Card Walk Away Without Title

This Stanford baseball team, particularly with its juniors and seniors, wanted to get back to a title game in the College World Series and right the wrongs left lingering from the 2001 shellacking. What they didn't want to happen was a repeat defeat of the same magnitude, which played out today in a 14-2 loss to Rice. Stanford pitchers walked 12 Owl batters and afterward walked away from Omaha again without a title.

The game is frankly too depressing to recap and rehash in all its gory detail.  But it was the pitching damage done in the first inning and then repeated offensive failures at the plate that defined this 14-2 loss.  Freshman All-America RHP Mark Romanczuk took the hill in his second College World Series start and third appearance, but he would load the bases and walk in a run before recording his first out.  Romanczuk walked five Rice batters in the first inning alone, and pushed all three Owl runs across the plate on free passes.  He would walk the first batter of the second inning on four pitches before being pulled by Stanford head coach Mark Marquess.

Fellow freshman Matt Manship came in on relief and faced third baseman Craig Stansberry.  The Rice batter would bunt down the third base line to Jonny Ash, who fielded the attempted sacrifice bunt but could not come up with the ball cleanly enough to make a throw to first.  A Manship walk later would load the bases with one out.  The next batter grounded the ball up the middle, which Tobin Swope fielded just left of the second base bag, but could only make a play at second.  Unable to turn the double play, a Rice run would score to make the game 4-0.  Manship would get out of the inning, and then settle down for a one-two-three inning in the third.  Trouble spots would come up in the 4th and 5th innings, but some good plays and good fortune would keep Rice from adding on any more runs.

The Owls would plate countless more runs in the later innings, but they were gratuitous and unnecessary with Stanford's inability to do any damage of their own on offense.  The Card went down harmlessly in their first seven at bats before junior Brian Hall dropped a ball just shy of the Rice right fielder, which he stretched on smart baserunning into a double.  But Tobin Swope would fly out to deep center and Sam Fuld would ground out to the first baseman to end the third inning.  Stanford would draw one walk each in the 4th and 5th innings but would go down quietly and not register another hit until the 7th inning.  By that time, the game was well out of hand.

That's because in the bottom of the 6th, Rice would stretch their 4-0 lead into an 11-0 woodshed job.  Rice loaded the bases with runners in their first three at bats, at which point Marquess went to his bullpen and called for junior Drew Ehrlich.  Ehrlich had not thrown since May 13 and came into a very tough spot with runner at all bases and no outs.  Enrique Cruz hit a chopper toward third base that just cleared the leaping glove of 5'9" Jonny Ash, who was playing shallow to hopefully make a play at the plate on a grounder.  That ball reached left field and brought two runs home.  Paul Janish was up next and hit a ball over Sam Fuld's head in center field, bringing home two more runs on a double.  The score stood at 8-0, but the damage would continue.  Ehrlich gave way to all six-feet and nine-inches of sophomore Mark Jecmen.  Like his junior counterpart, Jecmen hadn't seen any work in more than a month, and it was clear that Marquess was in desperate search for answers when he turned to the fastball pitcher with control issues.  Jecmen would get the first out of the inning on a fly out to deep left field, and should have had the second on the next at bat, but Jed Lowrie muffed a routine grounder to him at second.  A single, walk and double later, three more runs scored to stretch the lead to 11 daunting runs.  Jonny Dyer next came out of the bullpen to relieve Jecmen, and Dyer would get two outs on three pitches.

Stanford would score their first run in the top of the 7th inning, with Ryan Garko belting a double in the gap in left-center, followed by a Danny Putnam single and an infield grounder by Lowrie that let Garko score.  With Putnam in scoring position on second and two outs, though, Chris Carter ripped a bullet to first base that was stabbed by Vincent Sinisi for the third out.  The Card added one more in the 8th, also starting on a double.  Brian Hall led off the inning with a shot off the wall to straight-away center, and would come home on a Sam Fuld rope hit to center field for a single.  John Mayberry, Jr. pinch hit for Jonny Ash but struck out on a tough call on the outside corner of the plate, after fouling off four straight pitches.  Carlos Quentin grounded into a fielder's choice to end the inning, again giving Stanford a run but never igniting anything resembling a rally.

That 11-2 deficit would grow by three more runs in the bottom of the 8th as Tim Cunningham took the mound.  Wholesale changes in the infield moved Hall to third as Mayberry took second, and Chris Minaker came in for Tobin Swope at shortstop.  Minaker would attempt to barehand a chopper in the inning but threw it away past first and helped spur another Rice rally.  Stanford batted three straight catchers in a quiet top of the 9th; Garko, Donny Lucy and John Hester went down in order to end the game and Stanford's season.

