[WATCH: Highlights of Cal's Series Finale]
BERKELEY -- After going 3-for-4 on Friday night, California redshirt sophomore Brian Celsi said that he hoped the Bears would have a new hero in each game of this weekend's series against Utah. On Sunday, it was freshman Aaron Knapp's turn. Knapp's older brother Andrew got his introduction to the big stage with a first-day walk-off win against
the Utes in 2011, and on Sunday, Aaron poked a two-out seventh-inning single through the left side to drive in Chris Paul to break a 7-7 tie and ensure an 8-7 win for Cal, and a series sweep over those same Utes.
"Winning games, for us, there are no gimme's in this league, and everyone's capable on every given day, so you count up every single one that you can get, so we're happy for this one, for sure," said head coach David Esquer.
Celsi was one of three Bears to tally multi-hit games, leading the offense with a 3-for-5 day at the dish, with two runs scored and three RBIs, finishing the weekend 7-for-12 after going 2-for-13 last weekend against No. 6 Cal Poly.
In total, Cal (14-12, 3-3 in Pac-12) rattled off 13 hits, with all but one starter registering at least one base hit.
"The key is getting thos hits with runners at second and third, and that's where he's grown," Esquer said of Celsi. "The last year, I think he struggled with runners in scoring position, but the sign of maturity is being able to come up with those hits, and he's doing that."
Unlike the past two nights, it was Utah (9-17, 0-9) that struck first, getting to Bears starter Ryan Mason for two runs on two hits in the first three innings. Mason was uncharacteristically wild, issuing two walks and hitting three batters while throwing 56 pitches in just 3.1 innings.
"I'd just like to see him better," Esquer said. "The ball doesn't look like it's coming out of his hand very well, and that's what concerns me. It's not that the performance was bad, it's just that I haven't seen the ball come out of his hand very well the last couple outings."
Mason put two men on in the top of the second with a walk and a HBP, before catcher Konnor Armijo sent a chopper over the second base bag to make it 1-0, Utes. An error on a sure double play ball by third baseman Chris Paul and a walk loaded the bases before Mason got Cody Scaggari to fly out ot end the frame.
The Bears thought they'd gotten that run back when redshirt junior Derek Campbell sent a towering shot over the left field foul pole in the bottom of the second, but without the benefit of replay (which showed the ball clearly going over the pole, and not wide of it), the umpires ruled it a foul ball. Two pitches later, Campbell grounded out.
In the third, Mason hit leadoff man Cory Hunt, who stole second as Mason worked on striking out designated hitter Max Schuman. A single through the right side and under diving first baseman Nick Halamandaris off the bat of first baseman T.J. Bennett drove in the second run to put the Bears down, 2-0.
"To be honest, we've got to get him better," pitching coach Mike Neu said of Mason. "I just hope his arm is 100-percent healthy. I think he feels OK, but it may be a little bit of dead arm right now. There's just not a lot of whip, and he's a strike machine when he's on. He's throwing strikes all over the place. The last couple outings, that hasn't quite been the deal. Hopefully we can get that back on track, because when he's healthy, he's as good as anyone we've got. When he's like this, it puts us in a tough spot on a weekend."
Cal, though, answered back in the bottom of the frame with the first of two clutch hits off the bat of Celsi. After two straight one-out singles by Vince Bruno and Devin Pearson, Celsi looped a fly-ball double into the left field corner to get the Bears on the board with a run, and then designated hitter Devon Rodriguez lined a scorching one-hopper to the right side which ate up second baseman Kody Davis to plate another two runs, giving Cal a 3-2 lead. Two batters later, Campbell sent a hard grounder back up the middle for a single – the Bears' fifth hit of the inning – and then second baseman Brenden Farney roped an RBI single into right to put Cal up, 4-2.
"They were giving us the left side all day, and I saw a pitch that I could handle and it lucked out that it ended up running away from the outfielder, so it worked," Celsi said of the double.
Utah responded, though, rattling off three hits, a walk and taking advantage of three Bears errors – one on a botched double play turn from Campbell on a backhanded flip from Farney, and another would-be double play ball fired into right field by Paul on a first-pitch grounder induced by reliever Lucas Erceg that would have ended the inning – in the top of the fifth.
"We didn't do him any favors at all with those plays, and we've got to play better," Esquer said. "Those are difference-makers in the long run, and we've got to be better at that. That's worrisome that the defense has to play better, but every now and then, you've got to not play your best game, and win, still."
Following the bad throw by Paul, right fielder Zach Jones sent an RBI groundout to second, and Davis rapped a first-pitch single up the middle that Campbell could not corral behind the bag to score yet another run. A wild pitch by Erceg moved Davis to second, and a single through the right side by Scaggari plated the fifth run of the inning.
