Stanford, Calif. -- The 2014 signing class for California picked quite a stage for its coming out party -- on the road, at Stanford, with a depleted bullpen, against a preseason-top-25 team and a 2014 Super Regional participant – but come out they did, as freshman catcher Brett Cumberland hit two home runs – including a grand slam for his first collegiate dinger – and drove in seven, while freshman lefty Matt Ladrech spun 7.0 innings of three-hit, shutout baseball to fuel the Bears’ 11-1 win over the Cardinal.
“It doesn’t happen often,” said head coach David Esquer, of the kind of dominance Cal showed over its rivals from the south Bay. “You’ll take it whenever you can get it. The freshmen led the way, today. That’s what you need. Both teams are on the fourth game in four days, and you don’t know how that’s going to turn out. Everybody’s thin with pitching a little bit, and for Ladrech to go seven was a godsend.”
The pair of first-years weren’t the only freshmen to stand out for Cal (2-2), as right-handed reliever Jeff Bain provided two scoreless innings of relief after sophomore Jordan Talbot lasted just three batters, giving up one run on one hit, one walk and one batter in the bottom of the eighth.
The star of the day, though, was Cumberland, and he got to work early. Sophomore Aaron Knapp led the game off against 6-foot-5 Cardinal freshman Keith Weisenberg with a 2-2 line drive single to right field. He was followed by Devin Pearson taking a pitch in the upper back that popped his helmet off. Sophomore Lucas Erceg then battled through a six pitch at-bat to deliver a sinking liner to center field on a fastball down to load the bases.
Cue the fireworks. Cumberland fouled back the first pitch he saw, and then proceeded to deposit the next one over the trees beyond the right field fence to give Cal a 4-0 lead.
“The first pitch he threw me was a fastball, and then he threw me a hanging curve that he left up, and I was able to take advantage of it,” Cumberland said. “I just hit it well enough to get it out of the park.”
Cumberland went 2-for-4 on the day with seven RBIs – one short of the single-game record shared by three former Bears, including San Francisco Giants farmhand Brett Jackson.
“It’s a good feeling,” Cumberland said. “I don’t know if there’s a better feeling in the world than hitting a home run.”
Just the night before, Esquer had toyed with the idea of putting Cumberland in the fourth spot and moving Pearson up to the two-hole, and Cumberland certainly proved that move was the right one, at least on Monday.
“It’s just the way it looks; it looks calm and controlled, like it’s just what he does,” Esquer said. “It’s reassuring.”
Putting Cumberland in the middle – lining him up with Erceg and Chris Paul (2-for-5, 1 R, 1 RBI) – also allows Cal to be more traditional on offense, as opposed to being overly reliant on bunting.
“I think we’ve still got to be a hybrid, until we find out whether this ball is really going to make a difference in how you play, and how we’re going to pitch,” Esquer said. “Last year, at the end of the year, we really kind of abandoned the early-five-inning bunts, so we’d like to do that and maybe run a little bit more, but that hasn’t necessarily worked that well to start, with the three pickoffs in three games. We’d like to add some diversity and not rely on the bunt, for sure.”
After Cumberland put his classmate Ladrech up by four before he even stepped on the mound, the 6-foot, 195-pound southpaw gave up a walk and a single in the first inning, and looked to be in a spot of trouble. With two outs and two on, though, Ladrech got some help from Pearson, with the first of several big defensive plays on the day. Right fielder Jonny Locher sent a 1-1 offering sinking down the right field line, threatening to score at least one run, but Pearson came charging in and snagged the ball inches above the turf, ending the inning and boosting Ladrech’s confidence.
“That was unbelievable,” Ladrech said. “Early in the game, I was still feeling a little jittery, getting my feet warm, but it was a great catch. To end an inning like that, because if that drops, we’ve got a runner on third and that changes the whole situation – runners on first and third with two outs – so it was unbelievable.”
Ladrech needed just 10 pitches to get through each of the next two innings, retiring six straight Cardinal hitters, as the Bears extended the lead.
With two outs and Knapp aboard on a slow-roller up the middle that forced a throwing error, Paul stepped to the dish and sent a booming double into the right center field gap, unloading on a pitch on the outer half of the plate and driving it the other way. As Knapp scored and Paul rounded third, shortstop Drew Jackson took the relay throw and fired to third, hoping to halt Paul, but the unnecessary throw sailed into the Cal dugout, allowing Paul to score to make it 6-0, Bears.
The Bears put up a five-spot in the top of the fourth, starting with a solid piece of hitting on the part of shortstop Preston GrandPre, who stayed short to a ball on the inner half and sent a double into the left field corner with one out. After Weisenberg was pulled for Daniel Starwalt, senior Brian Celsi laid down a perfect drag bunt up the first base line, and avoided the tag by first baseman Matt Winaker with a headfirst slide.
