Fall Report: StanfordFall Report
It could be argued, but there might not have been a more surprising team to make the College World Series in the recent past than the Stanford Cardinal.
Consider this team had a very forgettable 5-11 record in the shortened 2020 season. Then, they did not have a true fall session where they could practice as a team. Then they had their opening weekend for 2021 against Cal State Fullerton canceled. On top of that they had two other weekend series canceled due to Covid.
It was certainly a bounce-back year for the Stanford Cardinal in 2021, including a return to Omaha for the first time since 2008. To be honest, I thought the Cardinal and Notre Dame were two teams who got a No. 1 seed but deserved a top eight national seed. Still, it was a magical year on The Farm. The only questionable coaching move all season was when coach Esquer decided to dress his team in all black uniforms on a 108 degree day in Lubbock for the Super Regionals. Other than that, they pressed all the right buttons.
As they always do, the Cardinal have a few draftees and seniors that they will have to replace, led by staff ace Brendan Beck, closer Zach Grech, first basemen Nick Brueser, second baseman Tim Tawa and right fielder Christian Robinson. But those are certainly holes that can and will be filled.
As mentioned, last fall the Cardinal players didn’t have a set fall session, so were left on their own to work out, do drills and train for the 2021 season. But the Stanford coaches didn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing, even going so far as including those individual workouts again this fall. Of course, they still did have the usual drills, training and scrimmages, including two of those 14-inning games vs. San Jose State and at Cal Poly.
“We found out last year when we couldn’t have a true fall ball, we just turned the guys loose on their own to train and workout and hit the cages,” head coach Dave Esquer said. “And that worked out so well, this year we tried to balance that independence with practice and drill work. Last year we really found out a lot about our guys and their work ethic and the kind of players they are. They really picked up on our culture of hard work, so we decided to have a little bit of a hybrid type of fall.
“We have such great leaders who really respect the program and set the tone for others to follow,” Equer said. “That’s why we don’t worry too much about the players we lose because we know those guys set the example for the younger guys to follow, so that when it is their turn to step up they’ve been prepared to do that.”
Coach explained how the “passing of the torch” is an important part of their baseball program. “They know whether it is on the practice field or in the classroom, you’re only going to get better through hard work,” Esquer said. “They learn quickly here that there are no short cuts or easy way to do things, athletically or academically.”
Hey, this IS Stanford after all. The players here naturally have higher standards to live up to.
As noted above, the attrition wasn’t too great for this year, as six of the nine regulars in the batting order come back – including one you might have heard of named Brock Jones – and two weekend starters and four good bullpenners are back as well. And the coaching staff also brought in a really underrated recruiting class.
Here is how coach Esquer broke things down from their first real fall session since 2019.
Brendan Beck was probably the best Friday guy in the Pac 12 and Zach Grech was one of the top closers in the nation after notching 13 saves last season. They were both huge keys to the Cardinal making their way to Omaha and both have hit the bricks. But nearly every other arm of note is back on campus, including Quinn Mathews (5-2, 6.08) and Alex Williams (5-2, 3.42), who made 25 starts between them including each getting a start in Omaha. As a junior and a senior respectively the coaching staff loved their effort this fall in being leaders and look forward to having a pair of experienced guys like they are to lead the mound corps.
If you don’t recall, Williams threw a complete game two-hitter with 10 strikeouts at Texas Tech to get the win that catapulted the Cardinal to Omaha. Once in the Promised Land, Mathews got the start against Vanderbilt and had the Trees staked to a 5-4 lead when he left in the sixth inning
One of the biggest jumps taken since last June was made by lefthanded sophomore Drew Dowd, who made six starts and 19 appearances total last spring. His numbers weren’t great, going 2-1, 6.69 and allowing opposing batters to hit .329 off him, but the staff likes what they saw of him in this fall session, saying he could be a breakout star for 2021. Joining Dowd as a possible third starter is Joey Dixon, a fellow sophomore who went 2-1, 3.28 in 23 appearances in his first season on The Farm. Dixon had a good fall after making four starts and also toe’d the rubber as a reliever in Omaha.
Another sophomore who made a ton of appearances as a frosh in 2021 is Tommy O’Rourke, who went 1-0, 4.07 and held opposing batters to an awful .188 average. With runners in scoring position last year O’Rourke held opposing batters to an 0-for-15 skid, so he really stood out when the pressure was on.
A big lefty who started to really show strides this fall is another sophomore in Ryan Bruno. He only pitched four innings last spring, but with a 96-97 howitzer from the left side, the coaches are giddy to see him make a move toward more playing time this season. “He’s got potential coming out of his ears. Consistency and managing the game are his sticking points. It’s not a problem of talent with Ryan. All the guys on the team are rooting for him because they know he’s got the stuff to make us better.”
