OMAHA, Neb. — Beware the mustaches.
This was a different Stanford Cardinal bunch Monday, not the unsteady victims of that ugly 10-4 three-error loss to North Carolina State two days before when the College World Series began and bad news immediately fell upon their heads. Know what Stanford looked like Monday? Coach David Esquer can answer: “A team that didn't want to end their season, didn't want to go home and that wants to get some momentum and keep playing.”
This was a clinic on how to take the anxiety out of an elimination game. Just turn the lineup loose early. By the end of its fourth inning, Stanford had 13 hits and a 10-0 lead over Arizona. The Cardinal finished a 14-5 rout with 20 hits, three each by five of the top seven in the batting order. That hadn’t happened in Omaha in 33 years. There had never been a team get 20 hits in a game since the College World Series moved to TD Ameritrade Park in 2011.
North Carolina State seemed eons ago. That one ended with the Stanford players gathered for a lengthy post-defeat talk, trying to mull over what went wrong. This one ended with them posing for pictures from the stands. Omaha can take some getting used to, and there are sometimes a couple of light years between a team’s first game and its second. The Cardinal will now do as an example.
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“I think we just came out ready to roll. Game 1, we were just a little happy to be here,” said pitcher Alex Williams, who started Monday and provided 5.1 solid innings against Arizona’s vaunted bats. “I think we were still just getting our feet wet a little bit, a little star struck. I think just playing in this atmosphere is a lot different than we're used to — back at Stanford we have 500 fans a game. If that.
“We took it upon ourselves today to get back to what we were doing, hit the ball. It's what we've been doing all year.”
Esquer had talked to his players about that very topic. Get back to their comfort level, don’t worry about failure. Lots of coaches have had to make that speech in Omaha. “It's real subtle,” Esquer said. “I didn't think we played like ourselves necessarily on Saturday, but it wasn't because they weren't trying. I thought they were trying hard. It was just getting comfortable. Sometimes you get in this atmosphere and although the game is the same and the bases are 90 feet and the mound is 60 feet, 6 inches, the atmosphere can change it a little bit. And maybe you try a little hard or you make it a little bit bigger than it really is.”
He brought out the 2-by-4 homily. It’s pretty easy to walk across the floor on a 2-by-4. Put it 20 feet in the air, and things are different, even though it’s the same task. Omaha can feel like about 50 feet up.
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“We've just got to go for it and we'll take our chances. We've been doing that all year,” he said. “It's just a matter of trusting that there's going to be no bad consequence if they risk courageously. And that's all I hope for, that they play free and courageous, and we'll take the results.”
So, who are these guys who took a CWS that had been featuring strikeouts by the bushel and turned it into batting practice? Lots of unique backstories in that lineup and nearly all of them showed up in Omaha with mustaches for unity. So there’s that. Consider all the Stanford players with three hits Monday.
Brock Jones. After a homer and double and five runs knocked in, he has 15 RBI for the NCAA tournament. He used to play safety for the Cardinal football team. Made six tackles as a freshman for special teams. Two-sport guys are hardly unusual in Palo Alto. John Elway was drafted in baseball’s second round, six spots ahead of future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, and the next year finished second in the Heisman voting. Ernie Nevers outgained the entire backfield of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame in the 1925 Rose Bowl, but also played basketball, baseball and track. You want a multi-sport family? Jones’ father was a rower for Washington, his mother a volleyball player for Fresno Pacific and his grandfather a footballer for Oregon.
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Drew Bowser. His mother Yvette is a writer and producer in Hollywood and was the first African-American woman to develop her own prime-time series, Living Single. His father is senior vice president of the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP. Bowser is a freshman, and because of COVID regulations, wasn’t even on Stanford’s campus until February.
Tim Tawa. He plays second base. Last year he was the shortstop, and the year before that third base. He’d play goalie if it would help the Cardinal win.
Kody Huff. In his media guide bio, he lists his career aspirations as an aeronautical engineer, front office executive or fishing guide.
Christian Robinson. He once won first prize in the Florida state science and engineering fair.
Watching their noise from the dugout Monday was Esquer. Once upon a time, he was a high school valedictorian and a walk-on baseball player at Stanford. He became a starting shortstop for the Cardinal 1987 national champions, back when Bowser’s mother Yvette was also a Stanford student. Now he’s the coach and has led this eclectic bunch to the College World Series, where the Cardinal have always felt they belonged. They were here 14 times in a 27-year period from 1982-2008, but hadn’t been back since.
And now, they seem at home.
“We struggled in Game 1 just because we were trying to get used to everything here,” Jones said. “Hitting is contagious, and we’re going to ride it.”
What next? Stanford must now piece together its pitching strategy, as teams coming through the loser’s bracket must often do. “I think we're just going to kitchen sink it on the next game, throw everything at them,” Esquer said. Just like the rebooted Cardinal did Monday — at the plate.