BERKELEY -- California may not be headed to the NCAA playoffs this season, after a rash of injuries and a paucity of pitching thanks to the cutting of the program and the resultant gap in recruiting in 2011. But, on Monday night, the Golden Bears sent the 2013 season off on a high note, with freshman Mitchell Kranson providing the winning knock in a 12-inning, 3-2 win against WCC regular season champion Gonzaga as Cal (23-31) ended the season as it began against Michigan: With a walk-off.
"That's a good taste," said head coach David Esquer. "It's good for our guys. That's a good taste to leave, no matter how long it took, no matter how futile it was, no matter how many guys we left on base, how many times we didn't get a bunt down or a bases-loaded double play and second-and-third pop ups. To grind that out, the one thing it showed is that we just didn't give up and give in. That team won their league by three games, and they're getting ready to go play in their conference tournament, and have a good chance to win and go to the Regionals, and our guys didn't belly-up for ‘em."
Before the start of the 12th inning, the Bears broke out an old tradition, which saw its debut during the 2011 run to the College World Series: The Rally Cape.
"I don't think I'd seen them since we beat Rice in that 15-inning game," Esquer said. "They're 3-1 now. I need to dial those up a little bit more. I'm all-in for the team being into the game, so I'll let them push the envelope a little bit. I was OK with it."
The Bears emerged from inside the dugout decked in their superheroic best, with some players wearing sunglasses upside-down under the lights and all manner of other accouterments, sounding more like Delta Tau Chi actives voting on pledges than a college baseball team -- another calling card of the 2011 team.
"We hadn't been like that for a long time," Esquer said. "I don't know whether it's lack of confidence or insecurity or just not feeling good about yourself, so it was good to see them come out and play the game."
The mojo worked, as freshman John Soteropulos -- who had only seen pinch-running and late-inning defensive replacement action this season -- came up with his first collegiate hit, lining a slicing drive into the right field corner for a leadoff double in the bottom of the 12th against reliever Derek Peterson.
"I went up there and the first-pitch fastball he threw was in a pretty good spot for a strike, and the second pitch, he threw a breaking ball, pretty sharp, but I didn't think he could throw it for strikes," Soteropulos said. "1-1, I was just sitting on a fastball, he threw it up and away, an easy pitch to put barrel on, and that's what I did."
Peterson then dealt four wide for an intentional walk to junior catcher Andrew Knapp to bring up 2011 Houston Regional hero Devon Rodriguez. Rodriguez laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to the left side of the diamond, moving the speedy Soteropulos to third with one out for Kranson, who came into the game hitting 15-for-41 (.366) over his past 11 games, with eight RBIs, eight runs, four doubles and one home run. Kranson took one pitch in the dirt before sending a fly ball to deep left which fell just in front of Nelson Benjamin's glove for a game-winning single.
"That," Kranson said, "was fun. I was going to get it in the air no matter what. I was going to end the game right there. I knew I was going to. It was time to get out of here."
With his 3-for-6 day at the dish, Kranson finishes his freshman campaign on a 18-for-47 (.383) tear.
"I think that's the capper really on coming back from Never Land, really," Esquer said. "He was kind of on the bench and buried, and he was going to sit. I said, ‘Hey, you're going to sit for a while, but when you come back, I need you to be a sophomore, and not a freshman anymore.' He came back better than he was before, and that's what you're looking for."
"It's a good feeling," Soteropulos said. "It's a really good feeling, and really fun, too. It's great to go out on a win."
Blow by Blow
The Bears drew first blood on Monday night, when a leadoff double by Rodriguez in the bottom of the second and a single by Kranson set up a sacrifice fly to deep left center field by Chris Paul, putting Cal up, 1-0. The Bears held on to that lead until the top of the sixth, when the Zags got a first-pitch leadoff single from shortstop Steven Halcomb.
Freshman Cal starter Collin Monsour got behind right fielder Cory Lebrun, 2-1, before serving up a tailor-made double play grounder, rolling towards second baseman Brenden Farney, but the sophomore infielder -- trying to field and flip to shortstop Paul in the same motion, booted the ball and saw it dribble into shallow right, putting two men on with no outs.
Designated hitter Marco Gonzales -- who started on the hill and threw a 1-2-3 first inning -- then bunted both runners into scoring position against reliever Keaton Siomkin, who then got a second-pitch pop-out to short off the bat of second baseman Caleb Wood. Siomkin appeared to be well on his way to getting out of the inning, only to see a 2-0 offering to left fielder Clayton Eslick skip into the dirt and all the way to the backstop, tying the game at 1-1 as Halcomb came in to score.
Siomkin then tossed another 3.0 scoreless innings, before allowing a leadoff single to Mitchell Gunsolus in the top of the 10th, and after a groundout to short by Halcomb moved Gonsolus to second, Siomkin surrendered a first-pitch line-drive double into the left center field alley to put Gonzaga ahead, 2-1.
Threatened with dropping the final game of the season, Cal battled back in the bottom of the ninth when center fielder Devin Pearson -- who came into the game on a 1-for-15 slide -- ripped a one-out single through the left side. Farney followed with a groundball single of his own through the right side of the infield to put two men on for the heart of the lineup. Knapp laid into a 2-1 fastball and sent a high fly ball to center, deep enough to allow the speedy Pearson to tag up and advance to third.
Zags reliever Taylor Jones was then lifted for lefty Derek Callahan, who was called in to deal with left-handed hitting Rodriguez, who has actually hit lefties harder than righties this season.
It was not Rodriguez's bat, though, that did the damage. Callahan's first pitch to the junior DH squirted low and away from catcher Joey Harris, bringing Pearson home to tie the game.
Bears reliever Eric Walbridge walked Harris to lead off the top of the 11th, and after a sacrifice bunt by center fielder Brock Slavin, was pulled for freshman Jake Schulz.
Schulz promptly caught the next two hitters looking at his big bending curve to get out of the jam, and after a one-out walk, wild pitch and stolen base put a man on third in the top of the 12th, he fanned Gonzales with the deuce. Schulz then got a little loose, walking the next two hitters to load the bases, before getting the third Zags catcher of the evening -- Jimmy Sinatro -- to ground out to short on an 0-1 offering.
"I have way more confidence in my curveball right now, than my fastball," said Schulz, who pitched backwards more out of necessity than intent. "That's how it was all high school, too. Whenever my fastball's not going, I've always got my curveball. I had a [bad] middle of the year, so it was nice to end it all on a high note. I just didn't want to lose."
Kranson's walk-off heroics gave Schulz his first collegiate win, while Monsour got the hard-luck no-decision, tossing 62 pitches in 5.0 innings, allowing one unearned run on five hits and no walks, striking out two.
"His development over the next six months is going to be really important," Esquer said. "He's got a chance to help us in a much bigger fashion than he has so far. But, it's going to be development. Can he come out here and throw a fastball with an occasional breaking ball and give you a chance? Yeah, but unfortunately, in order to win in the Pac-12, you have to throw better than just an occasional fastball and you have to have better than just an average breaking ball to win, so he's got to improve those two things ... Schulz is another one who's got to have a little bit more to him."
Siomkin went 4.1 innings, allowing one earned run on three hits and two walks, striking out three on a total of 59 pitches.
"It sends us off on a good note," Kranson said. "We battled back. This was a tough game. We battled through it. We showed that we can hang with anyone. What's funny is, normally, in midweek games, there's really not much pace to it, but for some reason, this game had a lot of pace to it, from pitch one. The dugout was louder than I've ever heard it."
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