PALO ALTO, Calif. -- The road to Trevor Hildenberger's eighth save of the season – tying him for eighth on the all-time California baseball single-season list – was far from smooth. The Bears' 9-5 series-clinching win over rival Stanford on Monday night at Sunken Diamond started off much the same as the previous afternoon's contest – with Aaron Knapp taunting the Cardinal with his speed and coming around to score. Instead of the Cal offense going silent, though, the Bears kept hammering away, piling on 12 hits and taking advantage of three Stanford errors in their first road series win of the season. The series win was Cal's first against Stanford since 2012, when the Bears won two of three in the final series of the season.
"The step for our program is winning two out of three, and how comfortable we get winning series," said head coach David Esquer. "You win one out of three every weekend, and you're 10-20. You go nowhere in this conference. You win two out of three every weekend, you're 20-10 and you can win the conference. It's a big step, being able to take that second game. We haven't done that. We did it today."
Hildenberger's services almost went un-needed, as sophomore starter Ryan Mason overcame early struggles – including a throwing error of his own doing – to get better as the game went on, throwing four straight scoreless innings after the Cardinal scored a run in the bottom of the fourth.
"Mason had his best outing versus Washington, and that was the best he's looked all year, probably the best he's looked since the year before," Esquer said. "To see him back that up with another performance, if he can somehow gain some consistency, that's big for us. Our starters have given us a chance, and we've been riding them pretty hard with [Daulton] Jefferies, [Kyle] Porter and Mason."
After sitting and cooling off during three multi-run innings for the Bears (18-21, 7-11 in Pac-12), Mason couldn't parlay his strongest frame – a two-strikeout eighth – into his first complete game, walking the first two batters in the bottom of the ninth.
"We wanted to see if he could go out there, plus, we're playing another game tomorrow, so if we could get a guy through, but then he walked the first two on a few close pitches, so we're thinking maybe he could get a ground ball, because he was throwing those all night," said Esquer, who conceded to Mason and pitching coach Mike Neu, who lobbied to give the ball to the 6-foot-6 starter to see if he could finish the final frame. "Eventually, we've got to have a guy who can do that."
"Mike asked me, and I said, ‘I'm good to go,' but after I fell behind the first guy, I was just searching for it, and it didn't show up for me in the ninth," Mason said. "I think I came out after too many stagnant innings. We had a long waiting period in between some of the innings out there when they were doing a lot of pitching changes, and it just took a toll on me after a while."
Reliever Dylan Nelson then gave up a two-run triple to center fielder Austin Slater to finish off a seven-pitch at-bat, and then walked catcher Brant Whiting before being yanked for Hildenberger, who came out on top of a 10-pitch at-bat against former Cal football pledge Zach Hoffpauir by dancing a change up around the right fielder's bat for a strikeout. Hildenberger then fanned designated hitter Alex Dunlap on a slider over the outside corner for a called strike three.
"It wasn't spiraling out of control yet; we still had a comfortable lead, up 9-5, and the tying run wasn't even at the plate," Hildenberger said. "I wasn't too worried. I could feel the tension. A lot of guys weren't throwing strikes, but I was comfortable. I threw strikes like I always do. A strikeout pretty much calmed everybody down. To get that leadoff guy, that was it. The change up was pretty good. I got the first strikeout on a change, and I got the last little groundout on a change, too."
Hildenberger needed a little help from third baseman Lucas Erceg to finish things off, though, as the freshman came across the diamond and in on the grass to field a slow roller to the left of the mound and fire to first for the final out of the game.
"That's a tough play, but he's really good at coming in on balls," Hildenberger said. "I didn't even go for it. He makes those plays all the time in practice. I have all the confidence in the world in him."
Erceg was one of four Bears to tally multi-hit days, going 2-for-4 with a run, an RBI and a walk on the evening. Devon Rodriguez went 2-for-5, Brian Celsi went 2-for-4 with a run and an RBI and Mike Reuvekamp tallied his first multi-hit day since returning from a broken hamate gone, going 2-for-4 with two runs and a walk.
Erceg keyed a two-run rally in the top of the sixth, driving a one-out single back through the box to bring home Derek Campbell, who walked against reliever Marcus Brakeman.
"That was a mature at-bat by Erceg to get a base hit with the bases loaded and two strikes," Esquer said. "That was a big deal."
"He is just a tough baseball player," said Neu, who personally recruited Erceg at the end of the last recruiting cycle. "He understands the game, he knows how to compete. He can beat good people. He's not scared to go in there, in big situations, and make big plays. He's just the right type of guy. That mindset does well in baseball. He's tough, he's competitive and smart on the baseball field. It's a good combination."
BLOW BY BLOW
Cal got the scoring off in the top of the first, when, after a five-pitch walk to Knapp and a sacrifice bunt by Campbell, leading hitter Brenden Farney ripped a 2-2 offering from starter Brett Hanewich to the right side, only to see the shot stopped by first baseman Danny Diekroeger. Diekroeger flipped the ball to Hanewich covering the bag, but the freshman righty missed the bag, allowing Farney to reach safely and bringing the speedy Knapp around to score.