Coach Esquer also named a “group of five” that he thinks will have good chance to make major contributions after this fall. Those being RHPs Justin Moore, Nate Fleischli, Max Meier, Brandt Pancer and Cody Jensen. Of that group, Pancer and Jensen are the most experienced with Pancer making 25 appearances and three starts last year, going 5-2, 3.83, while Jensen has 27 career appearances (1-1, 4.74) but sat out last year due to injury.
Fleischil didn’t pitch a lot last year (just 3.2 innings) but in the shortened 2020 season he actually made two starts and eight appearances, posting a 1.29 ERA in 14.0 innings. The same could be said for Meier, who went 1-2, 3.07 with a .218OBA in six appearances in the short 2020 season. So the potential is there.
A good number of freshmen will figure prominently in the mound plans as well and we’ll get to those below.
The best thing about the losses that coach Esquer and his staff have in the fielders – at first base, second base and right field – is that they will be replaced by guys who have been in the program for a long while.
“We’re really lucky because we have a great recruiting class but those guys won’t need to be fed to the wolves right away,” Esquer said. “Our freshman class two years ago, we had to start seven of them. But this year we won’t have to because of all the experience coming back.”
On the right side of the diamond, replacing Nick Brueser and Tim Tawa at first and second was a priority for the staff this fall. A lot can change between now and February 18th but the staff feels that Carter Graham has a little bit of an edge on the rest at first. Granted, Graham is a little bit green, having played in just eight games last season. But coach Esquer noted he had taken a good jump in the offseason, including a solid campaign playing in the Northwoods League last summer. Brett Barrera (.215 in 65 at-bats) and Henry Gargus (.244 in 45 at-bats) will be in the first base/DH mix as well and they both have a little more experience, since this will be their third season in Palo Alto and the two started 15 and 12 games respectively each last year.
Interestingly, there was also a little experimentation with moving freshman All American Drew Bowser from third base to first base this fall. Well, just for a wee-bit that is. Don’t expect him to be a fixture at first unless the injury bug hits or something. Just know that Bowser is more than capable of making a move across the diamond like that, given his wild versatility.
The second base position that T.T. left could end up being manned by T.T. as well. Okay, I’m trying too hard to be coy here, sorry. What I mean is that Tim Tawa’s position in the dirt could go to Tommy Troy, who started 39 games last season, most of those being at designated hitter. Troy had an outstanding end to his freshman year last spring. He only hit .247 for the season, but when it came to the Regionals, Super Regionals and Omaha, Troy hit four home runs, scored seven times and drove in 11 during post-season play, finishing with a .667 slugging percentage for the month of June. That’s freakin’ clutch. He’ll be a player to watch this season, no doubt.
Owen Cobb only had 20 at-bats a year ago (going 2-for-20), but he has been lauded for his improvement this fall as he looks to be the backup to Troy at second base. To be fair, Cobb battled through some injuries last year and is a former San Diego Padre draftee out of high school (37th round), so even though he hasn’t shown it yet there is plenty of upside to him. Coach Esquer hinted that if Cobb doesn’t get the start at second base, he could also be a viable candidate for the outfield.
The left side of the field is set with Adam Crampton (.287) and Drew Bowser (.302-7-41) at short and third respectively, both of whom committed just nine errors all last season. These are two really solid gloves and athletically gifted players. As mentioned above, there is some thought to experimenting with Bowser at first base. That is more an homage to his versatility and athletic ability than a desperate move. Coach Esquer lauded Crampton’s newfound leadership role in the fall, which is part of the Stanford tradition of handing down the leadership roles. As coach said, “He’s our no-drama guy in the infield. He’s like an episode of the Brady Bunch, you know everything is going to work out okay in the end. He’s not a Friday the 13th blood-and-gore type where you don’t know what’s coming around the next corner.”
One player to also keep in mind for a myriad of infield positions is Austin Kretzschmar, who has only started 16 games in his three years on The Farm but is a definitive senior leader for this team. Coach Esquer says that he could play any of the four infield positions and has a career batting average of .333. “He has just given us steady play whenever we have called on him,” coach Esquer said. “He’s just that rock on the infield who is good enough to always be in the conversation and he is always reliable whenever we put him in there. He was actually our leading hitter (.295 in 44 at-bats) in that Covid-shortened 2020 season.”
Out in the meadow, there are plenty of options after losing just Christian Robinson, who led the Trees with a .318 average to go along with eight homers and 48 RBIs. The biggest headline is that Brock Jones returns to his centerfield post after leading the Cardinal in home runs (18, good for 16th in the nation), RBI (62) and stolen bases (14). He also played this past summer with Team USA, finishing in the top three in multiple offensive statistical categories. To put it bluntly Jones is simply a bad-arse. He’s a heavily-tattoo’d power-packed 6-foot, 205-pound firecracker who will have another big time season for the Cardinal. Coach Esquer said there was no doubt that Brock stepped up his leadership role this fall and is both a vocal leader and a lead-by-example type.