Starwalt walked Knapp on six pitches, then surrendered a second-pitch sacrifice fly to Pearson. Starwalt then threw a wild pitch on the first offering to Erceg, scoring another run and moving Knapp to second. After walking Erceg, Starwalt was lifted for 6-foot-5 freshman righty Colton Hock. Cue: Cumberland.
“They threw me the curveball the first at-bat, and they tried to bust me in the second at-bat, and I hit a pop-fly, so I figured they were going to try to do the same thing,” Cumberland said. “I was ready for that fastball in, and I was able to hit it well enough, again.”
The next four innings were all Ladrech, with a little help from his defense. In the bottom of the fourth, with one out, Locher reached on a high throw by third baseman John Soteropulos, but it was Ladrech’s former Moraga (Calif.) Campolindo teammate Robbie Tenerowicz who helped him get out of the jam, staying with a 1-2 shot off of Ladrech’s glove and, seeing that Locher was too far behind him to make the tag, flipped the ball between his legs to GrandPre at second for the force out. Ladrech then found his change up, locating down and away to get a swinging strikeout from catcher Matt Decker.
“It was a great play. It was late in the game, first one out of the chutes, it’s pretty hot outside. That was huge. Looking back at Robbie, I’ve seen that double play turned a couple of times, and it’s just good to know that he’s back there,” Ladrech said.
Ladrech struck out four on the day, with all of them coming from the fourth inning onward. Ladrech established his fastball on the inner half early, using location and movement to supplement lack of velocity (he sits between 82 and 84 mph), adding a two-seam fastball down in the zone and then introducing the change on the outer half at the knees as he expanded the strike zone and got more swings and misses.
“First time around, we were really just trying to establish the fastball, and I did, but they were patient. They were taking a lot of first pitches,” Ladrech said. “We were trying to get ahead, get ourselves in good counts, and then we were trying to flip the zone, to be completely honest. Then, once we get around the lineup a couple times, we’re going to be a little bit more fine, get a few more swings and misses, and the ball was moving a little bit more. Maybe a little bit coincidental, but at the same time, after a couple times around the lineup, you need to get that extra inch on it.”
Ladrech retired seven straight before walking Locher on five pitches to start the bottom of the seventh, and then surrendering a single to right off the bat of Jesse Kuet. After getting Decker to fly out to right center, Ladrech battled 5-foot-7, 180-pound Beau Branton to a standstill during a six-pitch at-bat, before getting him to ground into an inning-ending double play to short.
Cal had Ladrech on a 90-100 pitch count, and he finished the day with 97 pitches (59 for strikes), two walks, three hits and four strikeouts.
Talbot was shaky for the second straight outing in the bottom of the eighth, loading the bases before being removed for Bain. Bain needed just two pitches to Alex Dunlop to get a key double play, finished off by a belt-buckle scoop from Paul at first to save a throw by GrandPre. The freshman shortstop, though, made up for the throw on the very next play, making a backhanded stop on a grounder by Austin Barr to end the inning.
Bain retired the first two hitters in the ninth, before hitting pinch hitter Luke Pappas, but he then dispatched Branton after a 10-pitch at-bat to finish things off and get the Bears back to .500.
“He calmed everything down,” Esquer said. “We needed some stabilizing force, and we’re still trying to figure out who will be that for us. We’ve still got to figure out where Talbot is. We have to have him eat up some innings for us, so that hasn’t been great for us, but Bain picked up the slack today, for sure.”
Cal hosts 2014 College World Series participant UC Irvine this weekend for a four-game set, including a doubleheader on Saturday at Evans Diamond. Given the second straight four-game weekend, the Bears may very well put Ladrech into the rotation instead of sophomore Alex Schick, who lasted just 3.0 innings on Sunday.
“He did a good job doing what he does,” said pitching coach Mike Neu. “He was pounding the strike zone, down in the zone, was able to mix his change up. We established his pitches early and he did a really good job of having a feel for the hitters, kind of what they were trying to do, and he mixed it up. We mixed some fastballs in and some breaking balls, but he really just did a good job of keeping the fastball down and throwing that change up at any time, and just really had them out of their gameplan. “We were able to be efficient with the pitches, too, and he got us deep into the game, and our offense was obviously a huge help. When you have that, you can get him into a rhythm, and I think that’s what he’s capable of doing sometimes. If he can get in a good rhythm like that and run with the game, that’s what he was able to do today. I think he’ll get a chance to start one of those games next weekend, and we’ll see how it plays out. The good thing about Matt is that he’s a pitcher, and he’ll pitch in whatever situation it is. He’s going to do what he does, and that’s really valuable to us.”