Stanford took the lead in the bottom of the second, though, as Mason allowed two straight singles and a sacrifice bunt to put two men in scoring position with one out.
Up stepped Hoffpauir, who sent a hard shot right back up the middle that Mason knocked down between his legs, throwing to first and keeping the runners at bay. Mason's 2-1 pitch to Dunlap though, was lined through the left side for a two-run single.
The Bears answered right back in the top of the third, though, thanks a two-out rally. With two men on and a one-ball count, team RBI leader Rodriguez drove Hanewich's belt-high fastball into the right center field gap to put Cal up, 3-2. After a visit to the mound, Hanewich promptly gave up a bouncer up the middle to Farney. Shortstop Drew Jackson fielded the ball behind the bag and fired the ball into the Stanford dugout, allowing Rodriguez to score.
The Cardinal got back to within one run in the bottom of the fourth, when Diekroeger – aboard with a leadoff single – took second on a bad pickoff throw from Mason and then third on a deep fly ball from Alex Blandino. Stanford cashed in on the miscue when Slater sent a hopper to second for an RBI groundout.
That was all Stanford would get, though, for the next four innings, as the Bears added two runs in the top of the fifth on a bases-loaded walk to second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz and a wild pitch by Brakeman to Reuvekamp, bringing home Celsi, who worked a two-out walk earlier in the frame.
After Erceg's RBI single in the sixth, Celsi came up with a bouncer over the mound, which second baseman Tommy Edman gloved to tag out Erceg but throwing late to first, allowing another run to score.
Back-to-back singles by Tenerowicz and Reuvekamp in the top of the seventh against Chris Viall gave Cal another chance, and after a check-swing strikeout on a ball in the dirt by Campbell, the ball got away from catcher Whiting, allowing both runners to move into scoring position. Viall's first offering to Rodriguez skipped into the dirt inside, bringing Tenerowicz around to score for the final tally.
Rodriguez went 2-for-5 on the day with two runs and two RBIs.
"I thought Devon had some really good at-bats, and Farney swung the bat well today," Esquer said. "After a couple of weeks, and Washington beat us a couple times with their eight-nine guys, and the other day [Stanford's] leadoff guy hits a home run to win, and we'd been struggling with the game on the line with our three-four guys, and to have them come through takes a lot of pressure off, and we're able to offense when they do do things like that."
Perhaps more importantly, Rodriguez made several key defensive plays at first base that kept the game well in-hand, with Mason delivering 12 ground ball outs. In the bottom of the third, Rodriguez made a sweeping pick to save a low throw from Reuvekamp, preventing leadoff man Jackson from reaching, and two batters later, made a tough play on a grounder up the line and beat left fielder Brett Michael Duran to first to end the inning.
"Having [Rodriguez], Erceg, Reuvekamp and Tenerowicz, all of those guys are pretty savvy players," Neu said. "They know the game, they understand what could happen, and I think that whole infield is calming. We turned a really nice double play – probably the best double play we turned all year on a backhand by Rev. Devon made some great plays. Erceg made great plays. They just did a good job, all of them together."
In the bottom of the fifth, Rodriguez corralled a high throw from Reuvekamp in mid-air and came down on the bag to get Dunlap, and after that, Mason retired 10 of the next 12 Cardinal hitters.
"The change up, I was locating it every time I wanted," Mason said. "I started a lot of guys off with it, and kind of stole a first strike on them, and then I found the slider in about the sixth. I started throwing it and it worked, so I just kept going to it."
Mason moved to 4-0 on the season with his longest outing of the season, and the second-longest of his career, after an 8.2-inning stint last year at Washington.
"I think it's going to be a big momentum changer for the weeks coming on, to know that this series win, on the road, is our first of the year," Mason said of the series win. "I think we can carry that on for the rest of the year."
Mason gave up five runs – four earned – on six hits, walking three and striking out three, including the final two batters in the bottom of the eighth. Mason threw 113 pitches.
"He was actually throwing the ball better in the eighth than he had the whole night," Esquer said. "That's why I thought he was maybe catching his second wind and getting lathered up and a little loose there. Obviously, the first two guys up would tell you different."
Cal returns home on Tuesday for its fourth game in four days, a 6 p.m. tilt against an always-dangerous San Francisco team that is 20-22 overall on the season and 8-13 in West Coast Conference play. The Dons are hitting .273 as a team, led by Bradley Zimmer (.374, 7 HR, 27 RBI) and Derek Atkinson (.349, 1 HR, 12 2B, 37 RBI).
"[USF] always gives us trouble," Esquer said.
"Hopefully, he can learn from his mistakes last time out, and be at home and be a little more comfortable," Esquer said. "Hopefully we can get on a little bit of a run offensively and have some at-bats like we did today."
Though Hildenberger will not be available, freshman Alex Schick will back up Nelson at the end of the game if Martinez struggles.
"Our bullpen is thinned out a little bit with Keaton Siomkin being out and Theo (Michael Theofanopoulos) being gone," Esquer said. "[Alex] Schick is available to pitch now, so we'll get him out there again, probably tomorrow, for sure."