"We gave them too much," said Esquer, who saw his team commit a season-high four errors. "We just didn't play good defense. That's what you've got to rely on. That's got to stay constant. We know we're not always going to hit, and we started to swing the bat a little bit better, but we've got to play defense. With pitchers like Mason and [Trevor] Hildenberger throwing, the ball's going to be in play a lot on the ground, so you've just got to be able to play good defense."
Erceg was able to get over the defensive lapses, though, and threw three more innings without allowing a single run, allowing the Bears to get back in the fight.
"I just threw strikes," Erceg said. "That's what my job is, and I have plenty of confidence in my defense behind me, so as long as I throw strikes and get the ground balls, they're going to do a good job for me."
Cal started slowly, plating a run in the bottom of the fifth thanks to Celsi. After the speedy right fielder led off with a single and stole second, Halamandaris sent a line-drive RBI single to right.
In the bottom of the sixth, after Erceg picked off his second runner in as many innings to end the frame, the Bears scored two runs to tie things up. Catcher Mitchell Kranson punched a single through the left side, and moved to second on a walk to Bruno. Knapp then came in to pinch run for the senior right fielder, who missed the opening game of the series thanks to lingering hip pain from surgery that kept him out of last season. Once again, it was Celsi who came up big, driving sixth-pitch single to right to score two runs against reliever Dylan Drachler.
"I was just looking for a pitch away to drive, and he gave it to me," Celsi said. "I was trying to be very picky, because I knew I didn't want to bail him out of that inning. I was really picky, and luckily, I got my pitch."
After Erceg allowed a two-out single and nothing more in the top of the seventh, it was Knapp's time to shine. The younger brother of former Cal catcher Andrew Knapp and son of another former Bears backstop Mike Knapp registered his first collegiate hit last weekend against the Mustangs on an inside-the-park home run, and finally got on the board with his first hit at Evans Diamond, and it was a big one.
After a foul bunt pop by Campbell was snared on a hustle grab by Bennett, and Farney grounded out to second, Utes reliever Dalton Carroll walked Paul on four pitches and then gave up a low line-drive single to Kranson. Knapp took one called strike and then threw the bat head at an offering over the outside half, bouncing it through the left side and bringing Paul around to score for the winning tally.
"It was pretty sweet," Knapp said. "It was my first hit at home, so that makes it a lot sweeter. I saw how they pitch Celsi, because we're very similar in the way we hit, and I saw him go six-hole a bunch. Pearson, as I was walking up there, said, ‘Hey, six-hole is wide open,' so I just tried to get a pitch I could stay inside and shoot it through the hole."
"He puts so much pressure on the defense," Esquer said of his latest Knapp. "If he hits the ball on the ground, he's got a chance to beat it out, and that's exactly what he did, and I think they felt a little pressure that they had to be quick, even if they had been in front of it. That weapon doesn't slump."
Erceg battled through the top of the eighth, taking a comebacker off the knee by Scaggari before throwing out the Utah shortstop and then walking Hunt before getting a swing-and-miss K against Schuman and a fly out to center by Bennett.
"They were greedy with their pitches," Erceg said. "They took the off-speed and they hit the mistakes. That's just what any other baseball team would do. You've just got to do you. You've got to limit the mistakes."
Erceg wound up scattering four hits over 2.1 innings, allowing two runs – neither earned – with two walks and three strikeouts.
"He was good again," said Esquer. "He was good at Cal Poly and we needed him good again."
"It was a very sloppy game, and he brought a calmness to it," Neu said.. "He made some big pitches and gave us a bunch of zeroes, so that was huge."
The top of the ninth belonged to closer Trevor Hildenberger, who earned his Pac-12-leading seventh save of the season by working in his third game of the weekend with a 1-2-3 frame.
"He felt great," Neu said. "He threw three pitches [Saturday], and he felt as good the last two days as he did the first day. The last pitch he threw was 91. There's no question that his arm felt great, and that was big to have him available today. That last inning, they had three righties coming up, and that worked in our favor."
Moving back to .500 in league play was big for the Bears, who next face Stanford in a non-league game at home on Tuesday at 7 p.m., on the Pac-12 Networks.
"I think this is huge, just for our confidence and not only record, but the momentum we have," Celsi said. "I don't think we really have to worry about record this year. We need to worry about how we play and who we beat and whatnot. We're top-10 RPI, I think. We were No. 7 last week, so now, it's just playing good baseball and winning."
Cal will send freshman righty Alex Martinez to the hill for the first time since his implosion against Cal Poly last weekend against a Cardinal lineup that put up 11 runs last time out at Evans Diamond.
"Hopefully he can give us a good outing," Neu said of Martinez, who gave up eight earned runs on eight hits in just one inning of work last weekend. "We're searching for that third and fourth starter, so hopefully we can get somebody to step up this week."
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