At Stanford they do everything by the book, so why should the College World Series be any different? Last week in Omaha, even as Cardinal players were knocking off final exams in their hotel, Stanford topped off 54 innings of textbook baseball with a 9-4 final-game victory over top-seeded Arizona State. The Cardinal thus became the first team to win back-to-back NCAA baseball titles since USC won five straight from 1970 through '74.
"We just kept doing the crucial little things that had to be done," said Stanford coach Mark Marquess, a stickler for details who will skipper the U.S. team at the Seoul Olympics. "Repeating was the furthest thing from my mind. This morning I just woke up, looked in the mirror and wondered, Can we have another miracle?"
And they got a miracle of sorts: The Cardinal, which wound up with a 46-23 record, the worst ever for an NCAA champion, had survived a rocky performance in the Northeast Regional and had entered the Series as the seventh seed, with a 5-14 regular-season mark against five of the other seven teams. Against its Pac-10 rival Arizona State, Stanford had lost five of six games and given up 61 runs.
Still, the Cardinal won seven games—four in the regional and three in Omaha—when a loss would have knocked the team from the tournament. With its back to the wall, the Cardinal responded. Stanford's pitchers, who rely on control rather than power, gave up only 13 walks in six Series games. Led by senior righthander Lee Plemel—whose complete-game victories over Fresno State and Cal State-Fullerton earned him MVP honors for the Series—the Cardinal staff had a 2.38 ERA in Omaha, the best in the field.
June 19, 1988
Though Stanford committed a disastrous six errors in a 5-3 loss to Fullerton on June 6, it made only five miscues in its five other Series games. It turned nine double plays, and its batters, while hitting a tepid .249, worked out 20 walks. Finally, in the cauldron of Rosenblatt Municipal Stadium, which was filled to near its 16,000-seat capacity for each of the Series' 15 games, the Cardinal displayed the calmest nerves.
"They don't make a lot of great plays, but they make the routine play over and over and over," said Arizona State coach Jim Brock. "The thing I feared most was that they had been in the final game last year with the same players, and they had won. They seemed to come out to the ballpark pretty sure it was dèjà vu."
Indeed, the finale on Saturday was over early. In the first inning, with junior lefty Rusty Kilgo on the mound, Stanford junior third baseman Ed Sprague hit a 2-and-0 changeup over the left centerfield fence to give his team a 2-0 lead. The Cardinal led 5-0 after one inning, 8-0 after three. "Ed's homer was huge," said Stanford freshman righthander Stan Spencer, whose seven solid innings belied his 10.80 career ERA against the Sun Devils. "It piled the weight on them, and took it off me."
After the game, Sprague, who hit three homers in the Series, handed out victory cigars. "I know these aren't Cuban, but it's the symbolism that matters," said Sprague, a first-round draft choice of the Toronto Blue Jays. One of Sprague's stogies might have been lit to celebrate the success of the Series' new format. To attract network TV coverage for the first time, the NCAA revised the eight-team double-elimination system it had used since 1950. It broke the field into two four-team double-elimination divisions, with a one-game final between the two survivors. With this format a team that suffered a loss could win the championship over one that entered the final undefeated.
And Wichita State very nearly reached the final without a loss. The Shockers were led by senior second baseman Mark Standiford, a 5'7", 165-pound mighty mite who ended the season with 28 homers and led the Series with a .563 batting average. After twice upsetting Oklahoma State, the nation's top-ranked team at the time, in the Midwest Regional, Wichita State gave Arizona State its first Series defeat, 7-4. Three days later, the Shockers were on the verge of eliminating the Sun Devils and advancing to the final. Leading 3-1 with two outs in the ninth, Dave Haas, a senior righthander for Wichita State, came within one strike of victory before giving up run-scoring singles to Ricky Candelari and Pat Listach. Arizona State went on to win 4-3 in the 10th. In a third meeting between the teams, last Friday, the Sun Devils routed the demoralized Shockers 19-1 to advance to the championship game.
On June 7, after having kicked away that game to Fullerton, Stanford played third-seeded Miami. With men on first and second, one out and the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth, Hurricane second baseman Jose Trujillo threw a double play ball into leftfield, allowing Doug Robbins to score the winning run from second. Two days later the Cardinal beat Fullerton 4-1 behind Plemel. On Friday night Stanford again defeated the Titans. This time the Cardinal pecked away at the most overpowering pitcher in the tournament, sophomore righthander Mark Beck, to prevail 9-5.
The Stanford players pronounced themselves loose for the final, even after they had watched Arizona State thrash Wichita State. Asked if there was bad blood between the Pac-10 rivals, Robbins said, "No, no, not at all. Well, not real bad blood."
If the Cardinal was a little short on talent, it was also short on sleep. Stanford returned to the field barely 12 hours after its Friday night game had finished. Furthermore, many Stanford players were still groggy from taking final exams and writing papers during the week. Nonetheless, the Cardinal went through batting practice on Saturday morning with its usual crackling precision. Sprague, in particular, shot line drives to all fields. "I'm a little nervous," he said. "But mostly I'm excited."
As members of college baseball's new dynasty, Stanford's players were ecstatic after the game. "If you had asked me at midseason if we had a chance to repeat, I probably would have said yes," said Robbins. "But I don't think I would have believed it."
Marquess was just as giddy. Rather than return to Palo Alto, where two of his seniors would graduate the next day, he was off to Millington, Tenn., to begin selecting the Olympic team. "It's just been crazy," he said. "I guess I won't know what to do with myself next year."
If he gets to Omaha again, he will.