BERKELEY -- After being left home during the California baseball team's sojourn last weekend into Houston due to a bout of strep throat, 6-foot-7 Bears freshman righty Ryan Mason was determined to make his mark in his first career start.
Mason used every one of his allotted 75 pitches to baffle and bewilder the visiting Fresno State Bulldogs on Friday, throwing 5.0 innings of three-hit, one-run ball, striking out seven in Cal's dominant 8-1 win.
"Today was one of those pretty wins that you look for as a program, but not every one is going to be like that," said Mason. "We've got to come back tomorrow and just keep it going."
In true Mason fashion, he won his first start backwards, starting counts with tumbling change ups and throwing off-speed in fastball counts for four of his five innings of work.
"Just got to throw something new at them after you see them a couple times," smiled Mason, beneath his mop of lengthy tresses. "Felt good. The whole team rallied today. We came back after the tough but needed win yesterday and I was just painting the knees all day today. The umpire was working with me, I guess."
Cal (7-7) won its fifth straight contest at home – the first one not in walk-off fashion – behind a nine-hit attack that featured two home runs: a two-run shot off the bat of Michael Theofanopoulos in the bottom of the fourth (his first hit of the season after beginning the campaign as a starting pitcher) and a three-run blast from sophomore third baseman Chris Paul with one out in the bottom of the seventh.
"It was kind of a sigh of relief," said Paul, who came into the game hitting just .224. "I've been grinding through my at-bats, having my ups and downs -- more downs right now -- but that swing, hopefully it sets me on the right track. It was good. It helped us get another three runs and a bigger lead."
Mason struck out four of the first 10 hitters he faced on the day, needing just 49 pitches to get through four innings, before running into trouble in the top of the fifth. Up 2-0 on Theofanopoulos's two-run jack to right, Mason allowed a leadoff single to first baseman Jordan Brink -- the first leadoff man to reach for Fresno State (3-10). Catcher Austin Wynns then sent a 1-0 offering back up the middle on a hit-and-run play, where second baseman Brenden Farney, breaking to the bag, flipped to shortstop Mike Reuvekamp at the bag, just a hair too late to get Brink. Reuvekamp then let loose a wild throw to first, putting runners at the corners with no outs. Left fielder Taylor Ward then sent a sacrifice fly to center for the Bulldogs' only run of the game.
After surrendering a hooking liner to left to right fielder Brody Russell, Mason fanned second baseman Louie Payetta on a breaking pitch in the dirt. Mason then walked third baseman Kevin Viers before striking out pesky Chris Mariscal on a swing-and-miss breaker to end the frame.
"They just started changing their approach, and so did I," Mason said. "When I got bases loaded, I love that situation. It's something about baseball. I [freaking] love it. I just feel at home when the bases are juiced."
The first appearance of Mason's Cal career came in the first game of the season, also with bases loaded, and he got out of that jam with two strikeouts.
"We pitched very well," said head coach David Esquer. "Mason pitched well. It still takes our offense to get a little while to get going, and you can still tell the youth of our offense, because we swing at a lot of pitches early in the count, and we can run some less-than-10-pitch innings when we don't get a hit, so that's still being really young, but hey, we got going, and we answered when they scored. Then, we put them away. That's something we haven't done."
The Bears came back with three runs in the bottom of the fifth, when, with one out, Reuvekamp took a dose and advanced to second on a ringing single to right off the bat of designated hitter Devon Rodriguez. After a wild pitch by reliever Jake Shull put both men into scoring position, junior catcher Andrew Knapp -- 1-for-2 on the day and 3-for-7 on the series -- crushed a double the other way to left to plate two more runs.
"They did a good job of keeping the ball on the outside of the plate," Knapp said. "They were keeping me off-balance, too. They were throwing change ups and sliders early in the count, but I made a little adjustment from my second and third at-bats to just take the ball the other way and not try to pull a little bit, because my first at-bat, I was trying to do too much and didn't execute."
Knapp had gathered the team together during the fourth inning of Thursday's win to snap them out of a funk, leading the Bears to a 5-4, 10-inning win, and that momentum carried into Friday's contest.
"I just told everyone to wake up, and it was more for myself, a little bit," said Knapp, who finished the day 2-for-5. "I needed to put a little bit of accountability on myself. If I tell everyone to wake up, then I have to produce. Sometimes, you come out on a Thursday, and it's not really game day, and you come out flat, so I was trying to wake people up and make sure we got back into it."
After a single to right off the bat of Jacob Wark, Paul then stepped to the dish and immediately squared to bunt for a safety squeeze, but Wynns and Shull got their signals crossed up, with Wynns stepping out for a pitch out and Shull attacking Paul. Paul got the bunt down, moving Wark to second and bringing Knapp home.
"It's definitely a confidence-builder," said Paul, who has executed two well-placed bunts that led to runs in the last two games. "It helps to see the ball and know you're having productive at-bats. It makes you forget about the bad ones that you have."
Reliever Michael Lowden then faced one over the minimum over the next two innings, with three strikeouts, setting the stage for Paul's circuit shot in the bottom of the seventh.
Two scoreless innings of work from Keaton Siomkin and former weekend starter Kyle Porter sealed the deal for the Bears, who took care of the Bulldogs in just two hours and 14 minutes.
Cal faces Fresno State again on Saturday at 1:30 p.m., with righty Dylan Nelson expected to take the hill in search of his second strong outing following a stellar 6.0-inning performance in a 1-0 loss on Monday to No. 19 Rice.
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