So what if the Sun Devils (58-12 coming in) won five of six and scored 61 runs in tilts between the two Pac-10 Southern Division foes that year? Big deal if winning pitcher Stan Spencer had compiled a 10.80 ERA against head coach Jim Brock's side in 1988. The Cardinal (45-23 entering the face-off) spent the entire postseason that year defying convention.
The Card won seven elimination games, four in the Regionals and another three in Omaha, leading up to the finale. Two of those College World Series efforts came against Cal-State Fullerton, against whom Stanford lost both regular season meetings. The Cardinal would tidy up its defense after committing six errors in a 5-3 victory for the Titans in the second series game for both clubs, putting the Cardinal again on the brink.
Backing up the steady pitching of Lee Plemel and the undaunted Spencer, a freshman, Stanford turned nine double plays in six CWS games. Aside from their blunder-filled effort against Fullerton, the defending champs made only five errors in their five other games in Omaha.
The lineup made up for a pedestrian .249 CWS batting average with patience (20 walks) and timely hitting. Third baseman Ed Sprague, selected as Toronto's top draft choice that year, clubbed three homers in the series. He passed out victory cigars after the clincher, in which his two-run blast off Sun Devils starter Rusty Kilgo in the first inning set the tone.
The rout was on. Stanford scored five times in the first inning and held an 8-0 edge after the third.
"I know these aren't Cuban, but it's the symbolism that matters," he was quoted in Sports Illustrated.
CBS broadcast from Rosenblatt Stadium for the first time, Greg Gumbel at the mike for the final, with tournament officials having fine-tuned the format. The tournament was split into two four-team brackets, the winners squaring off in a winner-take-all finale. In previous CWS editions, a team with one loss had to beat an unbeaten fellow finalist twice to claim a national championship.
The Cardinal upended Fresno State in the opener. Jeff Kent and Cal were placed in the other bracket but were bounced early. Hard to believe, but the CWS had yet to see a Southeastern Conference team claim a championship (that came two years later with Georgia). Not since USC's dynastic run of five titles from 1970 through 1974 had the tournament seen a back-to-back winner. Never had two Pac-10 teams been the final two survivors.
Both the Sun Devils and the Cardinal played Houdini en route to the championship. Unbeaten Witchita State – having won its first three games – stood one strike away from bouncing one-loss Arizona State back to Tempe and reaching the title game, leading 3-1 with two outs in the ninth inning.
But then disaster struck the Shockers. Future American League Rookie of the Year Pat Listach had a key RBI for ASU, which scored twice in the ninth and again in the tenth to steal the victory. The shellshocked Kansans were on the business end of a 19-1 rematch the following night.
For the Cardinal, the comeback effort also involved an opposition's heartbreaking scenario. Miami and Stanford played a tense elimination game, the score tied 1-1 in the home half of the ninth. A throwing error by the Hurricanes' second baseman on a potential double-play ball sent catcher Doug Robbins home from second with the winning run.
Plemel shackled Fullerton two nights later, recording the win for his third complete game of the postseason. He received only four hits of support, but three unearned runs sunk star catcher Brent Mayne's side. Final score: Stanford 4, Titans 1. The rubber match proved to offer a bit more aluminum, and again Stanford's ignorance of the odds proved to be decisive.
Fullerton scored a run in each of the first two innings. On the mound was the fireballing Mark Beck, who fanned 13 Stanford foes four days earlier. Stanford responded, but starter Mike Mussina gave the lead right back and was yanked early. RBI's from Frank Carey and Troy Paulsen put the Cardinal up for good, 5-3. Robbins' three-run homer in the eighth off Beck, against whom he had struck out four times in the series, was the big blow.
Stanford dusted off Arizona State to end a most improbable run. The Cardinal went just 5-14 against College World Series teams in the regular season. The final outcome, as Brock admitted, became a case of "deja vu" for the defending champs.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!