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BERKELEY -- It's called the "Kranny Dance," and though it was masterminded by California center fielder Devin Pearson for teammate Mitchell Kranson -- who came into Friday night's game against Utah hitting just .149, with just three extra-base hits -- it looks for all the world like the gopher dance from Caddyshack. But, on Friday night, it looked pretty good to the Golden Bears.
After taking a nasty blow trying to block the plate in the top of the eighth, Kranson got his groove on while standing at second, having broken a 2-2 tie and driven in two runs with a two-out double to give Cal a 4-2 series-opening win.
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"It was huge," said head coach David Esquer. "Two teams are really selling out to try and win a ballgame, and they battled tough and got a base hit in the eighth inning off of our best guy, so for Mitch to come back – and, literally, to come off the mat – and get that hit, that was big, and that's big for his confidence. He's been struggling to get a good feel up there, and he got a couple hits tonight. Hopefully, that'll lead to more."
Daulton Jefferies and two clutch RBI singles off the bat of redshirt sophomore Brian Celsi, the Bears found themselves in a jam in the top of the eighth. Jefferies came up and in to Utes third baseman Cody Scaggari and hit him on the hand, putting a man on first. Jefferies was then lifted for closer Trevor Hildenberger, who promptly gave up a single to center fielder Braden Anderson past a diving Derek Campbell at short. One batter later, designated hitter Max Schuman then sent a grounder through the left side, bringing Scaggari around to score.
Freshman left fielder Aaron Knapp came up firing, and delivered a strike to Kranson at the plate, but the sophomore backstop couldn't corral the ball, and wound up taking a chest full of Anderson, tying the game at 2-2. Hildenberger alertly picked up the ball and fired to second to cut down Schuman, but the damage was already done, both to the scoreboard and to Kranson.
"I think I kind of hit the side of my head," said Kranson, who got the wind knocked out of him and lay prone on the ground for several minutes following the collision. "I just remember the ball coming in. It was bouncing, and I thought I had it in my glove, and then got ran over and turned around and tried to grab the ball with my hand. I think I just got the wind knocked out of me. I was all over the plate. He probably slid right into me."
After two quick outs in the bottom of the eighth, leading hitter Brenden Farney dropped down a perfect drag but to the right side, and with lefty reliever Dylan Drachler falling off the mound towards third, second baseman Kody Davis was forced to come in and try to fire a submarine throw to first to get the Cal second baseman. The throw, though, was off-line, allowing Farney to scamper to second. Drachler then dealt an intentional walk to third baseman Chris Paul to get to the still-woozy Kranson, and then gave way to Nick Green. Both Green and Kranson played in the Coastal Plain League over the summer, with Green playing for the Wilmington Sharks and Kranson for the Fayetteville (N.C.) SwampDogs. They'd faced one another before.
"I was really excited they brought in a new guy, because I'd faced him over the summer, so I knew who he was," Kranson said. "I knew that his best pitch was a slider, and since he didn't throw that for a strike on the first pitch, he was going to have to come at me with a fastball, because they didn't want a walk."
After taking a hard breaker down and away for a ball, Kranson sent Green's second offering high and deep to center. Anderson broke in, and then realized the ball would keep carrying, and carry it did, right over Anderson's head and up against the wall. Strike up the fight song, and cue the dance routine.
Hildenberger then finished off a 1-2-3 ninth, striking out two, and Cal moved back to .500, scoring its first Pac-12 win of the season.
BLOW BY BLOW
Jefferies and Utah starter Mitch Watrous went toe-to-toe for the first five innings, before the Bears finally got on the board against the Utes junior in the bottom of the fifth, thanks to Celsi and his re-jiggered swing.
After a leadoff single by Paul and an infield single by Knapp, Celsi came up with two outs and men at the corners. Celsi fell behind 1-2 before scorching a worm burner back up the middle to bring Paul in to score, giving Cal a 1-0 lead. It was the second of Celsi's three hits on the night from the two-hole, and the first of his two RBIs, as he went 3-for-4 with a stolen base, after coming in on a 2-for-12 slide.