It was Rice's first baseball national championship, and their first in any NCAA sport.  Our congratulations go out to the Owls, who had a tremendous season and did everything right today, regardless of Stanford's numerous failings.  They took advantage of all their opportunities, and starting pitcher Philip Humber was masterful in a complete game to keep the Card from ever having any opportunities of their own.

There are two ways you can look at this game, and upon which side you fall may speak to how you view most losses in Stanford sports.  You can look at three losses in the National Championship in five years, and five straight trips to Omaha without a title - "chokers" if you will on the biggest stage in college baseball.  Or you can look at the improbable and unmatched stretch of excellence that has put the Cardinal in a position everyone else in the country dreams to reach.  In each of these Title Game losses, Stanford has reached a plateau that only one other team in the NCAA has been able to boast.  And in this 2003 edition, Stanford made it to the deciding final game after fighting back through no less than four elimination games in Omaha.

In doing so, Stanford had to run through its pitching rotation and set itself up with a decidedly frightening disadvantage against Rice.  The Owls showed themselves as the better team over the span of these last three days, and remember that they were the #1 team in the country much of the year, including a jaw-dropping 30-game winning streak.  If you are a general Stanford fan who jumped on the baseball bandwagon these last few weeks, you might be shaking your head that the mighty Cardinal could drop to an athletic program that has never won an NCAA championship in any sport - but this was truly an excellent Rice baseball team.  As good Rice was, and as huge an advantage as they carried into this series with only three games of play versus Stanford's five, the Card managed something no baseball pundit thought possible - they went 14 combined innings against Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend without either picking up a win.

Objectively speaking, if you survive those two pitchers to reach a third game, and then have the opportunity to throw the National Freshman of the Year against Rice's third hurler... and you have a decided advantage in the hitting department against the Owl lineup, you'd think the Cardinal would be favored today.  There were bona fide reasons to believe that Stanford had escaped the lion's den and was at least a 50/50 proposition today - if not better.  But then again, what were the odds that Stanford would pick this day to deliver their worst pitching performance in months AND let their bats go silent through the entirety of the game?

As a reference point, the 14 runs scored on the Cardinal today were the most all season.  Southern Cal had put up 13 on Stanford way back in February, and no team had managed to score double digits against the Card in its last 28 games.  Equally unprecedented was the drought at the plate, where Stanford had not scored this few runs since the infamous 2-0 loss to Santa Clara back in April.  Remember that game?  It was that Tuesday loss on the heels of a home series loss to Arizona that marked the "bottom" of Stanford's season, including some heated words in the school paper from head coach Mark Marquess that spurred his boys on to the hottest run in college baseball - winning 21 of 22 and taking the Pac-10 by storm. 

By the way, Wade Townsend gets the Bootleg Punk Poor Winner Award™ for talking trash throughout today's win.  While the Rice Owls put together a completely dominant game today, shutting down Stanford's pitching and grabbing every opportunity they could on offense, the sophomore RHP was in no way a part of that equation.  No, Wade, all you did was toss up 8 fat runs in 6 innings yesterday and picked up the only loss for your team in the entire College World Series.  Reminds me of watching Josh Pastner jumping up and down for Arizona's basketball program when he was in uniform.  He was the 10th man deep on the bench but had the greatest vertical leap during time-outs of any waterboy you've ever seen, always yelling at the other team and opposing fans like he had just thrown down some freethrow dunk.  And just like that pathetic yip-dog for the Mildcats, Townsend showed all the spunk and punk today of a classless winner who didn't even earn the right to bring the smack.  He had less to do with today's Championship victory than the batboys, who incidentally displayed more maturity and poise in the throws of celebration.

Moving on to happier topics related to pitchers in the spotlight, Stanford's John Hudgins was tabbed with the well-deserved honor of Most Outstanding Player for the 2003 College World Series shortly after the conclusion of today's game.  Today's ignominious 14-2 loss will be a hard pill to swallow, and in some Booties' minds will color this trip to Omaha forever.  But I'll choose to remember this CWS for the incredibly inspired three games that Hudgins served up.  All he did was throw 350 pitches in 10 days, recording three gutsy wins.  He allowed just 17 hits over 24-plus innings, and of the five earned runs he allowed, two came on his 350th pitch.  In the majors it isn't so incredible to throw on three or four days rest, but for college pitchers who throw all year on six days rest, his performances were inspiring.  Hudgins was good this year - very good - but he entered folklore status with this postseason run.  The Cardinal junior was 5-0 and threw three complete games in the NCAAs, with a 2.57 postseason ERA against the top teams in the country.  He struck out 33 while walking just 10 over 42 innings.  In Omaha he carried a 1.88 ERA with heavy, heavy work.  Though Stanford failed to bring home the title, there is no question in reasonable minds that any other player in the College World Series was a more outstanding player than John Hudgins.

