OMAHA, Neb. — Stanford ace Alex Williams gave a side-long look to his Coach David Esquer down the dais as if to say, “My bad, coach,” but he couldn’t erase the words he’d just said that went blazing straight to social media and the mental bulletin boards for the opposing Arkansas Razorbacks.
Asked what he thought of the University of Arkansas lineup he’ll face in Saturday’s 1 p.m. College World Series contest, Williams said, “I know they’re going to be a good team, a good offense. I look forward to facing them. I think it’s going to be a good game.
“I’d take our offense over theirs any day. I think we’ve got them. I respect them. They’re a good team. I look forward to playing them.”
Esquer didn’t physically wince at the “I think we’ve got them” line, but he did walk it back after his players cleared out of the interview room.
“I want to clarify what Alex said, that he hopes our offense is better than Arkansas,” Esquer said.
The stats back up Williams’ assertion. Stanford ranks 10th in the nation and second among College World Series teams with a .311 team batting average, while Arkansas ranks 166th with a .274 batting average. The Cardinal are ninth in the nation with 117 home runs, while Arkansas is tied for 17th with 100.
Stanford averages 7.7 runs per game to rank 40th, while Arkansas is 94th at 7.0 runs per game.
Arkansas starting pitcher Connor Noland didn’t outwardly take offense to Williams’ words.
“You can say whatever you want,” Noland said. “I think everybody should be confident in themselves. I’ve got the same confidence with my guys, the batters and our fielders. So I guess we’ll find out.”
Omaha times 3
Pitchers Kole Ramage and Zebulon Vermillion are the first Arkansas players to go to the College World Series three times. Ramage and Vermillion were on the teams that played in Omaha in 2018 and 2019.
“I think we’re very fortunate to be in our situation,” Ramage said. “We came to Arkansas to hopefully do that. You think about some kids go to school, and they never even get the chance of playing a regional or anything like that.
“I think we’re very fortunate to play at a school where we’re competing … for national championships every year. And so three trips to Omaha, I think was kind of what we thought we could do, and, you know, we’re doing that right now.”
Of the two, only Ramage has pitched in Omaha. He appeared in three games at the 2018 College World Series: Against Texas and twice against Oregon State.
Vermillion warmed up in the bullpen during a game in 2019.
“Kole and I are just really appreciative and grateful to be here for a third time,” Vermillion said. “I’ve just been put in a really good position throughout the years, with really good teams and good coaching staffs to get us here.
“It’s a different feeling every time, I’ve got to say, just because you just added another one to the list. So I mean, I still get butterflies just thinking about it and showing up here. It’s a great experience.”
The Razorbacks are in the bottom half of the College World Series bracket with SEC West mates Auburn and Ole Miss, in addition to Stanford, and another SEC West member in Texas A&M is in the top bracket, giving the division half the field in Omaha.
“Coming in last year out of high school, I knew the SEC was a special league, and it kind of proved itself the past two years — showing that there’s four teams in it this year and we’ve played them, obviously,” Arkansas third baseman Cayden Wallace said.
“The SEC is a very special league,” said graduate transfer catcher Michael Turner. “I’m glad I got to be a part of it for my last year. We got to experience some great competition all year, and I think it definitely prepared us for what we’re about to see here.”
Arkansas ace Connor Noland said four SEC West teams speaks volumes to the competition in the conference.
“The West is loaded,” he said. “Every week you have to bring it. Obviously we played a lot of these teams before. It really gets you ready to jump into this kind of tournament where you might face those teams again. I think we’re ready and have a good sneak peek of what we have to do.”
Arkansas went 4-2 versus Auburn and Ole Miss, 1-2 against Texas A&M and 0-1 against Saturday’s opponent, Stanford.
If Arkansas’ Kole Ramage, a senior reliever, makes it into another game, he will break Kevin Kopps’ school record for career appearances by an Arkansas pitcher. Ramage tied Kopps with his 92nd career appearance during a super regional game at North Carolina last weekend.
