Weekend Preview | Field of 64
This monumental changing of the guard was of the generational variety, and Nico Hoerner and his Stanford Cardinal teammates – members of the next generation – took their seats front-and-center and witnessed history unfold before their eyes.
For 41 years, dating back to the 1977 season, the Stanford University baseball program operated under the direction of head coach Mark Marquess, known around the campus and the community simply as “9” for the number he wore on the back of his Cardinal uniform.
Marquess retired at the end of the 2017 season after leading Stanford to 12 Pac-10 championships, 29 NCAA Tournament appearances, 14 trips to the College World Series in Omaha and back-to-back national titles in 1987-88.
David Esquer was a member of the 1987 championship team and was an assistant coach at Stanford under Marquess from 1991-96. Last June, Esquer was hired as Marquess’s replacement after spending the previous 18 years at the University of California-Berkeley, roughly 50 miles north of the Stanford campus in the Bay Area. There may have been a changing of the guard, but it quickly became evident there wouldn’t be a change of culture.
“I think (Esquer) understands what ‘9’ brought to the program and what was left over from that, and the biggest thing about that is everybody in the program is going to play hard,” Hoerner told Perfect Game during a recent telephone conversation. “Everyone’s going to be on time; we’re going to do the little things right.
“Knowing those things first-hand from playing for ‘9’ and coaching with him, he was able to step into a program where maybe he didn’t know all the players individually, but he at least knew the background that they had.”
Yes, indeed. Hoerner is a second-team PG College Preseason All-American and junior shortstop from nearby Oakland on the East Bay. He's helped the No. 3-ranked Cardinal to a 27-5 overall (9-3 Pac-12) record heading into an important league series with Arizona (22-12, 6-6) in Tucson this weekend.
If there was ever a rough patch during this once-every-two-generations transition of leadership at the top of the program, it’s difficult to find. That is most likely because Esquer was upfront with the Cardinal players right from the beginning, explaining to them that the new staff wasn’t there to turn the program upside down but were there to keep pushing the needle forward.
One of the things Esquer did right from the beginning was to express how much trust he had in the players to police themselves, which served to create a solid locker room environment with guys eager to be held to a high degree of accountability. The result is a program that is thriving because of that trust the coaches have in the players.
“I felt like they were in a great place and we had a team with great prospects as far as pitching and defense, and we were there to make sure we got them prepared and ready to go,” Esquer told PG over the phone last week. “We just told them that our staff is all about preparation and we’re going to be there to help them improve themselves and we weren’t there to overhaul anything. We wanted to establish relationships, communication and trust, and that was our message all fall.”
The message was well-received, and it’s always helpful when said message is received by players who comprise one of the most talented rosters in the country. PG ranks the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Hoerner as the No. 55 overall prospect in the upcoming MLB June Amateur Draft, and he’s not even the highest ranked prospect on his own team.
Kris Bubic, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior left-hander from San Jose, is ranked No. 32; Tristan Beck, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound righty from Corona, Calif., comes in at No. 53.
Hoerner was quick to point out that there was not only a new coaching staff in place for the 2018 season, but the roster was in need in of a total overhaul, as well.
Ten prominent players from last year’s NCAA Regional qualifier that finished 42-16 were selected in the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft, and 10 signed professional contracts, including six pitchers. Beck, a 29th-round pick of the Yankees, was a draft-eligible sophomore who decided to come back for his junior year.
“Coming into this year, we knew we had talent but there were a lot of unproven parts of the team, from the coaching staff to the players ourselves,” Hoerner said. “A lot of it was about where the leadership would come from because we lost of leadership from last year to this year.”
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NICO HOERNER IS A SPECIAL BREED OF BALLPLAYER WHO IN 2½ SEASONS as a starter at both second base (freshman year) and shortstop (sophomore, junior) has fashioned himself into one of the top prospects in the country. He slashed .307/.357/.406 with 21 extra-base hits, 33 RBI and 43 runs as a sophomore and heads into play this weekend hitting .303/.362/.467 with 13 hits for extra bases, 20 RBI and a team-high 28 runs.
A recent Perfect Game scouting report made note of Hoerner’s uncanny consistency at the plate throughout his Stanford career. It read in part:
“Hoerner’s overall approach at the plate is very much contact oriented and working the gaps. … Both his swing and mechanics support his approach as he stays short to the ball and compact with his swing, hitting the ball out front with loud contact coming off the barrel.”
An avowed student of the game, Hoerner acknowledges results will always fluctuate up and down and that baseball is a game of streaks, but he also believes those fluctuations and streaks can be managed through discipline.
He takes pride in his ability to put forth maximum effort whenever he’s on the field, and he feels like that is a product of being surrounded by good coaches and good people who hold him to a very high standard.
“When it comes to playing the game of baseball I really feel like I only have one way to play it, and as a shortstop I feel like I have a lot of different ways I can impact the game,” Hoerner said. “So even if I do have a game when I don’t have a hit I can still definitely help the team win a ballgame, and that’s something that I take pride in, for sure.”