It is human nature, and certainly the God-given right (nay, mandate?) of every Cardinalmaniac to second-guess a loss like this.  Though frankly this is not a loss where you can point one finger at Marquess or for that matter at any single player.  This was truly a team loss, with failings on the mound, at the plate and in the field.  When you muster just one hit through the first six innings... when nine different Cardinal hitters come to the plate during the day and come away hitless... when you give up 12 walks, 14 hits and 14 runs... when you commit two errors and a handful more missed plays in the field... it's everybody's fault.

But there will remain perhaps one last shred of doubt in our collective Cardinal Conscious: what if senior Tim Cunningham had taken the mound earlier in this game?  The senior southpaw had 24 career wins under his belt, including three in the postseason.  But Marquess went through this entire 2003 postseason, save a meaningless 9th inning in this dreary game, without so much as a single pitch from Cunningham.  Romanczuk is clearly a talent to be reckoned with, and his 12-0 run through the regular season and first two rounds of the NCAAs were no fluke.  But he never really had his stuff in Omaha, as first displayed in Stanford's second game of the CWS against Fullerton.  Romanczuk gave up 10 hits and six runs (all earned) in 6 1/3 innings, but walked four and plunked two batters versus just a pair of strikeouts.  Then in the Thursday final game against Fullerton, he relieved Matt Manship immediately let a run come home on a wild pitch.  Romanczuk would also walk two batters and give up an RBI-single in just an inning and a third of work.  Mark Marquess is a man who sticks with the guns who got him to Omaha throughout the year, and that's hard to second-guess, but we will always wonder who painted the lamb's blood across Cunningham's forehead that allowed him to so long be passed over in this CWS that required a multitude of pitchers in eight games.  24 wins and 50 career starts for Stanford, but just one inning pitched out of 74 in Omaha.  Tough to figure out.

Cunningham should nonetheless be celebrated for his prolific and memorable Stanford career, as should those of all the other Stanford seniors and juniors who played their final game in cardinal and white today.  Seniors Ryan Garko and Tobin Swope carried the team's spirits in the dugout all year and led a surprisingly stellar defense on the field.  Garko finishes the year hitting .402 and becomes the first Cardinal since David McCarty (1991) to hit north of .400 for a season.  The senior catcher led this team in batting average, RBI (92), home runs (18) and slugging percentage (.699).  He played in all 69 games and started in 67.  Swope was one of just two Stanford players to start every game of the year, and did so at the most difficult fielding position on the diamond at shortstop.  Senior pitcher Ryan McCally made a pair of incredibly inspired postseason performances, going a miraculous 9 1/3 innings Saturday in what could have been a historic winning effort before the game unceremoniously ended on the infamous error and unjustly handed him a loss.  He also threw a knockout complete game win in the NCAA opener against Illinois-Chicago, striking out 10 and allowing just a single earned run.  McCally unselfishly bounced back and forth between starting and relieving roles this year, throwing the third most innings and appearing in 24 games.

Junior Carlos Quentin entered the game hitting .401 and in bitter defeat went 0-for-3, dropping his season average down to a still dominant .396.  Lost in the momentum tide that was Ryan Garko's season, Quentin recorded the second-best hitting season in more than a decade, and he did so with an injured shoulder and damaged elbow down the stretch.  His stats and abilities were severely impacted, and I have little doubt that a healthy Quentin could have lifted his individual and team achievements incredibly to an even higher plane.  His 105 hits were the best on the entire team, as was his .483 on-base percentage.  He came into this CWS with a two-year history of empty performances in Omaha, but put together a lot of memories at the plate and in the field, including a pair of home runs and the best catch of the entire Series.

Quentin was taken in the first round of the MLB draft by the Arizona Diamondback and is essentially a lock to sign; fellow junior John Hudgins was drafted in the 3rd round by the Texas Rangers and is a very strong bet to depart as well.  Both leave after "just" three years of play at Stanford but both leave with incredible gifts they have given to Cardinal fans the world over.

