BERKELEY -- Arizona State starter Trevor Williams had already thrown more than 100 pitches. He had already given up a game-tying single to California sophomore Brenden Farney, and after going ahead 0-2 on catcher Andrew Knapp -- one of the best hitters in the conference -- he threw four straight balls outside of the strike zone to bring up Devon Rodriguez.
Rodriguez -- after starting the year hitting .378 -- has, as Bears head coach David Esquer said, been playing on one arm for much of the year. After initial tightness in his right shoulder from an injury in the fall began to loosen up, Rodriguez lost his strength. He lost his power. He had lost his swing.
But, just one inning earlier, Rodriguez scalded an 0-1 fastball right back up the middle, hitting Williams square in the palm of his glove with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot. The ball ricocheted all the way to third in the air before Michael Benjamin scooped it up and fired to first for the second out of the inning. To put it mildly, Rodriguez was ready for another go.
The redshirt junior -- hero of the 2011 Houston Regional -- yanked the first pitch he saw from Williams in the eighth up the first base line and just foul. He stepped back in, rocked himself back and forth, and then tucked Williams's 0-1 offering just inside the bag at third, bringing two runs around to score, providing the deciding margin in a 3-1 win for the Bears over the No. 13 Sun Devils (30-15, 12-10 in the Pac-12).
"Devon, he's playing on one arm, and really, as a team player, he continues to play," Esquer said. "To see him come up with that, I know he's frustrated that he's not at full-strength and not being able to perform like he knows he can. He's really been selfless by continuing to play, but seeing him come up big like that is good."
The victory was the first by Cal over Arizona State since March 24, 2012, and just the third win by the Bears over the Sun Devils in their last 13 meetings.
"It's been a long time coming," Esquer said. "We played head-up with them. They're a good ballclub. They're going to be a Regional team. A little of it was just breaking through that barrier and proving to yourself that you can beat those guys. I think we lost that feeling a bit and had been struggling in close games, whether it's Oregon or Oregon State and not being able to break through. Tonight was a good breakthrough game."
Arizona State, however, would make things even more interesting in the top of the ninth against lefty reliever Kyle Porter. Porter had been lights-out over his past five outings, allowing six hits and five walks over 11.1 innings of work with eight strikeouts, but after quickly getting the first two outs of the final frame, he got a little loose coming around the final turn. Porter hit left fielder Jake Peevyhouse with a payoff pitch and then walked center fielder Kasey Coffman on a full count. To put two men on for Benjamin, who had two hits already on the evening.
"I think the problem with some of our guys is that they're just trying too hard, and you really saw him just trying hard to make that last good pitch," Esquer said. "It just worked against him a little bit. I thought he tightened up, trying too hard."
Esquer then summoned righty Dylan Nelson -- who started last Sunday's game against No. 6 Oregon State -- to get the final out.
"I didn't really want to (go down 3-1)," Nelson smiled. "I thought the first one was a strike and he didn't give it to me, then I thought the second one was a ball, but he gave it to me. 1-1 pitch was an alright pitch, but I fell behind. I just tried to spot a fastball like I'd been doing all season and I hit my spot. Then, I got him 3-2 and that was it."
With two men on, two outs and the count full, Nelson fired a slider down and in. Benjamin flailed at the offering and missed, securing his third save of the season and sending the Cal bench into a frenzy.
"We haven't won too many of these big ones, yet," Nelson said, acknowledging the Bears' loss on March 28 against USC in the first-ever night game at Evans Diamond. "We opened lights and we lost. To get a win, especially against a good team like that, I guess the next step is being able to do that on a consistent basis."
Blow by Blow
Bears right-handed starter Ryan Mason matched Williams pitch-for-pitch over the first six innings, and while the 6-foot-7 freshman didn't have his best stuff, he relied on a devastating change up to work his way out of two, two-on jams.
"To do what he did against Arizona State, hey, it's Arizona State and he had a good, solid outing," Esquer said of Mason. "A Friday night, they scored in the seventh inning, but six zeroes in a row, that gives you a chance to win every Friday."