“Kevin’s one of my best friends,” Ramage said. “I played with him for three years, so I think it’s a fun little thing I can kind of stick to him and say I pitched a little bit more than you.
“I think it’s a cool thing to kind of be in the record book, but, you know, I’m more focused on just trying to win the games and stuff like that.”
Return to the scene
Stanford Coach David Esquer said his initial look at Charles Schwab Field before the team’s walk through on Wednesday gave him a feeling similar to post traumatic stress disorder.
Stanford led Vanderbilt 4-0 in the top of the fourth inning and 5-4 going into the bottom of the ninth inning last season before Vanderbilt rallied for a 6-5 walkoff win in a game that eliminated Stanford from the College World Series at Charles Schwab Field.
“Probably was a split second of PTSD when we walked back in, remembering last year, and then it was gone,” Esquer said.
Stanford center fielder Brock Jones said it’s “huge” that the team made it back to Omaha after that sudden loss.
“You come back into the park and you immediately, it’s the first thought that hits your brain is how you lost last year and how you ended up leaving that all behind,” Jones said. “So I think that’s definitely a big motivation. We have a lot of returning guys who were here last year.”
Dave and David
Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn and Stanford Coach David Esquer have crossed paths before in the NCAA postseason.
In 1985, Van Horn was a graduate assistant for the Razorbacks and Esquer was a shortstop for the Cardinal when Arkansas defeated Stanford 10-4 at the College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium. They were in the same role the next year when the Cardinal defeated the Razorbacks 2-0 at the NCAA regional in Stillwater, Okla.
In addition to their game earlier this year at the Round Rock Classic, Esquer and Van Horn also coached against each other during three seasons while Esquer was the head coach at California. The Razorbacks won a three-game series at Cal in 2009 and in Fayetteville in 2010.
In 2014, the Razorbacks agreed to return a trip to the Bay Area to play games against Cal, Tulane and San Francisco in the ballpark for the MLB’s San Francisco Giants. Esquer said the ballpark backed out, leaving Cal’s 2,500-seat Evans Diamond as the only place to host the games.
“I’ll never forget that Coach Van Horn did not waver once in his commitment to come out to the West Coast when some people would try to say, ‘Well listen, if we’re not going to play it [at the Giants’ stadium], let’s just come play at my place,’” Esquer said. “He said, ‘I told Dave Esquer I’m coming out to California. I’m going out to California.’”
The Golden Bears won both games in 2014 in front of crowds that were measured in the hundreds.
“We played at Baum Stadium, and I always was wondering the Arkansas reaction when they walked into Evans Diamond — which is maybe the opposite of the bells and whistles of Baum Stadium — how they would react,” Esquer said. “And you know what, they treated us with the utmost respect and we had good ballgames out there. I’ve always, always been a fan of Coach Van Horn’s, but that really let me know what type of individual he was just as far as keeping his word.”
Quinn Mathews, the lefty who allowed 2 singles and 4 walks and struck out 10 Razorbacks in 6 innings in Stanford’s 5-0 win over Arkansas on Feb. 27, has been pitching out of the bullpen since a three-game series against Cal on May 6-8.
Stanford Coach David Esquer made the decision after his bullpen blew Mathews’ 7-3 lead after six innings in what became an 11-10 loss at Washington on May 1.
“The most important move we made the whole season probably was Quinn Mathews going to the bullpen,” Esquer said.
“Once we made that switch, it stabilized our ability to win games at the end of the game, so that was probably the most important move we made.
“He accepted it. He understood early on because it was that kind of hybrid role that maybe we would close him and then still start him, it became kind of confusing to him what we were actually doing.”
Stanford ace Alex Williams said he was proud of the way Mathews (9-1, 2.62 ERA, 9 saves) adjusted to being pulled from the rotation.
“I think moving out of the starting role he wasn’t the biggest fan of it at first,” Williams said. “But he’s definitely grown and understood that’s what the team needed.
“I think the second he went to the pen, I think we went on a 17-game winning streak.”