BERKELEY -- As California redshirt junior Brian Celsi watched the 0-1 pitch he’d just fouled off settle into Chicago State third baseman Andy Gertonson’s mitt, he held his breath. With two outs and the game tied, it looked like the Bears’ comeback effort was stalled, after Cal came back from down 4-1. Then, the ball popped out.
“I was like, ‘He’s not getting that, oh, it’s hitting his glove, oh, second life,’” Celsi said, and on the very next pitch, Celsi lined a single up the middle, plating Max Dutto to provide the eventual winning margin, as Dylan Nelson came on and struck out two in the top of the ninth for his second save of the season.
“I’d better make it count,” Celsi thought. “I’d better make it count. I was just like (sighs), ‘Ah, we’re good.’ I got it together, and thought, he’s going to come back with it. He thought he got me. I got him.”
For the second night in a row, it was Celsi leading the charge for the Bears, after hitting two home runs and tying a program record with 8 RBIs in the series opener. He’s now 6-for-8 in the last two games, after coming into the series hitting just .250.
“I’m just slowing the game down,” Celsi said. “When I start struggling, I like to speed things up, and think it’s bigger than it is, but this weekend has really helped me just slow it down and realize what pitches to hit, what pitches not to hit, not to expand my zone, and just trust myself.”
Cal (11-3) clinched its third straight series win with the comeback after a 21-3 victory the night before, and has now won 10 of its past 11 games, ahead of a midweek tilt next week against Pacific, and then the Pac-12-opening series with No. 8 Oregon.
“I told you, I told you that you can’t take them for granted,” said head coach David Esquer. “They’ve got a puncher’s chance, because they come out aggressively, and, hey, sometimes those lopsided wins work against you. You think you can just dial up hits whenever you need them, and it’s probably the worst match-up, is a finesse lefty versus when you think you can dial up hits whenever you want them.”
The Cougars (2-10) didn't go down easily, using an aggressive style at the plate to get to pitch-to-contact junior starter Ryan Mason for three runs on three hits in a laborious top of the first, that included two wild pitches from the veteran righty.
“He was flat and he was up,” Esquer said. “He doesn’t pressure you with the swing-and-miss, or, he didn’t tonight, at all, and they were just picking and choosing which ball they were going to put in play. Occasionally he would sink a pretty good one, but not often enough. He was up and played right into their hands, really.”
Mason got the no-decision on Saturday, going 5.0 innings, giving up six hits and four runs, with two strikeouts.
“The last few years, he’s run into that early in the season, and he eventually finds his slot where it’s an out all the time, but right now, he’s fighting it, a little bit,” Esquer said.
Mason calmed down enough to keep Chicago State down for the next three innings, as the Bears netted a run in the bottom of the third in a sacrifice fly off the bat of Devin Pearson to score Celsi.
“He’s a competitor,” Esquer said of Mason. “He was giving it his best, but boy, you’d rather not breathe three runs of life into somebody where, if you can establish that you’re going to get on top of them, you might stay on top.”
In the top of the fifth, Mason allowed a flare single to leadoff man Jared Patterson and a one-out double off the right center field wall by Mattingly Romanin, before Gertonson sent a bouncer to Preston GrandPre playing deep at short to plate the Cougars’ fourth run.
A scorching single to right by Lucas Erceg moved Pearson to third, but with catcher Brett Cumberland facing a 1-2 count, catcher Cody Freund took a fastball up and away and threw a back-pick to first, catching Erceg napping. The sophomore, though, was able to stay in a rundown long enough to allow Pearson to score, cutting the lead to 4-2, before being erased to end the inning.
Thanks to ace relief from freshman righty Erik Martinez -- who threw 3.0 scoreless innings, with two strikeouts and one hit allowed – the Bears stayed within striking distance until the bottom of the eighth.
After Erceg flew out to start the frame, Cumberland worked a four-pitch walk, spelling the end for lefty starter Jake Perkins, who limited Cal to five hits over 7.1 innings, with four strikeouts and three walks.
With righty reliever Nick Kostalek on the mound, first baseman Chris Paul boomed a 1-2 double deep to center field for a ground rule double, putting men on second and third with one out.
“I don’t know how many ground rule doubles I’ve seen on this field in 15 years, but that one looked like it may not be your night if it’s a ground rule double,” Esquer said. “It was crushed, and you don’t see many balls get underneath that tarp. It was going to cost us a run, and then we would have been in fly-ball territory to tie the game, but it all worked out.”
Third baseman Dutto -- who’d gone 7-for-18 with 3 walks, 4 RBIs, a double and a home run over the previous five games – didn’t waste much time, roping a single into right field to score Pearson.
Left-handed pinch hitter Mitchell Kranson then delivered a 1-0 ground ball single through the right side to bring home Paul to tie the game, setting the stage for Celsi’s two batters later.
“Kranson, I thought, after the two hits he got last night, I thought he looked real comfortable, and I thought that he was a good bet to get a base hit, and then Celsi, since he had a couple days off, he came back and he’s been strong for us,” Esquer said. “That’s clutch hitting by those two guys, and that’s really big.”
“It was awesome seeing Dutto and Krany getting us back in the game,” Celsi said. “He threw a first-pitch change up, and luckily I didn’t bite. Then, I was just looking for a fastball in, and got a second life on that foul ball.”
• Pearson exited the game after fouling a ball off in the bottom of the seventh due to a strained wrist or forearm.
“It feels like it’s a strain, so we’ll see,” Esquer said. “I hope it’s nothing more serious than that. It was on the swing up and away.”
Pearson was 5-for-6 with three runs, two doubles, one home run and three RBIs over the past two games.
• Given Dutto’s hitting as of late – he finished the game 1-for-3 with a run – there’s a chance, Esquer said, that he could see action in the outfield, after starting Saturday at third, and Friday at designated hitter.
“We definitely do need to keep riding him,” Esquer said. “He’s been playing pretty well for us, so we’ll end up seeing. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he may play some outfield, if Devin has to be out for any extended period of time, just to keep his bat in the lineup, and give us consistency in the lineup.”
• Nick Halamandaris had the night off on Saturday, and gone 2-for-11 with two RBIs since returning from injury.
“I played him yesterday, and was going to give him the day off, no matter what,” Esquer said. “We’ve got to try to get him rolling a little bit. He’s really important for us, and he’s coming off an injury, so some days, he looks like he’s got that snap, that whip in the bat, and some days, he looks like he’s laboring a little bit. Yesterday, I thought he labored a little bit. But, who knows? It could be another day off, and he’s back.”
Cal will finish the series at 11 a.m. on Sunday, with lefty Matt Ladrech (2-1, 2.45 ERA) taking the hill against Chicago State, with righty Jeff Bain waiting in the wings.
“I think it’s Ladrech, based on Bain going 70 pitches [last time out],” Esquer said. “We’ll have Bain for some stretch tomorrow, but we’ll go at them left-handed and see how that works. The contact guy (Mason) did not benefit us today, obviously, because he was up and flat, and we played into their hands early. I think, sometimes, Mason can come out a little strong, and he throws right through his sink.”
Ladrech is also more of a pitch-to-contact pitcher, but relies on spotting his fastball on the corners rather than throwing a heavy sinking fastball. He only has eight strikeouts in 64 at-bats this season, but has allowed 16 hits in 18.1 innings of work and just four walks. Only two hits off of Ladrech have gone for extra bases.