LOS ANGELES -- With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, California pitching coach Mike Neu strode to the mound, after his starter – sophomore righty Ryan Mason -- gave up a second-pitch double to USC left fielder Blake Lacey.
Mason had already given up two hits to the next hitter – designated hitter Bobby Stahel -- and had walked him once, and was sitting on 96 pitches on the afternoon, in the rubber match of the three-game series with the Trojans, which the Bears led, 4-1. Closer Trevor Hildenberger -- who struck out six in three relief innings just the night before – was warming in the pen, and had told Neu that he'd be good to go for a hitter or two, if need be.
"I said, ‘This guy is out,' and I kept repeating it, when he tried to take me out," Mason said. "A couple of the guys behind me said, ‘This guy's out, for sure,' and I said, ‘Turn around; go to the dugout.'"
Neu grimly nodded his head, turned and went back to the dugout.
"The plan was to let Trevor face that hitter; he had two hits off Mason, and he'd walked him one time, so if it got to that point, we were going to have Trevor face him," Neu said. "He said, ‘I got him. I got this guy.' I said, ‘Alright,' and he said, ‘Get out of here.' I was fine with that. If he wanted it that bad and felt confident, obviously, I'd love for him to have the complete game, but I definitely need that kind of confirmation and confidence that he was going to get it done. I felt like he was going to will his way through it, and he did."
Mason was true to his word, needing just five pitches to get Stahel to fly out lazily to center field to put the finishing touches on the 6-foot-6 righty's first career complete game.
"It was the situation," said Mason, who allowed one run on six scattered hits and two walks, while striking out three. "Something inside me said, ‘You've got to finish this game. You've tried it before this year, and it didn't work out, so you've got to do this one.'"
Mason had gone 8.0-plus innings in each of his previous two outings against Stanford and Oregon State.
"I think it's big," Mason said of his first career complete game. "It will set the tone for the rest of my career."
The 4-1 win secured a series win for Cal, after the Bears came in having lost four straight games, and five of their last six conference games.
"We've been gaining on this," said Cal head coach David Esquer. "It's been imperceptible to the human eye, but we have been improving, in the sense that our younger kids are getting more comfortable. It's been a long time coming, but our older players are starting to be a little bit more comfortable playing the game, too. Obviously, early on, we pressed and struggled and just weren't playing as solidly as we were now, and getting Reuvekamp back, whenever he's in the lineup and wherever he plays, it bodes well and it helps us. We've been gaining on a good road performance against a good team, and we got that this weekend. Friday's game was a good ballgame, but we just didn't win."
Mason was backed by eight hits from the Bears offense, led by a 3-for-4 day from senior outfielder Vince Bruno, who collected two of Cal's four RBI singles over the course of the afternoon, including a run-scoring base knock in a three-run first against starter Bob Wheatley.
"It helps you a lot," Mason said of the early run support, before he even took the hill. "First-inning runs are great, and it's even better if we get a shut-down next half inning. It's easier to pitch with a lead."
After freshman Aaron Knapp took a dose, and catcher Mike Reuvekamp walked on four pitches, first baseman Devon Rodriguez sent a single through the right side for his seventh RBI in two games. After a sacrifice bunt by Brenden Farney put both Rodriguez and Reuvekamp in scoring position, freshman Lucas Erceg hung a frozen rope single back up the middle to plate Cal's second run.
With the middle infield playing tight at second, Bruno came up and sent a soft liner through the hole on the right side to drive home Reuvekamp, giving the Bears (21-25, 9-15 in Pac-12) a 3-0 lead.
"I was just trying to stay short to the ball," Bruno said. "I simplify things when stuff doesn't go right for me. Last night was a tough night to swallow [going 0-for-4], but I figured that if I stayed simple and stayed short the baseball, I can hit anybody."
Mason started out shaky, though, allowing a single to right to leadoff man Kevin Swick and a five-pitch walk to Omar Cotto Lozada. Catcher Jeremy Martinez -- 0-for-7 on the weekend – bunted both men into scoring position for the dangerous Jake Hernandez. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder sent a second-pitch grounder to third, where Erceg alertly fielded the roller and threw home. Reuvekamp caught Swick in a run-down and tagged him out, keeping USC (26-22, 14-13) off the board. Mason finished off the frame by getting second baseman Dante Flores to ground out to short.
