The Cal Baseball Classic started on two sour notes for the California baseball team, losing to Tulane and San Francisco, but the Bears salvaged the weekend – and pitching coach Mike Neu's 36th birthday – with a doubleheader sweep of No. 24 Arkansas on Sunday, downing the Razorbacks 4-3 and 2-1 thanks to a big day from senior Devon Rodriguez and – of all things – a botched squeeze play, with redshirt sophomore Brian Celsi taking a pitch-out throw from catcher Jake Wise to the back of the head as he retreated to third in the eighth inning of the second game, and, by rule, coming around to score.
"Getting runs is still like pulling teeth," quipped head coach David Esquer. "We have a lot to learn from the weekend, from giving away Friday's game, which we felt was a game that we had in-hand, because we just weren't good enough to take it and Jefferies showed a little bit of his youth – which he hadn't shown yet – and the game got away from us; that was a tough loss, and then it got tougher, with just not being able to put anything together offensively against USF and losing a tough 1-0 game when you feel like you have it pretty well in your favor, when you've got your best player up with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth."
The pair of wins breaks a three-game losing streak for Cal (10-5), and comes at a perfect time for the Bears, who open up conference play this weekend with defensing national champion UCLA (7-6).
"I definitely was confident that we were going to do well, but I think we did better than anybody expected," Neu said.
The big offensive performer for the day was second baseman Brenden Farney, who went 4-for-6 in the two Sunday games with one run and one double.
"He showed some toughness," Esquer said. "He hasn't been in all weekend and hasn't been in since Tuesday, and he came up and played very well today, and that is the kind of play that has really been helping us. When he's had a chance to play, he's played hard for us."
Rodriguez also got a measure of redemption after effectively not showing up at the plate in the previous two games. After leaving the bases loaded in Saturday night's 1-0 loss to the Dons, Rodriguez bounced back in a big way in Sunday's first game, going 1-for-3 with three RBIs thanks to a third-inning double into the right center field gap to score Devin Pearson and Vince Bruno to put Cal up, 3-1.
"Last night, for me, was tough," said Rodriguez, who sat alone in the dugout following the loss, swaddled in his heavy Cal jacket, idly stewing. "I kind of felt like I let the team down. That's kind of my job as a senior leader, when I get that spot, I feel like I let them down. I knew I had to get over it, because we had two big games today. It was kind of just, forget about it, refocus. I knew I was going to get another chance. Guys were getting on base ahead of me, so I knew I had a chance in the games today to make a difference. I didn't want to dwell on it. I just had to move on and be ready when I got another chance."
Rodriguez then drew a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the seventh to give the Bears a 4-1 lead and the eventual winning margin, as Arkansas scored two runs in the top of the eighth on a two-out, two-run home run off the bat of Eric Fisher.
"The double, it was huge, because he was coming at me with everything," Rodriguez said of Game One starter Chris Oliver. "He made a mistake, and I was able to put a good swing on it. The guy was a good pitcher. He wasn't giving me too much to hit, and he made a mistake and I was able to barrel it up and get the runs in."
"Obviously Devon went home feeling like he lost last night's game all by himself," Esquer said. "A less mentally tough kid may have snowballed into a huge slump and not even showed up today, and he wins the first game for us. That's the type of senior leadership that we're lucky to have on our team – a guy who can come back from a bad evening of adversity and show the other guys that you can't just crawl into the fetal position and not show up."
Senior starter Kyle Porter ground through 5.2 innings, throwing 85 pitches, allowing just one unearned run on four hits and two walks, while striking out three.
"He did a nice job," Esquer said. "His off speed pitches were good, and he created a lot of outs with his off speed pitches, which I thought was a good sign, and that r8eally added some mileage to his fastball. He did a solid job."
Sophomore righty Ryan Mason came on to relieve Porter, and got lefty-swinging Eric Fisher out to end the frame, allowing Porter to claim his second win of the season.
"We had said before the inning, that if it got to a certain hitter in a spot, that we would make a move, and he could have probably stayed in, but we didn't want to burn ourselves," Esquer said.
Mason then spun out of control in the top of the seventh, and, as Esquer said, "did not look like himself at all." The 6-foot-6 Auburn (Calif.) Placer product – who came in with a 1.12 ERA and a .258 batting average against, with 13 strikeouts to just five walks – came a little loose, dealing out two walks and a hit batsman before being lifted for side-arming righty Trevor Hildenberger.