Esquer said simply, “There’s a lot there with Nico,” citing both this work ethic and how much joy he derives from playing the game. He is a signature athlete who is not only one of the most talented players on the roster but also one of the hardest workers.
“The intangibles are just off the charts with his ability to look outside of himself,” Esquer said. “If he doesn’t get a hit or has an at-bat that isn’t productive, his ability to come back and support his teammates immediately and look beyond himself is another great example he sets for our program.”
Now a little past the midway point of the season, the new head coach has been especially pleased with the development of the Cardinal’s pitching staff and the defense that’s been played behind the pitchers.
He has also been more than satisfied with the leadership exhibited by the “spine” of the ballclub, players like the middle-infielder Hoerner, sophomore catcher Maverick Handley, freshman centerfielder Tim Tawa and whoever happens to be on the mound.
The team has had to overcome some key injuries, including the loss of all-Pac-12 second baseman Duke Kinamon, who went down before the season even started.
“Duke is probably the hardest worker I’ve ever played with and just an amazing baseball player,” Hoerner said. “He got hurt before the first game and so immediately we were without our leadoff hitter and second baseman.”
Junior outfielder and middle-of-the-order hitter Brandon Wulff – who reached base in each of the Cardinal’s first 19 games – also went down with an injury and hasn’t played in the last 11 games. He slashed .324/.448/.507 in Stanford’s first 21 games.
“This year more than ever in my life it’s been a team that we don’t know what the lineup is going to be when we show up every day,” Hoerner said. “But it’s been real interesting to see how that makes for a healthy clubhouse in that everyone feels like they’re a part of what is happening.
“People are showing up at the field expecting to have a way to contribute that day, and I think when you have more people on a roster that feel that way, it makes for a much more cohesive group that’s just excited to be there and work hard.”
Esquer has found it to be very much of a positive that he is the head of program that has players who very much have that “next man in” mentality: “I’ve been real pleased with their toughness. That’s something that’s an intangible that you don’t always know you’re going to get. They’ve shown real strong character and will and a little toughness,” he said.
Even with all the turnover in the coaching staff and on the roster, Hoerner and his teammates never lowered their expectations for this season. If someone had told them during the preseason they would be a top five-ranked team at the midway point of the season, they would have been on board with that 100 percent.
Hoerner believes the Cardinal have the best 1-2 pitching punch in all of college baseball with Bubic and Beck. Bubic enters the weekend 5-0 with 2.40 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 48 2/3innings, while Beck is 4-2 with a 3.11 and 44 Ks in 46 1/3.
“The thing that sets those two apart is that they’re two of our players with the best work ethic and two of the best ‘team’ guys that we have,” Esquer said of his pair of aces.
Tawa boasts a slash line of .303/.356/.513 with 14 extra-base hits, 27 RBI and 25 runs and sophomore outfielder Kyle Stowers slashes .287/.389/.574 with seven home runs and 27 RBI. Sophomore Andrew Daschbach boasts team-highs of 10 home runs and 39 RBI.
“Obviously, you can’t always predict wins and losses, but we knew this was a team coming into the year that has a really strong chance to win a Pac-12 championship and go on to Omaha and compete for a national championship,” Hoerner said. “That’s right in line with everything we’ve worked for all season. This is a day-by-day approach but those are definitely big goals that we maintain.”
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COACH DAVID ESQUER IS BASICALLY TRYING TO RECRUIT THE SAME KIND OF PROSPECT to Stanford that he was recruiting to Cal in the sense the young man will have to show that he can excel at an elite level both athletically and academically.
The biggest difference as far as recruiting at the two schools, according to Esquer, is that the scope at Stanford has to be more national. He doesn’t feel like he can focus only on California or West Coast kids to get the players he needs to fill out his roster.
In fact, this year’s Cardinal roster includes players from Georgia, New York, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Florida and Michigan, among others.
“Stanford is a national attraction to the best student-athletes,” Esquer said. “It’s opened up our recruiting map, for sure, and I’ve had experience with that before. As a player here, I had teammates from Philadelphia and Boston and Minnesota and from all over the country. And as an assistant coach here I had experience recruiting players from all over the country, too.”
With Hoerner, the program secured a top local prospect who is the perfect fit. Both of his parents, Keila Diehl and Fred Hoerner, taught at Stanford when he was younger, although they don’t any longer.
Stanford has always been in his figurative backyard and it’s special to him that his dad is able to make it out to each one of the Cardinal’s home games. “Being at a special place that is also close to home has been pretty ideal for me; I’m really lucky,” he said.
Hoerner also goes above and beyond away from the field. An American Studies major, he has done volunteer work at an orphanage in Peru, and volunteers at the Alameda County Food Bank and the St. Vincent de Paul Community Center.
