BERKELEY -- Jordan Talbot was as surprised as anyone when California head baseball coach David Esquer pointed in his direction after the top of the eighth and told him to warm up.
The Bears were up 1-0 on a first-inning home run from Devon Rodriguez, and had just gotten a stellar inning from closer Trevor Hildenberger -- who threw for the third time in four days – and needed someone else to close things out.
"They had Trevor out there, and I thought they were just going to leave him in there," Talbot said. "They pointed, and I was like, ‘Oh, what? Me? Me? This guy? Alright, I'm game. Let's go.'"
After working around the dangerous Bradley Zimmer for a six-pitch walk, the redshirt freshman side-armer retired the next three straight San Francisco Dons, getting the final out on a diving, sliding, sprawling head-first spear by left fielder Brian Celsi on a sinking liner to shallow left.
"My command was a little bit off at first, but I just found it and trusted my defense," Talbto said. "I've just got to let the ball move and let it dance, because that's what's going to work for me."
Cal's 1-0 win was its fourth victory in its last six games, after the Bears (19-21) took two of three from Stanford on the road and stole the final game of a home series against Washington. The wins come at a crucial point for Cal, as it hosts No. 2 Oregon State at Evans Diamond this weekend.
"It's a huge win," Rodriguez said. "We've had a couple games like this during the season, and we haven't been able to pull them out. It's not always going to be pretty, and we've got a tough test this weekend. It might not be pretty, but we've got to find a way to pull it out. It's a good momentum-builder, winning two straight, two out of three at Stanford, we're feeling pretty good right now. I think we're going to surprise some people this weekend, hopefully."
Esquer admitted to a few more gray hairs after the harrowing final innings.
"Yeah, shoot, like I told them: I guess that's how we win; we get homers and we rely on our pitching," Esquer sighed.
Before the Beavers come to town, though, the offense needs to find itself once again. After Rodriguez deposited a hanging curve on the inner half of the plate for a wall-scraper over the right center field wall in the bottom of the first ("I was blowing it out as I was running down the line," Rodriguez laughed), the Bears got just two more hits the rest of the way, as San Francisco starter Grant Goodman at one point retired 15 straight Cal hitters.
"That's not good," Esquer said. "I don't know, emotionally, if playing three tough games and coming out and trying to do it again, I was tempted to change the lineup just to play some kids who would be hungry, just to have some people who are hungry for a Tuesday game, thinking that guys would get a little emotionally spent and stale. It looked like I was probably right, but they played enough defense to win."
Goodman made one mistake on the evening, on the homer to Rodriguez.
"Early in the count, he threw me a curveball or a slider, whatever it was, and I saw it well," Rodriguez said. "I said, ‘Alright, if he throws that again and leaves it over the plate, I can probably do some damage with that,' and luckily, he did exactly that."
After Rodriguez lashed two outside fastballs off the façade of Haas Pavilion, he got that hanging breaker he wanted on the inner half.
"He hung it right in my wheelhouse," Rodriguez said. "He was working me away with fastballs. I knew, at some point, he was going to try and break something off, and it wasn't very sharp and he left it right in my wheelhouse."
The Bears' starter – freshman righty Alex Schick -- had not pitched since March 7, and did not get out of the first inning, throwing 11 of his first 13 pitches out of the strike zone and walking three of the first three hitters he faced, loading the bases.
On came fellow freshman righty Alex Martinez, who was originally slated to start. After Schick walked first baseman Zack Turner on five pitches, he exited for Martinez, who got the dangerous Brendan Hendriks -- slugging .436 on the season – to strike out swinging. Martinez then battled Bob Cruikshank for five pitches before stealing strike three on the inside corner, ending the threat.
Martinez went on to throw 4.1 more innings, scattering five hits and walking two while adding another strikeout.