I won't try to completely set the plate for what Stanford will do in 2004, or who will likely play where.  I'd be a fool to step in and make those prognostications ahead of Joe Ritzo, the widely acknowledged "Foremost Authority on Cardinal Baseball."  But there is a lot of returning talent we can be sure will make the next run an incredible one for Stanford baseball, which will have Omaha well within its reach.  Junior position players Sam Fuld, Brian Hall and Jonny Ash are all likely to return, though Fuld will possibly have tempting money from the Chicago Cubs at the end of the summer to consider.  Ash just concluded one of the most stellar College World Series performances ever witnessed, and has even added a little power to his contact hitting.  Fuld should break all kinds of Stanford and Pac-10 career records next year, while Brian Hall will be set to dominate at any one of several positions on the field, as well as the plate.  If you are concerned about power at the plate, with Garko and Quentin both departing, fret no more.  Danny Putnam delivered the quietest big season you can imagine, belting 16 home runs and 66 RBI while batting .348.  He will immediately rise to the head of this Cardinal hit parade and receive every preseason All-American honor on the planet.  Donny Lucy patiently waited behind Garko at the catcher position this year and took his swings as a DH, but will fill those oversized shoes to the brim at the plate and behind it.  Chris Carter is the most powerful hitter of the entire roster, and will take the Pac-10 and country by storm if and when he can start hitting lefties.  And don't forget John Mayberry, Jr., who lit up opposing pitchers for the first half of the year before a slump took him out of the lineup.  He has incredible tools and potential that could leap him ahead of all his teammates in both power and production.  And before you bemoan the loss of pitching from which the Card cannot possibly recover, remind yourself how many years that has proven untrue before.  Hudgins wrote himself a lofty legend in the Stanford annals this year, but the cupboard is far from bare.  Romanczuk, Manship and Kodiak Quick all come back for big sophomore years, while rising juniors Jonny Dyer and Billy Paganetti could have breakout years.  Senior-to-be David O'Hagan burst onto the scene at the tail end of the year and could rise to new heights next year.  Don't forget darkhorse talents like Mark Jecmen and Jeff Gilmore, plus incoming freshman hurling stars Greg Reynolds, Logan Ardis and Jeff Stimpson.

          1 2 3  4 5 6  7 8 9  R  H  E
Stanford  0 0 0  0 0 0  1 1 0  2  5  2
Rice      3 1 0  0 0 7  0 3 X  14 14 0

WP:  Humber (11-3)
LP:  Romanczuk (12-2)

Time:  2:57

HR: Stanford - none; Rice - none

More notes:

  • In addition to Hudgins being named to the All-Tournament team, Ryan Garko, Jonny Ash, Carlos Quentin and Danny Putnam made the cut.  Of the 11 players named to the team, five were Cardinal.  Rice landed three, Fullerton two and Texas one.
  • Despite Stanford's frequent appearances in Omaha, Hudgins is the first Most Outstanding Player for the Cardinal since their National Championships in 1987 (Paul Carey) and 1988 (Lee Plemel).
  • Sam Fuld singled up the middle in the eight inning to bring home Stanford's second and final run, and in doing so broke the record for career hits in the College World Series with 24.  He had tied the record just yesterday, previously held by Keith Moreland of Texas for almost three decades.  Said Fuld of the new record in the midst of such a crushing defeat, "It's a bittersweet feeling, a lot more bitter than sweet."
  • Brian Hall batted eighth in the lineup all three games of the series, with Rice bringing righthanded starters each day.  But he was the only Cardinal today to record a multi-hit game (2-for-3), including a double and one run scored.
  • The 12-run margin of defeat is the worst in any CWS title game, just eclipsing the record of 11 runs tied by Stanford in the 2001 thumping by Miami (FL).
  • As the 9th inning began, about all Stanford fans could root for was for leadoff man Ryan Garko to belt a homerun and grab sole possession of the Stanford single-season RBI record.  It was unthinkable that with 91 RBI after the first game of the CWS that he could play seven more games and drive in just a single run to tie Rick Lundblade's record at 92.  But truth be told, that's the kind of series Garko had in Omaha.  His season average dropped 13 points over the last seven games.
  • Stanford won 51 games on the year, tying it for the third best season in school history.  The Card also totaled 51 wins in the 2001 season, and that year also ended with an emasculating title game defeat before the all-important 52nd win could be reached.
  • In a best-of-three series, it is tough to isolate one thing over another that "cost you," but over time it will be hard to shake the memory of that 10th inning error in Game One of the championship series Saturday night.  Kodiak Quick threw away a routine play to first base that handed Rice the win instead of a no-brainer of a third out.  Granted, we have no indication of who had the edge to claim the win as the game pushed into an 11th inning and perhaps further.  And of course if Stanford had won that game, Marquess was not going to start Hudgins on Sunday, which could have led to a different outcome in that game.  But the Cardinal hitters certainly had an answer for Townsend all day that day.  And in the bigger picture of that Saturday loss, the Card let slip an early 3-0 lead that still held at 3-1 heading into the bottom of the sixth.  What if?...  What if...

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