After surrendering a single and a walk to lead off the top of the seventh, Mason faced Peevyhouse, who sent a slow bunt out in front of the plate with two on and no outs. Knapp alertly sprung out from behind the plate and fired to shortstop Chris Paul covering third, erasing freshman first baseman Dalton Dinatale.
Mason -- having thrown 92 pitches -- was then lifted for fifth-year senior Logan Scott, who got Coffman to flare out to left for a sacrifice fly to put the Sun Devils up, 1-0, before getting Benjamin to fly out to second baseman Farney in shallow right center to end the threat.
Facing the heart of the Arizona State lineup in the top of the eighth, Scott surrendered a line-drive single to right by second baseman James McDonald to lead off the frame, and then a sacrifice bunt by catcher Max Rossiter, before quickly dispatching hot-hitting freshman designated hitter R.J. Ybarra on a fly out to center and the conference home run leader Trever Allen on a pop out to shallow left.
Bears freshman first baseman Nick Halamandaris -- a former eighth-round pick of the Seattle Mariners in the 2012 Major League Draft -- led off the bottom of the eighth sitting on an 0-for-2 night with one strikeout, but he had seen plenty of Williams, and home plate umpire Tim Vessey, who was calling a wide strike zone for both teams all evening.
After taking two called strikes, Halamandaris fought off a steady diet of fastballs and laid off two off-speed pitches away to work the count full. On the 10th pitch of the at-bat, the 5-foot-11, 216-pounder out of Monterey (Calif.) Robert Lewis Stevenson fired a hard grounder through the left side for a leadoff single.
"I hadn't really shown that I was going to hit his fastball, so I knew that he was just going to try and beat me with his best pitch," Halamandaris said. "He kept coming after me and I just tried to fight up there. They were all fastballs and a few two-seams. I fouled a few off that were probably borderline, but just too tough to take, and got one kind of down and in and kept the hands inside and took it the other way and did what I could do. I was just trying to fight and battle up there."
Esquer -- playing for the tie -- then lifted left fielder Max Dutto for pinch hitter John Soteropulos with the express purpose of having the true freshman out of Palos Verdes (Calif.) Loyola move Halamandaris into scoring position. Soteropulos obliged, laying down a 1-1 sacrifice bunt.
"We've got to extend the game; we've got to give ourselves a chance there," Esquer said. "To play for two runs there, that's not the way we wanted to go. We wanted to make sure we got a chance to get a run, get on the board. We hadn't scored off of him. He's a tough pitcher and we hadn't put stress on him. I thought playing for two hits would work against us at that point."
After Paul chased a breaking ball low and away for Williams's fifth strikeout of the night, Esquer inserted speedy true freshman Sean Peters for Halamandaris, only to see the junior Arizona State righty deal a four-pitch walk to freshman right fielder Brian Celsi.
Farney -- 0-for-3 on the night -- then sent a 1-0 grounder back up the middle and into center, scoring Peters to tie the game at 1-1 and setting the stage for Rodriguez's heroics.
"He threw four straight balls to Brian, so I was going to sit on a fastball," Farney said. "I remember he beat me inside one time, so I thought he was just going to try and overpower it and maybe leave one over the middle, and sure enough, he did."
Scott earned his fourth win of the season, while Mason was saddled with the hard-luck no-decision, scattering five hits and three walks over 6.1 innings of work, with one earned run and five strikeouts to lower his ERA to 3.58.
"That was a huge, huge win for us," Halamandaris said. "It was awesome. I know we're probably not in the playoffs, but just for our team, that's big. It was awesome."
Among the 1,123 in attendance on Friday were 2013 signee Robbie Tenerowicz out of Moraga (Calif.) Campolindo, along with his two Campo teammates and 2014 Cal commits Denis Karas and Matt Ladrech.
The Bears and Sun Devils square off again on Saturday at 7 p.m., with junior side-arming righty Trevor Hildenberger (5-3, 4.79 ERA) going up against arguably the best hurler on Arizona State's staff in lefty Ryan Kellog, who is 10-0 on the season in 12 appearances (11 starts), with a 2.80 ERA and 46 strikeouts to just 12 walks in 80.1 innings of work.
Big Cat Puts it on the Board
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