"I thought he was better," Esquer said. "I'd like his secondary pitches to be better. I really thought he backs [pitching coach] Mike [Neu] into a corner, because he's one-dimensional. He uses that fastball a lot, and that change up and his slider weren't creating outs, and that kind of backs the pitch calling into a corner. He's got some stuff. He's been up to 93, 94 before, and that's a pretty good challenge fastball, but eventually, if he's going to make that next jump in our league, he's going to have to create some outs with his secondary pitches."
After allowing a walk and a seeing-eye single to lead off the top of the sixth, Martinez needed a good throw from Rodriguez on a sacrifice bunt to get the first out of the frame, and then gave way to soft-tossing Chris Muse-Fisher, who came into the game with an ERA over 12.00.
"The arm, it's a little funky arm action, but I'm still every day trying to get healthy. It's good enough to throw, but it's just not going to look really pretty right now," Rodriguez said of his looping toss. It's going to get the job done, and I feel good."
Muse-Fisher promptly got pinch hitter Michael Eaton to pop out to second, and then got Matt Sinatro to ground out to second.
In his best outing of the season, Muse-Fisher went 1.2 innings, allowing one hit, and only allowing one solidly-hit ball – a booming double to left center off the bat of Turner to lead off the top of the eighth.
After Muse-Fisher hit Hendriks in the right wrist to put two men on with no outs, Esquer called for Hildenberger.
"I really wanted to throw," Hildenberger said. "I really wanted to help us get this win. This is just as important as any conference win, to me. We have a losing record. We need all the wins we can get."
Rodriguez again made a big defensive play to help Hildenberger settle in. With men on first and second, Hildenberger ran a 2-1 offering way inside on Cruikshank, who still got the bunt down, but with a little too much mustard. Hildenberger sprung off the hill and fired to third for the force, but an ill-advised throw to first by third baseman Lucas Erceg could have spelled disaster, were it not for Rodriguez's quick glovework to keep the ball in front of him. Rodriguez made several big defensive plays over the weekend against the Cardinal in his first regular action at first on the season, after his still-rehabbing shoulder needed some time to re-adjust to playing defense regularly following offseason surgery.
"I'm starting to feel really comfortable, and I feel back at home," Rodriguez said of playing first. "I'm glad to be back on the field, helping the team. That's when I feel I'm at my best."
Hildenberger then got catcher Justin McCullough to swing and miss on three straight pitches, but hit Eaton in the left hip on a 2-2 count to load the bases.
After getting ahead of Sinatro 1-0, Hildenberger nearly uncorked a wild pitch, saved only by a stretching grab by catcher Mitchell Kranson. Following a pop foul down the left field line, Hildenberger got Sinatro to tap out back to the box, as San Francisco left the bases loaded for the third time on the night.
"It took me a little while to get warm, but once I got going, the fastball felt good," Hildenberger said. "I was just trying to get ground balls, weak contact, a double play. Luckily, that guy bunted it right back to me, and then I was trying to get a double play an the next guy, I wanted weak contact, so I just threw strikes with my fastball. We got lucky."
Hildenberger pitched twice over the weekend, throwing 3.2 high-stress innings, allowing three hits and two walks while striking out five, but was game to come out in a big spot on Tuesday.
"We knew that we had really limited use of him," Esquer said. "He wanted to pitch, and a little bit with the guys who throw from down below, you have a little bit more leeway. They're a little bit more resilient, but that being said, we don't want to abuse him, and we knew that if the spot arose, he asked to pitch, and we appreciate that."
What said to Esquer that Talbot was the man to take the ball in the ninth? It was nearly to the point of picking a name out of a hat.
"Virtually, at that point," Esquer smiled. "We're a little thin. [Dylan] Nelson has been ineffective, Erceg is not an option right now – he hasn't responded well since that Cal Poly outing and we just keep giving him rest and he's playing third base all the time – so that's where you'd like to go. You'd like to have Keaton Siomkin available, but that's just not an option … Talbot is probably the last guy we have in the bullpen with experience. [Andrew] Buckley has finished a game, too, at ASU. We can't separate the game to see what we have. We never can. We're playing in that tight, one-run game."
Rodriguez Homer, Talbot Save Power Bears
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