While No. 15 Oregon was fighting for the chance to host a regional at PK Park on Sunday, California – long out of the playoff picture – was fighting for pride. The Bears – thanks to a record-tying performance from closer Trevor Hildenberger and a 2-for-3, two-RBI day from senior Vince Bruno -- secured their third straight Pac-12 series win (two of those on the road), taking down the Ducks to the tune of 5-3, finishing the season having won seven of their last nine games.
"I think a lot of young guys got a lot of experience, and got a taste of winning some tough series on the road, and, for us, we were pretty close this year," said pitching coach Mike Neu. "Two or three more wins and we're probably in really good shape. It didn't happen, but for us to be able to do that, I think the guys coming back next year feel really, really good about taking that next step to get to a Regional, and when we get there, we can do some damage."
Of course, Cal (26-27, 13-17 in Pac-12) will have to take that step without seniors like Bruno, Hildenberger, first baseman Devon Rodriguez, catcher Mike Reuvekamp, right fielder Jacob Wark (who will try his luck in the Major League Draft this June), left-handed pitcher Michael Theofanopoulos, shortstop Derek Campbell and Friday's starter Kyle Porter.
On Saturday, the Bears rattled off 10 hits against four different Oregon pitchers, doing the bulk of the damage against starter Brando Tessar in dealing the senior righty his second loss of the season.
After Tessar rolled up a double play to erase freshman center fielder Aaron Knapp and then getting Rodriguez to ground out to short in the top of the first, Tessar couldn't get an out in the top of the second. Tessar gave up a leadoff double to junior Brenden Farney and then a single through the right side by freshman third baseman Lucas Erceg. After walking Campbell, Tessar gave up a single up the middle to Bruno, scoring two and spelling the end for the Ducks starter.
That hit ensured that Bruno finished his collegiate career on an eight-game hitting streak, during which he's gone 14-for-31 (.452), with 11 RBIs and three runs scored.
"I'm just happy with the fact that I overcame a lot of adversity this year," Bruno said. "I overcame injury and a lot of bad luck, and I could have easily gone and hit .240 and just tanked it, just prayed for the season to be over. I really grinded it out, focused on every pitch, and I think that's why I hit so good at the end."
The Bears, though, weren't done quite yet, as second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz -- who was again stellar with the glove – sacrificed Bruno and Campbell into scoring position, where an RBI ground out by right fielder Wark and an RBI single up the middle by Knapp drive in the third and fourth runs of the inning.
Right-handed starter Ryan Mason kept the momentum rolling, striking out Oregon's top two hitters in Mitchell Tolman and Pac-12 home run leader Shaun Chase, allowing a two-out walk before retiring Nick Catalano on a fly-out to left in the bottom of the second. Mason then retired the next seven straight Ducks before running into trouble in the bottom of the fifth.
Designated hitter Steven Packard broke up the no-hitter with a line-shot single up the middle off of Mason, and then a wacky turn of events following a flare to left off the bat of Catalano brought Packard around to score. Catalano's hit landed fair and then bounded foul up the line, where a young child grabbed the ball and took it out of play, which perturbed Bruno, at first, who felt he had a good chance at throwing Packard out at the plate.
Bruno then saw that it was a child who did not know better, and his anger subsided, but that didn't solve Mason's jam. After getting first baseman A.J. Balta to fly out to left, Mason allowed a single to right off the bat of shortstop Mark Karaviotis. Right fielder Wark came up throwing, but airmailed the throw home, allowing Catalano to score and Karaviotis to advance to second. Karaviotis then scored on a single by Aaron Payne, bringing Oregon to within two runs.
Mason was the third Bears pitcher to take a no-hit bid into at leas the fifth inning this weekend, and, like Thursday's starter Daulton Jefferies, will be back next season.
"Those guys, both (Porter and Mason), and Jefferies as well, they just really, really competed," Neu said of his staff, which effectively shut down the conference's most potent offense. "Shoot, we only had five pitchers throw this weekend, and you just can't say enough about how much those guys prepared the right way, competed on the mound and were able to deal with adversity. Porter goes out there and gives us eighth, had a chance for a no-hitter, Jefferies was throwing a no-hitter for a while, and it was basically the same thing tonight. [Mason] just came out of the shoot, competed and wanted to win. It was probably the best, if not the best pitching performances we've had this year, and if we can make a few more plays on defense, we could have done a little bit better. It was great they way they went out there to compete."
Two runs was as close as Oregon got, though, as Mason got some defensive help in the bottom of the sixth, when a diving stop by Tenerowicz started a double play to erase left fielder Kyle Garlick -- aboard with a leadoff single – and allowing Mason to pitch freely to Chase, who fouled out weakly to Campbell.
Enter: Hildenberger. The senior closer was as dominant as he's been all season, allowing just one hit over three shutout innings, striking out three and keeping the Ducks off balance with liberal use of his 77 mph change up and low-90s fastball. Hildenberger earned his 10th save of the season, tying Cal Baseball Foundation luminary Jesse Ingram for the all-time single-season saves record.
"That was awesome," Neu said. "Obviously, it was his last appearance, and we knew that Mason was probably done after the sixth. His velocity had gone down a little bit, and he was probably at his max. We were trying to figure out if we should get somebody else in there in the seventh, before we go to Hildenberger, but we felt like we could go right to him, and he did an awesome job, giving u those last three innings against some good hitters."
Like Joey Donofrio before him, it's looking increasingly as though Hildenberger – a side-arming righty with plus stuff – will get his chance to pitch professionally, but he – along with the other seniors and draft-eligible juniors – will have to wait until June's Major League Draft to find out exactly where he'll be playing next season. Others with pro prospects include Theofanopoulos, Rodriguez and Campbell.
"The way we finished is probably going to stick in my mind the most," said Bruno, who led the 2011 College World Series team in on-base percentage. "I think it was just a product of the guys really, really loving each other, really being close, a close-knit team. There was no animosity toward the end, and there really could have been. Falling short with a team like this, was a little kick in the gut, but we came out in this last month and played so loose and just played to have fun and playing to win. We could have jumped on each other and been pissed off at each other and pissed off at ourselves, but we didn't do that. We went the other way."
Bruno, in the ninth, did exactly that. He got his final college hit, lashing a 96 mph fastball from closer Jake Reed through the hole between short and third.
"Gotta finish it out strong – hitting 96 through the hole for my last at-bat," Bruno laughed.
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