Welp, that’s a wrap on the 2023 Pac-12 sports year. And what a terrible year it was.

Stanford’s 6-4 loss to Tennessee in Monday’s elimination game in the College World Series officially ends what was — in so many ways — a disappointing 2022-23 season for the Pac-12. Some highs, yes — thanks, Caleb Williams — but by and large, a whole lot of sadness.

  • The defection of the 2 flagship programs from Los Angeles, USC and UCLA, to the Big Ten.
  • A football season that culminated in a Heisman Trophy for Williams but an oft-frustrating and ultimately fruitless quest for the conference’s first College Football Playoff berth since 2016.
  • A men’s basketball season that once again left the league wanting — and its programs going on more than a quarter-century without gratification.
  • Softball and baseball seasons that felt squandered.
  • And now, a long summer, made infinitely longer by the threat of more defections and/or a media rights deal that is expected to be short a few zeroes.

It’s enough to make you bury your head in your hat, as the Cardinal did on Monday, squandering an early lead to the Volunteers as their bats went quiet for the final 5 innings.

In so many ways, it felt like a microcosm of the Pac-12’s whole year.

A lot of potential. A bit of momentum. And, ultimately, crushing agony.

*****

In the end, it was the league’s most loaded lineup that doomed the Cardinal, and not a pitching staff that struggled to even keep pace in the Pac-12.

Powered by 7 regular starters who batted better than .310, Stanford ranked 9th nationally in batting average and 17th in runs per game. And it wasn’t just singles: Stanford tied for 10th nationally in homers as well, powered by the big bats of Alberto Rios (.384 average, 18 homers, 73 RBIs), Tommy Troy (.394/17/58), Braden Montgomery (.336/17/61), Carter Graham (.315/15/77) and Malcolm Moore (.311/15/63).

In Omaha, though, the Cardinal crushers collapsed.

That Murderer’s Row went just 10-for-34 with 5 RBIs and 2 extra-base hits against top-ranked Wake Forest and Tennessee in 2 games, leading to an early exit.

The Cardinal lineup couldn’t put it together in either game. Against the Demon Deacons, Troy had 2 hits, Graham had 3 and Moore had an RBI single, while Montgomery and Rios went a combined 0-for-6. On Monday, Montgomery and Rios both had 2 hits and drove in runs, while Troy, Graham and Moore went a combined 0-for-10.

Against the Volunteers, Stanford was flummoxed by Chase Burns, who came in after Chase Dollander surrendered 4 runs on 4 hits in 3 innings and shut down the Cardinal, pitching 6 innings of near-flawless relief, with 9 strikeouts and 2 hits allowed.

“Today’s game, obviously it started out well for us taking a lead early but Chase Burns came in there and just slammed the door on us and made it really difficult for us, didn’t give us any cracks,” Cardinal manager David Esquer told reporters. “We were going to have to do something special there against him.

Added Rios: “For the most part he made his pitch when he wanted to. He made some really good pitches. He made sure he had us thrown off in between counts and stuff like that.  … His stuff was just working really well. That’s baseball sometimes — you’ll swing and miss sometimes, you’ll get a hit sometimes. It’s exactly what happened.”

Stanford’s strong starter Quinn Mathews, meanwhile, eventually wilted in the middle of the game, which was not so unexpected after the workhorse threw a 156-pitch complete game with 16 strikeouts in the team’s Super Regional win over Texas on June 11.

Mathews allowed 2 hits in each of the first 2 innings but settled down in the 3rd and 4th before being rocked in the 5th. After Zane Denton opened with a single, the Volunteers filled the bases and eventually plated 4 runners to knot the game, sending Mathews to the bullpen. Tennessee added 2 more runs in the 7th inning off Matt Scott to take control, and the Cardinal could not mount a comeback.

It was a quick ending to Stanford’s 3rd straight trip to Omaha, as the Cardinal continue to chase the program’s first title since winning back-to-back in 1987-88.

“Today it wasn’t easy for him,” Stanford pitcher Drew Dowd said. “I don’t think he had his best stuff, but he battled. Just didn’t go his way, that 5th inning. At the same time, we wouldn’t be here without him. We wouldn’t be close to here without him. So that was the least I could do for him, for what he’s done for us.”

*****

With Monday’s loss by the Pac-12’s premier baseball program, it extends the league’s baseball title drought to a half-decade, as Oregon State last lifted the trophy in 2018. And if the 2024 campaign should once again leave the Pac-12 wanting, it’ll extend the league’s misery to its longest baseball drought since 1999-05.

But that’s just the diamond.

From 1920-1999, the current members of the Pac-12 racked up 53 national championships (or shares of titles) in the Big 3 sports of football, men’s basketball and baseball. Driven by dynasties in each sport — USC in football and baseball, UCLA in men’s basketball, Arizona State in baseball — the conference was regularly on top, if not always in the conversation.

But since 2000, the league has just 7 titles, including 5 baseball trophies, 2 USC football titles (1 vacated) and none in men’s basketball.

If you’re wondering why the Pac-12 feels leagues behind the SEC and Big Ten, and even trailing the ACC and Big 12, there’s your answer.

And as the league turns the page on the 2022-23 season, there’s an ominous feeling that it will get worse before it gets better.