“Being a Stanford student-athlete is a pretty special experience,” Hoerner said. “The student-athlete community at Stanford is really pretty close among all the different teams here. When you’re surrounded by other people like that, you get use to an extremely high standard; you’re lifting (weights) next to an Olympian on a daily basis.
“There are just a lot of little daily reminders that whatever success you might be having really isn’t that big of a deal yet; there’s a whole lot more to do. It’s both humbling and inspiring, and it’s an environment that has really benefitted me, for sure.”
Before he ever became a standout student and athlete at Stanford, Hoerner was a standout student and two-sport (baseball, soccer) athlete at Head Royce High School in Oakland. He was a four-year starter as a pitcher and shortstop for the baseball team and was named the MaxPreps California Small School Player of the Year in both 2014 and 2015.
He was rostered at five PG WWBA tournaments in 2013-15 and played at the 2014 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., with the Marlins Scout Team. He also performed at the 2014 PG National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., where he earned a 10.0 PG Grade and was named to the Top Prospect Team.
Being a California prep standout, Hoerner was used to playing with and against other talented prospects on a fairly regular basis. At the same time, he had felt somewhat isolated in his corner of the world in NorCal and was curious about players from other parts of the county. He was excited about having the opportunity to get together with like-minded teenagers who were all chasing their own dreams.
“It’s impressive to see what’s out there and it makes you be honest with yourself about where you’re at with your own skills and what you need to improve on,” Hoerner said. “It can also leave you with a really strong sense of confidence, which I got from both (the PG National and PG WWBA World).
“I felt like that if I can control my own work ethic and what I can do, then this thing really is possible. I definitely appreciated the Perfect Game experiences that I had.”
PG ranked Hoerner the No. 166 overall prospect in the national class of 2015 (No. 27 California), but he went undrafted out of high school. He was determined to keep improving once he got to Stanford and worked his way into the starting lineup during his freshman season in 2016.
That led to an even more productive sophomore season in 2017, which in turn led to a Top Prospect List performance while playing for Scott Pickler and the Yartmouth-Dennis (Y-D) Red Sox in the premier Cape Cod League last summer.
“My whole time in college I feel like has been a pretty consistent progression without a lot of big drops or jumps,” Hoerner said. “I think last summer was really just building on the spring that I had, which good, nothing crazy; just a solid year. … I got to play every day and it was really important for me.”
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NICO HOERNER ADMITS HE WOULD HAVE LOVED TO HAVE BEEN drafted right out of high school but was far from disillusioned when that didn’t happen. He immediately began to focus on making the most of his experiences at Stanford while setting his sights on the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft.
It was easy for him to not dwell on the draft for his first two years in school because it always seemed to far away. That notion has changed.
“Now that it’s less than two months away, yeah, it’s really here,” Hoerner said. “It’s a lot easier to prepare for and put together a good draft year when you’re a part of a team that is winning and you’re a part of a really positive program that makes any selfish thoughts or the personal side of the game really secondary.
“I just appreciate a team that makes the game of baseball really fun to play; I think that’s when the best individual results come out. As far as the draft this year, I feel like I’m in a fortunate position, for sure.”
All of the Stanford players must be feeling like they’re in a fortunate position right now, as well. The Cardinal are poised to snag a high national seed which would mean hosting both NCAA Regional and Super Regional events.
The program earned a Regional berth last season after a two-year absence but hasn’t advanced to a Super Regional since 2014; it was last at the College World Series in 2008. The Cardinal haven’t won a conference championship since 2004, before the league expanded from 10 to 12 teams.
“There is no doubt we have the talent and the mentality to do so,” Hoerner said when asked about making a deep postseason run. “We definitely pride ourselves as a team on approaching each game the same way, and that’s really been preached by the coaching staff and the players have bought-in. …
“All those things are possible but as we learned last year, none of that is a given at all. It will be difficult just like it is for everybody else, but I really think we’re capable.”
Esquer insists he wouldn’t have left the situation he enjoyed at Cal for any other job then the one at Stanford, his alma mater. It’s a special place and special program where he won a CWS national championship as a player and had the opportunity to return to Omaha as an assistant coach. The familiarity allowed Esquer to establish a comfort zone right off the bat.
“That allowed him to be a new coach that didn’t have to come in right away and set up new rules,” Hoerner said. “He came in and just sort of saw how we played and let the players kind of dictate the tempo of the team and trusted that.”
The Cardinal are going to learn a lot about themselves over the final five weeks of the regular season. Four of their final six Pac-12 series are on the road, where they’re 6-3 this season. But all things being equal, Esquer will be the first one to say that the return to his alma mater has been seamless. Absolutely seamless.
“Obviously, with Coach Marquess being here for so long, there was no reclamation project coming into Stanford’s program here,” he said. “He just kind of passed the baton off on a team that already had a great work ethic and great culture and was really open to the new coaching staff and our personalities. It’s just really been a great transition.”