Sophomore Eddie Park was a real find last season at left field. He started the season deep on the outfield depth chart but kept working hard and impressing the coaches in intersquad play that by the end of the season, he was spot on, making starts in every postseason game and batting in the leadoff position. He hit just .270 but was essential in offering a deft outfield glove and also doing the small things at the plate like getting full-count walks and laying down a key sac bunt.
As mentioned, Owen Cobb could be in the platooning plans for second base and also the outfield.
Kody Huff will return to the backstop position after making 54 starts last spring. He only hit .263 with five home runs on the season but if you recall he also blasted a pair of grand slams in one game against UC Irvine in the Regionals. So, he has sneaky power that the coaches hope he capitalizes on this season. Although Huff is good to go, the backups are intriguing as well.
Vincent Martinez has some experience behind the dish, making a few starts there, along with the DH spot. He is actually the top returning hitter as far as average goes, clipping along at a .312 pace last spring, which included seven home runs. The coaching staff feel comfortable with him donning the catcher’s gear as well. Either way, he’ll get his at bats this coming season and play a huge role.
A few years ago I was at the Area Code Games down in Long Beach and I ran into coach Esquer when he was the maestro of the Cal Bears baseball program. He told me, “Getting guys from the Area Code Games to commit is great but the guys you really want to go after are the guys who try out for the Area Code Games and don’t make it. Because most of these guys (at the ACG) will never show up on campus, they’ll go pro out of high school. But the guys that don’t make it to the Area Code Games, those are the good players that WILL come to campus.”
Well maybe things have changed a little since he has the cache that comes with now being the head coach at Stanford, because seven of his incoming nine freshmen are Area Code Game alums, which says a lot about them since the ACG is an invitation only high school all-star showcase. Scouts decide who gets to come to Long Beach and play for a week and who misses the cut. (It also makes me wonder why their class isn’t ranked higher in those recruiting rankings, but I digress).
Coach Esquer was quick to note that assistant coaches Thomas Eager and Tommy Nicholson were studs on the recruiting trail and helping to bring in what they think is a stellar class. And as mentioned above, the Trees won’t need to lean heavily on this freshman class, though they will be up to the task if necessary.
“Hey, if someone forces their way into the starting lineup from this group, then we know we’ve got someone really special,” Esquer said. “We love our freshman class but we have the luxury of not having to have them pressed into service.”
The biggest bellcow for the incoming class is Braden Montgomery, a two-way talent who was rated as the fifth-best incoming freshman in the country. Coach Esquer says that he is certainly a possibility as a mound starter on the weekends… he’s that good. But they also like what he brings to the plate offensively as well, with an eye on possibly taking one of the outfield positions. Oh by the way, he also can run his fastball up to 94-95 already. “He’s a talent,” Esquer says flatly.
A big-bodied right-handed freshman who could also make a push for Sunday or midweek starting duty is Ty Uber. Esquer says he pitched better against opposing teams in their scrimmages than he did at any time in intrasquad play this fall. “Not that he did that bad when we had inter-squad games it’s just that when we played somebody who was in a different jersey, he went to a different level on the mound, which is exciting to see.”
Jake Sapien is another possible two-way player, who spent some time this fall at first base and even hit a couple of home runs in inter-squad play. But coach Esquer says his value will be on the mound and his development as a pitcher. They see Sapien as a big-armed righty for the years ahead. “For now, he will continue to develop and also help us lengthen our pitching staff.”
Catching prospect Charlie Saum is “beyond his years as a receiver and getting better with the bat.” The coaches think he is a certain star of the future and will spend this year as an apprentice, of sorts, under Kody Huff. “He will be the incumbent, for sure. He has all the tools” Esquer says of Saum.
Two infielders who will really shine in the years ahead are Trevor Haskins and Temo Becerra, who “are going to be really good players when their time comes.” The same could be said for Saborn Campbell, who didn’t get to do much this fall due to injury, but has shown that he will be a quality outfielder in the future. Another good infielder to watch is Brett Blair, a power-packed 5’10, 210-pounder who can play the hot corner.
Finally, in true “last-but-not-least” fashion, the Cardinal got the rare transfer to campus this fall (I mean, it doesn’t happen often due to Stanford’s ridiculous academic standards. They can’t exactly get junior college transfers to make the grades to enroll). Joe Lomuscio is a candidate for some play in the outfield after coming to Palo Alto from Brown University, where he was first team All Ivy League and was the team captain for 2021 before the season got canceled due to the pandemic. Lomuscio hit a robust .339 in 2019 for the Bears.
“We jokingly call him the Boston Brawler,” Esquer said. “Joe is a tough kid out of Boston and he just has a real energy and toughness about him. The guys love him and he has fit in unbelievably well. He’s an older player who has a chance to play in the outfield. He reminds me of a Hunter Pence, kind of a fiery and funky guy.”