"He pitched a lot last week, and I know he was a little bit tender," Neu said of Mason. "He came in and did a great job getting that lefty out when he pinch hit, and I think he was just a little sore, and obviously it looked like his arm slot dropped a little bit, and he was having a little bit of a tough time commanding his fastball. He's usually a strike machine, so when we saw that he was having a tough time commanding that fastball, we knew we probably had to get him out of there and just shut him down for the day. We need him healthy the rest of the year, especially starting league next weekend. We don't want to take any chances."
Hildenberger got a strikeout and the ever rare double play via runner's interference to escape the seventh, and then finished off the game with two more innings of relief, allowing the two-run homer and striking out two to record his fourth save of the season.
"They hit a home run off of Trevor – and he's been so good for us," Esquer said. "He came in with bases loaded and nobody out, and got us out of the inning in the seventh. With two outs, he left a 3-2 pitch up and the guy put a good swing on it, and hey, right now, if a guy's hitting the ball hard off of Trevor, you've got to give that guy credit, because he's been pitching fantastic."
BLOW BY BLOW, GAME TWO
Game Two was a pitcher's duel, plain and simple, with redshirt junior lefty Michael Theofanopoulos scattering seven hits over six innings, walking two and striking out seven. His off speed pitches were sharp, and he was landing his breaking ball than he has in his previous outings. His change up, in particular, allowed him to add a few ticks to his low-90s fastball, and when he worked the change off his fastball, he got the aggressive Arkansas hitters out in front. Theofanopoulos recorded six groundouts to eight fly outs, which is an unusually even ratio for a hurler who normally gets the vast majority of his outs either on strikeouts or in the air.
"We tried to make a couple adjustments midweek, and really just tried to keep him composed," said Neu. "We just tried to really keep him under control in-game, and really focus on just his process, taking it one pitch at a time. Sometimes the game gets a little fast for him, and he speeds up. He was as composed as I've ever seen him. He did a great job. He looked the most like just a pitcher as I've seen. It was a professional look he gave today, and he did a really good job. We needed it. He was as good as he's ever been. Hopefully, we can build off of that."
The Razorbacks' Trey Killian matched Theofanopoulos nearly inning for inning, scattering five hits over 7.0 innings of work with one strikeout, but he allowed two runs – both earned – to score.
The Bears struck first in the bottom of the third, with a leadoff double from Farney being cashed in on a one-out sacrifice fly to right off the bat of shortstop Mike Reuvekamp.
The Razorbacks answered back in the top of the eighth against reliever Keaton Siomkin, who allowed a leadoff double to Tyler Spoon and then a single up the middle by Krisjon Wilkerson before being removed in favor of freshman righty Lucas Erceg, seeing his first action of the weekend.
Erceg allowed Brett McAfee to foul out to deep right, scoring spoon on the sacrifice, before getting a fly out and a ground out to end the frame and limit the damage.
"That was big," Neu said. "He had thrown the ball well, and it's nice to have the extra weapon who's been good. Our freshmen pitchers have really been able to fill the gap where we need it a little bit, and I think it's making our whole staff better. Our guys who pitched more last year are preparing during the week and they're going to get their opportunities, too, but I think that some of these guys, they've been really competitive, and have filled some gaps for us. We would have lost one or two or more games this year without having some of those guys that have really filled those innings really competitively. That was big for him, and I'm excited, because I think we've got some guys on the bench that are waiting to do that."
Still, though, the game was tied heading into crunch time, and with Killian on the mound to start the eighth, Farney got his third hit of the day – a single to right – to lead off the frame. Speedy sophomore Brian Celsi then came in to run for Farney, and junior righty Jacob Stone came on to face pinch hitter John Soteropulos. Soteropulos took a dose to put two men on with no outs for Reuvekamp, who grounded out back to the box, setting up the final play of the game.
With two runners in scoring position, sophomore center fielder Devin Pearson squared for a squeeze, but Arkansas sniffed it out. Stone pitched out to Wise, who threw to third baseman Clark Eagan, and Celsi broke back for home. Eagan's throw back to Wise then hit Celsi right in the back of the helmet, and by rule, he came home to score.
"There was some luck involved," Esquer said. "Hey, runs were hard to come by. Both teams were a little offensively under water. Hats off to them – they were going at our hitters with second and third and one out, and they guessed right on 1-1, and we had some luck involved. Now, we practice how to try to get out of a rundown, and Brian did exactly what we practiced, but he had to do it. He ran at the catcher's glove and tried to get in the line of the throw, and that's exactly what happened."
Siomkin then pitched a 1-2-3 ninth, securing his first win of the season in his second game of the day.
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