquer said.
RHP Tristan Stevens (1-1, 5.79) replaced Madden on the bump in the bottom of the eighth, but after recording two quick outs, gave up consecutive walks to senior outfielder Brandon Wulff and junior infielder Andrew Daschbach. RHP Kamron Fields (1-0, 1.93) entered and struck out Christian Robinson to escape any damage.
After eight scoreless innings, Texas broke through in the ninth. Beck allowed the first two batters he faced to reach base, and junior RHP Zach Grech (2-0, 2.84) was called in for relief. Beck has now thrown at least 6.0 innings in all four of his starts this season.
Texas’ Austin Todd was able to get the bunt down for the Longhorns as the first batter faced by Grech.
Although a walk to Zach Zubia was intentional to load the bases, a free pass to Reynolds to bring in the first run of the game was not. Shaw lined one into right to bring in two more, reaching second on the throw to third and chasing Grech. Freshman RHP Cody Jensen (1-0, 0.00) struck out the first batter he faced, but the ball skipped away to allow the fourth and final run to cross the plate.
Stanford sent out three pinch hitters in the bottom of the ninth in a last attempt to jumpstart the offense. A one-out automatic double off the bat of sophomore infielder Nick Brueser was the first Cardinal extra-base hit of the game, and briefly gave the team life. However, redshirt junior outfielder Nick Oar struck out looking and Handley flew out to right to end the game.
“If we’re going to be where we want to be, this is the game we can flip by just performing better,” Esquer said.
In the remaining games, Stanford capitalized on Texas’ mistakes and minimized its own, and was rewarded with three victories.
“This game was going to come down to who would crack first,” Esquer said. On Thursday, Stanford cracked.
After a strong showing in Fullerton, Bellafronto got the start at third base. However, after an 0-3 performance on Thursday night, he did not appear again in the series until coming in as a defensive substitute for Tawa in the sixth inning of Game 4.
“It’s still a work in progress on what the alignment is going to be,” Esquer said.
Offense comes alive Friday night
Despite getting shut out across nine frames Thursday, Stanford provided plenty of run support for sophomore LHP Jacob Palisch (2-0, 2.95) in an 8-1 Friday victory.
“I thought our guys came out with great focus tonight,” Esquer said. “They had to answer after getting punched in the mouth yesterday, and tonight was a great show of character from them.”
The Stanford offense got going right away with Handley batting leadoff. The catcher put himself in scoring position with a leadoff single and his fourth stolen base of the year, and Wulff’s two-out double to right field scored the first run of the series for the Cardinal.
“After last night, getting blanked, we came in as a group with a much better approach,” Handley said.
Tawa led off the next inning with his first home run of the season, a wall-scraper to left field. The sophomore has struggled so far this season, and is now batting just 0.183 after recording two hits across the four-game series.
The Cardinal were not done scoring, as Robinson and senior infielder Duke Kinamon each hit infield singles, and Handley knocked in a run with a ground out.
“Big ground ball to second base,” Esquer said. “Those are the little things that have to happen to beat quality teams.”
Stanford made some phenomenal defensive plays, including a play in the 5-6 hole by Tawa, to support Palisch face the minimum through three innings. On the other hand, Texas struggled.
Daschbach reached first on a dropped third strike and made it to second on a dropped tag by the Texas shortstop. The Longhorns centerfielder was turned around on a fly ball hit by Robinson, and it dropped in for a double. After 2.2 innings with five runs, three of which were earned, the night was done for RHP Bryce Elder (2-1, 1.54 ERA).
RHP Nico O’Donnell (0-0, 7.50) replaced Elder, walking freshman infielder Brandon Dieter and throwing a wild pitch to plate Robinson. A Handley singled up the middle scored the final two runs of the inning, which only ended after he was caught stealing for the first time this season. After three, it was 7-0 in favor of the Cardinal.
Three straight one-out singles by the Longhorns offered Palisch the first trouble. Eric Kennedy went up the middle, Todd went to left, and Zubia found a hole in the left side for the first run. Palisch, however, was able to strand two with a fly ball to the leftfield warning track.
“The big key was after the big layoff,” Esquer said. “He didn’t come back out as sharp and he kind of gutted through a few more innings for us.”
