BERKELEY -- As California freshman reliever Erik Martinez trotted off the field, having struck out UC Irvine’s Cole Kreuter looking on a slider on the inside corner – his sixth of eight strikeouts in 3.1 innings of relief – to end the eighth inning, he fought it all he could, but, as valiantly has he struggled, a something tugged at the corners of his mouth. By the time he reached his cheering teammates, he gave in to the urge and finally smiled.
Bears head coach David Esquer has to fight the same urge, especially after his team swept Saturday’s doubleheader against the 2014 College World Series participant Anteaters, winning 10-3 and 4-1. All of the sudden, Cal has won four straight games, all against teams that made deep postseason runs last season, all in very convincing fashion, outscoring Irvine and Stanford 31-6.
“We’ve had spurts, and it’s just whether we can sustain it,” Esquer said, referring to his team winning three road Pac-12 series in a row at the end of last season. “It was a good day, and we feel like we’ve got some players playing well … so it’s how long we can sustain it, and if we can sustain it against good competition. I’m proud of how they played today, and the first two nights. They’ve been progressing and coming along.”
The pair of freshman hurlers followed in the footsteps of classmate Matt Ladrech’s start on Monday against Stanford, as Martinez earned his first collegiate save in relief of fellow freshman right Jeff Bain in the nightcap, with Bain earning his first college win with 5.2 innings of three-hit ball, allowing just one earned run and striking out six without a walk.
“One thing about our freshmen, and it is the truth, is, if you’re going to beat them, you’re going to have to string some hits together,” Esquer said. “They usually are not going to walk you, and they’re not going to get themselves in trouble via the walk or hit by pitch or just being wild. You’re going to have to string some hits, and we knew that would give us a chance. That’s big for us. As many free batters as we can keep off the base, people have got to earn it.”
Bain made his first start in place of sophomore Alex Schick, who was initially scheduled.
“The reality is, we’re a little thinner in the back end of the bullpen than we’d like to be,” said Esquer. “We don’t really have anybody who can come in and maybe get us out of a mess or a jam, and we saw last night, we’re protecting a 6-2 lead, with our best pitcher (Dylan Nelson), and you can’t do that. You have to be able to have good enough pitching at 6-2 that you don’t put in your closer or the guy you expect to be in at the end of a game. We had to burn Nelson in a game that we really didn’t have to. As soon as we did that, we made a decision that we needed a quality arm in the back end, today.”
That arm was Schick, who warmed at the end of the second game, but did not enter.
“If we could have used other pitchers to get through yesterday’s game, Schick would have started one of the two games, but we decided to keep Schick back,” Esquer said.
Offensively, Cal (5-2) was led by sophomore third baseman Lucas Erceg, who went 6-for-8 with three runs, three RBIs and two home runs – both in the first game – to pace a Bears offense that rattled off 25 hits and 14 runs over two games.
“At the early stages of this season, in the fall, I wasn’t really separating my hands as much as I should have been, in my load, as coach Brad [Sanfilipo] told me to, so we’ve been working on that,” said Erceg, who’s now hitting .500 over the first seven games of the season, with three extra-base hits and five RBIs. “We’ve been working on that, and I finally started getting comfortable with the separation of my hands, and again with the mindset of just thinking up the middle. That’s where all the hits are.”
Erceg put two balls over the wall in the 10-3 game one throttling of freshman Shaun Vetrovec, as the Bears cracked four homers in the first game of the twin bill.
“Erceg is swinging the bat extremely well,” Esquer said. “He looks pretty locked in. He kind of rode the wind the first time out, because that’s where the power is, when the wind blows in, is a left-handed slice. Then, he hit one through the wind the next time up, and that’s what Irvine’s going to do. They’re not going to stay with the same plan and beat their head up against a wall. ‘You beat us once away, we’re going to come in and see what you can do,’ and he was able to do it to both sides.”
The first of those four bombs (and of the five on the day), though, came off the bat of Devin Pearson in the bottom of the first to tie things up at 1-1. Pearson also turned in two key diving grabs in the outfield – one to save a double and a run on a sinking liner by John Brontsema in the top of the sixth and another full-extension snare on a drive to right center off the bat of Mikey Duarte to lead off the top of the seventh after running 40 yards to track down the would-be extra-base hit (“I ran as fast as I could and laid out,” Pearson said).
“You can’t have a high enough batting average to make up for your defense,” Esquer said. “He makes those two plays, and you just can’t hit enough. Any field player there, you can’t hit enough, anymore, to be a bad defender.”
Pearson led off the bottom of the fifth of the first game with a fly out to deep center, but after that, Cal exploded for five runs after going down 2-1, starting with a first-pitch opposite-field bomb from Erceg.
“I was just seeing the ball over the plate,” Erceg said. “I’ve been seeing the ball very well lately, so it just helped with my coach saying, ‘Think up the middle,’ and it gets me in the mindset of ‘just hit the ball hard on the ground.’”
Erceg’s circuit shot was followed swiftly by a single up the middle by freshman Brett Cumberland and a two-run go-ahead blast off the bat of first baseman Chris Paul. Paul went 3-for-8 on the day with two runs and two RBIs.
“Chris Paul is coming alive,” Esquer said of his senior, who’s now hitting .414 with three extra-base hits and five RBI. “It’s the best he’s played in his four years. He’s got to keep that going.”