"I'm just trying to see pitches I can hit well," Celsi said. "That's what we're really trying to hone in on, and I know I have to be effective. I can't let the pitcher bet me by not beating me, by me beating myself. That's what I'm really trying to focus on.
"It was a personal change," Celsi said of his swing, which has him crouching lower as he waits for the pitch. "It's just trying to get timing out of it. Sometimes I run into trouble, because I'm not ready. It's just a personal thing that worked for me. I was just looking for something up. I knew the opportunity was there, and I thank God it happened. Everybody was starting to press a little bit, and it worked. Daulton was pitching a hell of a game for us, so it gave us the opportunity to execute."
After Jefferies set Utah down in order in the top of the sixth, Cal got a one-out single from Campbell in the bottom of the frame, before he was erased on a 4-6-3 double play. Jefferies was tested in the top of the seventh, giving up a one-out hard-hop single to short by first baseman T.J. Bennett and battling through a 10-pitch at-bat by Cory Hunt, before finally getting the Utes shortstop looking at a cutter on the outside corner.
"He had more secondary pitches working today for him, developed a little cutter, his change up was better today, and then he was able to throw his fastball. I thought it was an excellent outing," Esquer said.
With half of his attention focused on Bennett – who came in with two stolen bases in five attempts – Jefferies got pinch hitter Bret Helton swinging on the high heat to end the frame and keep Utah at bay.
In the bottom of the seventh, Celsi came up with the speedy Knapp at second and two outs against lefty reliever Drachler. After taking a called strike, Celsi sent another hard grounder up the middle to plate Knapp and give the Bears a 2-0 lead.
Jefferies got the hard-luck no-decision, failing to get out of the seventh in his career-long 7.1-inning outing, but still looked every bit the first-week Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week he was against then-No. 18 Texas, allowing three hits and one run while striking out six and walking two to lower his ERA to 2.96.
"He did a good job hitting his targets," said pitching coach Mike Neu. "They're a team that's going to be aggressive and they're going to be scrappy, so you really have to be able to attack in the zone, but still be able to get outs, and he did a good job of that. That's probably one of his strengths. He's got a little bit of dip in that fastball, and his cutter was good, threw some good change ups. He did a good job kind of keeping them off-balance. It would have been nice if we could have gotten him through that eighth inning, but he had that hit-by-pitch, and that started a little bit of an inning for them."
Three Cal hitters notched multi-hit days, including Farney (2-for-4), Kranson (2-for-3, double, 2 RBIs) and Celsi, who made a big case for staying in the lineup on Saturday, when senior Vince Bruno (hip) is expected to return to the lineup.
"The name of the game is, can you get a base hit with a runner at second base – that's the name of the game. That's where the money is made in the RBIs, and that was big for him (Celsi). To come through for us, that was a big deal. That was good to see. The more competition, the better, as far as I'm concerned," Esquer said. "I think [Bruno]'s available to play, and I think he probably will play. Knapp's done a good job getting his feet wet, getting out there, and he'll be someone we can rely on down the line a little bit."
The Bears (12-12, 1-3 in Pac-12) next square off with the Utes (9-15, 0-7) on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Evans Diamond, with senior lefty Kyle Porter (3-1, 2.35 ERA) scheduled to face senior Utah righty Zach Adams (0-1, 2.05) under the lights.
Esquer manned the third-base coaching box on Friday, as he's done for the past several games. It's the first time Esquer has been out of the dugout in several years, but it's not just giving the 15th-year head coach a chance to stretch his legs. Esquer takes the place of hitting coach Tony Arnerich, who's now getting a better look at his hitters, who came into Friday batting .229 as a group.
"I haven't been on the field for a long time," Esquer said. "A few games ago, we wanted to give Tony a little better look at the hitters from the side, trying to figure out what we can do better, offensively. Hey, I'll do whatever it takes."
Esquer had to send runners several times, and was rewarded with runs on the board, but he has a sense of humor about his rust, and whatever ill-advised send decisions he may make in the future.
"Not yet. It'll happen. It'll happen. I'm not saying I'm not any good over there, but I'll do it," he laughed.
BSB: Do the Kranny Dance
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