"That's a tough effort," Esquer said. "Pitching in daylight, with the wind blowing a little bit, it usually is an offensive day, come Sunday, but a complete game, on the road, on Sunday, that's a big effort."
Reliever Kyle Twomey held Cal in check for the next four innings, scattering three hits, walking one and fanning six, thanks to a looping, Bugs Bunny curve that rarely topped 64 mph. Over the next four frames, the Bears stranded five runners, three in scoring position.
Mason worked quickly and efficiently, getting ahead 0-1 on 15 hitters, and getting nine first-pitch outs, with two of those starting double plays.
"I thought his stuff, it probably wasn't his best stuff; it wasn't explosive, but that's the good thing about being a sinkerball guy: You can have your average stuff, and his ball moves so much that he missed a lot of barrels," Neu said. "He mixed his pitches well and he competed. That's one of the reasons he's always been successful. He just knows how to compete and win."
In the bottom of the fifth, though, Mason ran into some trouble, walking Stahel to lead off the frame and then giving up a single to center off the bat of Southall. A sacrifice fly by Swick drove home a run to cut the lead to 3-1, but Mason then got two fly-outs to Knapp in center sandwiched around a hit batsman to get out of the inning. In the seventh, Mason allowed a leadoff single to Stahel, but after a visit to the mound by Neu, who had Hildenberger warming in the pen, Mason struck out Southall and got a first-pitch liner to first off the bat of Swick, which Rodriguez turned into an unassisted double play by tagging the first base bag and ending the inning.
"It's big to get one pitch for two outs in the later innings, when you're just trying to keep the pitch count down and stay out there as long as you can," Mason said. "Those are massive, and obviously the momentum came back to us when we got those. They got a couple guys on, and if we can get them quick, then they've got nothing."
After Bruno chipped in with his second RBI single in the top of the eighth – cashing in a booming one-out triple to left center by Derek Campbell -- Mason gave up a one-out bouncer up the middle to Martinez in the bottom of the frame, but after getting ahead of Hernandez 0-2, fielded a sharply-hit one-hopper to start a 1-6-3 inning-ending double play.
"Derek with the triple and Vinny with the big hit, two seniors were able to put the nail in the coffin for us," Esquer said. "It's been a tough year for our seniors. Let's be honest: It's been a tough year for our seniors. No one's really had that breakout year. It's just kind of been peaks and valleys, and to have them have a big moment is big for us, and to have it on the road is a big deal."
Mason moved to 5-1 on the season, and lowered his ERA to 2.73 – tops in the starting rotation.
"Our pitching's been pretty good, but he's probably been the best, the last four or five weeks, on Sundays, and we've won a lot of those games," Neu said. "The other guys have been great, too, but it gives you a nice competition to have those three guys going out, and they're almost competing with each other, throughout the week, which is pretty cool. We haven't had that since I've been here."
The loss for the Trojans dealt a bit of a blow to their playoff hopes. USC -- owner of 12 NCAA titles -- has not been to the postseason since 2005.
"They're playing to get in to the playoffs, and they have to finish strong. They still have a chance," Esquer said of the team guided by his former pitching coach, Dan Hubbs. "If they win next week's series, they're going to be a playoff team. I knew that they were really working hard to get that win, and that was a backbreaker, those double plays."
Cal had upwards of seven recruits on hand at Dedeaux Field over the weekend to check out the series, including 2014 pitcher signee Erik Martinez out of Covina (Calif.) South Hills, 2015 catcher commit Ty Greene out of San Diego (Calif.) St. Augustine, 2014 pitcher signee Jeff Bain, 2015 two-way offeree Alex McKenna out of Mission Hills (Calif.) Bishop Alemany and recent 2014 commit Matt Ruff, who pulled the trigger last month.
BSB: Mason Spins First Complete Game
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