Reliever Matt Majors came on in relief of Vetrovec, and gave up a walk and two singles before hitting Brian Celsi to force in a run, and then allowing a sacrifice fly off the bat of Aaron Knapp to put the Bears up, 6-2.
Cal added a run in the seventh on a Celsi RBI single to drive in Robbie Tenerowicz (3-for-8, 2R, RBI), and three more in the bottom of the eighth, with Erceg driving the first pitch he saw from Matt Fielding, a bouncing RBI single up the middle by Tenerowicz and an RBI single through the left side by freshman shortstop Preston GrandPre (4-for-7, RBI).
Starter Ryan Mason lasted just 5.0 innings, giving up two runs – one earned – on four hits and one walk, before soft-tossing lefty Chris Muse-Fisher took over, going 4.0 innings and scattering four hits, allowing one run and one walk with three strikeouts to earn his first save of the season.
“I just didn’t like the way the ball was coming out of his hand,” Esquer said. “It didn’t have the life that it did against Duke, and until we establish someone who can get us out of trouble, we kind of have to stay out of trouble before we bring a new pitcher in. If two guys would have got on, we don’t have anyone yet who’s been tested, who can come on and put out the fire.”
In the second game, Cal failed to score in the first inning for the first time in the series, but pulled ahead in the bottom of the second with Cumberland’s third home run in the past four games – a leadoff solo shot – and an RBI groundout by Celsi.
Cumberland returned to the four-hole on Saturday, going 3-for-5 with three runs, two RBIs and three walks over the course of the twin bill.
After Bain retired nine straight Anteaters, the Bears added another pair of runs in the bottom of the fifth, with Celsi starting things off with an infield single that snuck under the glove of a diving Parker Coss, and smothered by Duarte in the hole at short. Knapp’s bouncer up the middle, though, was fielded by Brontsema, who slid into second to erase Celsi. Knapp was then hosed at second trying to steal, setting the stage for Pearson. The junior right fielder struck out swinging on a curve from JuCo transfer Matt Esparza, but catcher Jerry McClanahan couldn’t get in front of the ball low and in, as it kicked off to the left, allowing Pearson to reach base.
That would-be strikeout – which would have meant the end of the inning – instead sparked a rally, as Erceg shot a double through the right side of the infield and into right center, scoring Pearson. Cumberland traded places with Erceg with a double of his own down the left field line, giving the Bears a 4-0 lead.
“I guess that was just good luck,” Pearson said. “You never really want to strike out, but it turned the momentum a little bit, when I was able to score, and we responded with a couple big hits. It was good for us.”
Bain – who’d faced one batter over the minimum – got the first two outs in the top of the sixth, before hitting Brontsema in the back, and allowing a bouncer up the middle by Evan Cassolato to score a run. That spelled the end for the freshman righty, who gave way to Martinez.
The freshman right-hander came in to Berkeley with an already-wipe-out slider, but has toiled this fall and winter to make it that much more effective, and it showed right away, as he got the dangerous slugger Keston Hiura swinging at a slide piece down and away for his first strikeout of the day, ending the inning.
“The game changes once the lights and the scoreboard go on,” Esquer said of Martinez, who now sports a 0.00 ERA in 6.1 innings with 10 strikeouts to one walk. “People fall back to the middle, and some people rise to the top. Hopefully, he’s one of those kids that keeps getting better and gets confident. Once the games have started, he’s been better than practice.”
Martinez then caught big-hitting Andrew Martinez watching a slider on the outside corner, before fanning Wyatt Castro on an off-speed pitch on the black of the plate in the top of the seventh.
“I was pretty confident coming in,” Erik Martinez said. “We had a three-run lead, and I figured, I’ve just got to execute my pitches, do whatever I’ve been practicing for, and I executed, that’s all.”
As for that smile after fanning Kreuter in the top of the eighth?
“I like to be serious on the field, but when you feel great, you’ve got to smile,” he said. “It feels great. I saw my teammates, and I just busted out a smile.”
Andrew Martinez – who came into the day hitting .467 – went 0-for-8 on the day, with Erik Martinez fanning him twice over the last three innings, including the final out of the game, when the Cal reliever went all fastballs with Hiura standing on second with a double, challenging the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder on both sides of the plate and getting a swing and miss to end the day’s proceedings.
“I was going all-fastball with that one,” Martinez said. “I kind of got behind, I was looking at signs from Robbie at second base, and he said, ‘Go get ‘em, Don’t even look at [the runner], just get this batter.’ I just went for it and got aggressive. Fastball that moved in on him.”
• GrandPre went 3-for-4 in the first game, his best offensive game as a Bear. He had two singles and a double, and finished the day 4-for-7, raising his average to .346.
• Tenerowicz went 3-for-5 in the first game, and finished the day 4-for-8, lifting his average to .292.
• In all five players had multi-hit performances in the first game of the doubleheader, and four players scored multiple runs. Two players – Erceg and Cumberland – went 2-for-4 in the nightcap, as seven of the nine position players recorded at least one hit, with Knapp and Pearson going 0-for-7 at the top of the lineup in the second contest.
The Bears finish off the series on Sunday at 1 p.m., with freshman lefty Ladrech taking the mound, looking for his second straight win.
“We’ll have Schick and we’ll have Erceg [available out of the bullpen,” Esquer said. “Those will be the guys we’ll look to ride that game if it’s there to win.”