Palisch exited after 6.0 innings with a career-high 98 pitches and one earned run on four hits, a walk and six strikeouts. His catcher thought he looked good.
“He did a great job of commanding the fastball in and out,” Handley said.
After the third inning, Stanford went down in order in three of four frames until plating another run in the eighth.
“We scored those runs super easy, and then it was back to what we’ve been fighting, which is getting a little selfish at the plate and trying to do too much,” Handley said.
In the bottom of the eighth Duke Kinamon singled, stole second, advanced to third on a passed ball and scored on a wild pitch.
“Duke brings something to the game that you just don’t have,” Esquer said. “He’s a great base runner, he’s got great speed, great instincts and he likes running the bases. That’s a dynamic that doesn’t slump.”
Palisch was replaced first by sophomore LHP Austin Weiermiller (1-0, 1.00), who faced the minimum across two innings. Weiermiller struck out the side in the seventh and got some help from his defense to record a double play on a line drive in the eighth. Sophomore RHP Carson Rudd (0-0, 0.00) came on for the ninth and sat Texas down in order.
“Our pitching staff has given us great chances to win so far in this series,” Esquer said following the game. “Credit them and coach [Thomas] Eager for being so well-prepared to face a very strong lineup.”
“Yesterday, we played really tight, and that’s just not our style,” Handley said. “It’s about staying relaxed [and] loose, and believing in how good we are”
Bullpen shuts the gate on Longhorns
The Stanford offense did just enough as the bullpen carried the Cardinal through 6.1 innings for a 4-2 Game 3 victory.
The Longhorns struck right away as Ellis singled and advanced on consecutive a ground out and a fly out. With two outs, Zubia singled up the middle for just the third earned run allowed by freshman RHP Alex Williams (1-0, 2.19).
Handley led off the game with a single down the left field line, but after three straight outs in the air, he was stranded.
In the top of the third, Williams allowed an Ellis single before inducing a groundout, but with a runner on second, he was removed in favor of Jensen, who left the inning unscathed.
“He’s a spot up pitcher,” Esquer said of Williams. “You’ve got to have courage to go in there and throw the pitch sequences he needs to be successful.”
The Cardinal stranded two more runners in the second before Handley once again led off with a double in the third. Junior outfielder Kyle Stowers reached on a throwing error by the pitcher, with Handley taking third base with no outs. However, Texas RHP Blair Henley (2-0, 4.79) responded with two three-pitch strikeouts to render a two-out Daschbach fly out useless.
“It was a struggle for us for a while, not cashing in on our opportunities for most of the game,” Esquer said. “Later in the game, we came through in similar situations so I credit our guys for making adjustments and getting the job done.”
Jensen sat the Longhorns down in order in the fourth and fifth to give time for the Cardinal offense to heat up. In the bottom of the fifth, Dieter got on board with a walk. After consecutive strikeouts, Matthiesen also walked to put two runners on with two outs. A Wulff single loaded the bases, and Stanford took advantage of an error by the Texas shortstop to score two runs and take the lead.
“You want to be that team where if someone gives you an inch you take it,” Esquer said.
Jensen came out again for the sixth, quickly reaching two outs with a foul out and a strikeout. Ryan Reynolds walked, and Esquer pulled the freshman by taking the DH of RHP Matthiesen.
Jensen’s 50 pitches, five strikeouts and 3.1 innings were all career highs. To do that against the 12th-ranked team in the country in just his fifth collegiate appearance is impressive.
“This was my first time pitching against a team of this caliber,” Jensen said. “No matter who I’m facing, I’m going to go out there with the same mentality, but it definitely builds confidence facing a great hitting team.”
Jensen only walked two as mostly relying on a fastball, 32 of his pitches went for strikes.
“My catchers have described his fastball as angry,” Esquer said.
The transition for Jensen from high school pitcher to the college level has been smooth, and fast.
“In high school, I was more ‘throw a fastball down the middle,’” Jensen described. “Over the fall and over the summer I had to learn to pound the bottom of the zone.”
With the fastball at the bottom of the zone, Jensen is able to take advantage of the impressive Cardinal infield that has committed only seven errors all season.
“Our defense is unbelievable,” Jensen said. “It doesn’t matter who’s playing infield or where, they’re going to go out there and give their best to get the job done.”
“If you’ve got all shortstops on your infield, that bodes well for you,” Esquer said, referencing Kinamon, Dieter and Tawa.
A single and a walk with Matthiesen pitching loaded the bases, but the Cardinal escaped when pinch-hitter Lance Ford grounded out to second.
Robinson reached on an error to lead off the bottom of the sixth, eventually reaching third with no outs after a steal and an error. The Cardinal were unable to capitalize, and the Longhorns were able to tie it up in the seventh.
Peter Geib led off with a walk for Texas, bringing up Ellis in a bunt situation. The bunt was in front of the plate, and Handley appeared to throw out the runner at second base, but the runner was called safe. The Stanford faithful were sure of an out, including Esquer, who protested with the ump.
“I thought he missed the call,” Esquer said following the game.
The next play, however, Geib was caught off the base and picked off. At this point, Esquer brought in junior RHP Jack Little (2-1, 2.61). Little walked his first batter faced then recorded his first out with a line out to right field. The inherited runner scored on a Zubia single, tying the game, but that was the final Longhorns run of the series.
Stanford answered with two runs in the bottom of the frame, and would hold on to the lead. Stowers walked, Matthiesen singled and Wulff walked to load the bases. Consecutive sacrifice flies from Daschbach and Tawa scored both Stowers and Matthiesen.
“Late in the game, those same at-bats, we came through,” Esquer said. “Those are at-bats we weren’t having earlier in the year”
The bullpen pitched 6.2 innings of one-run baseball, allowing just two singles, while striking out seven.
“The key was the bullpen,” Esquer said. “Cody Jensen was outstanding, Will Matthiessen gave us a strong showing and Jack Little looked the best he’s looked all year.”
Lightning strikes nine times
On a wet Sunday afternoon, Stanford defeated the Longhorns in a rain-shortened series finale 9-0.
The game was scoreless through the first four innings before the rain began to fall. Stanford starter junior LHP Erik Miller (2-0, 2.57) stranded runners on first and second in the first two innings with the Longhorns only hit of the game, a single, coming in the second. Across the two frames, Stanford singled twice, but a double play in the first and two strikeouts in the second erased the possibility of anything more.
Starting in the third, Miller retired the Longhorns in order for three consecutive innings.
“It was similar through the first two innings today,” Miller said. “After the second inning, Mav came out and talked to me and told me to relax a bit.”
“Best I’ve ever seen him,” Esquer said of Miller. “All of his pitches were working.”
Rudd relieved Miller in the top of the seventh, the final frame of the afternoon, and struck out two for a clean inning.
“Credit to our entire pitching staff for the job they did this week against one of the best lineups in the nation,” Esquer said.
Stanford inflicted almost all of its damage in a nearly hour-long fourth inning. Stowers and Mattiesen singled, advancing to second and third on a wild pitch. After Brandon Wulff walked, starter RHP Coy Cobb (0-2, 4.00) was replaced by Fields.
A wild pitch scored Stowers, and Daschbach reached on a fielder’s choice and an error by the third baseman scored both Matthiesen and Wulff. Daschbach reached third on another wild pitch, and when Tawa walked on another wild pitch, Daschbach came around to score. Stevens came in for Fields, but the damage was not over. Kinamon singled and stole second before Dieter walked. Kinamon took third with Dieter advancing, and Handley walked to load the bases.
“I was pleased with how patient our hitters were today and the way we stuck to the plan playing through some adversity with the weather,” Esquer said.
Donny Diaz (0-0, 0.00) came in, allowing a walk and a sacrifice fly to score two more runs. Two more walks brought an eight-run of the inning home.
In the fifth inning, Wilson’s second career home run made it 9-0.
During the rest of the game, there were rain delays and a lightning delay, and in the bottom of the sixth Texas head coach David Pierce was ejected. In the middle of the seventh, the game was called due to weather.
“We haven’t hit our stride offensively,” Esquer said. “The good news is we can be way better.”
Next, Stanford will take on Utah in the first series of Pac-12 play. Stanford won the conference last season, sweeping the Utes on the road. This year, the three-game series will take place in Sunken Diamond starting on March 22.
“It’s going to be bloody again in our league,” Esquer said. “There’s not a weekend off.”
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.