BERKELEY -- Beating a top-10 team is anything but typical, so it was appropriate that four of California’s runs in a 9-3 win over No. 8 Oregon came by rather unorthodox means, and senior first baseman Chris Paul was right in the thick of things.
Paul had a pop fly double that got lost in the lights and fell between three Ducks, scoring two runs in the bottom of the first, and he fisted a jam shot to first base in the bottom of the third that kicked off the heel of first baseman Brandon Cuddy, setting up a two-run error on a groundball to short by Nick Halamandaris.
“I’d never seen those plays before,” said Paul, who hit one of two home runs on the day for the Bears, the other coming from Max Dutto. “You take any hit you can get. It’s a long season.”
Cal – which has now won its last nine straight, and 13 of its last 14 games -- has not beaten a top-10 team since last season’s first two games against then-No. 10 Texas, but the Bears did just that on Friday.
“We created some opportunities,” said head coach David Esquer, “and they made some mistakes. That’s OK. Maybe we helped create those mistakes.”
Cal emphatically turned away the Ducks – who have now lost three straight, including two midweek contests to previously 1-11 San Francisco -- in what Esquer said was the best atmosphere he’d seen at Evans Diamond in 15 years, in no small part thanks to the presence of the Cal Straw Hat Band and a company of fraternity men in the stands, one clutch behind the Cal dugout, and another battalion behind the Oregon on-deck circle, badgering the Ducks batters.
“It was as great an atmosphere as we’ve had in 15 years,” Esquer said. “I thought the frat guys came out here, gave a little energy, gave us a little edge here at the park, and I thought that was the best atmosphere we’ve had in 15 years. I felt the guys were feeding off of that. It gave us a little energy and a spark, and it gave a little electricity to the field. Great crowds take a burden off of your team, for energy.”
Paul’s peculiarities weren’t the only headline from Friday’s win, as freshman right Jeff Bain started in place of sophomore ace Daulton Jefferies (on the shelf with some shoulder soreness after last week).
“We knew maybe Tuesday that that was the case, and that’s why we didn’t want to pitch [Bain] at Pacific, and we’ve got a couple guys down, so it really is, we’ll use anybody on our roster,” Esquer said. “I think we’ve established that in the first 15 games, that anybody who comes to the park, they’re that close to playing, so they’ve got to be ready to go.”
In just his third college start, Bain faced the minimum over the first six innings, thanks to a pickoff, a runner thrown out by freshman catcher Brett Cumberland and a double play, and finished the day having gone 6.1 innings, giving up three runs (all earned) on five hits (three of them in the seventh inning).
“It’s awesome to come out on a Friday, especially with Jefferies down, Bain stepped up big-time,” Paul said. “We had some big hits, [Brian] Celsi had a big hit, Max had a huge home run, so it was great to come out. We’ve just got to come out tomorrow and win a series, and keep playing easy and free like we have, and we’ll be alright.”
“Bain was called upon,” Esquer said, “and he answered the bell for us. That’s what you’ve got to do if you’re a complete team … It’s the defense. The defense does not compound any mistakes that maybe a pitcher may have, or a little bit of a rough spot. You get a rough spot, you make some errors, and maybe it turns into a big problem. We just haven’t done that. We haven’t cracked.”
Oregon, on the other hand, did, committing three errors and allowing two unearned runs.
BLOW BY BLOW
Cal (14-3, 1-0 in Pac-12) started things off ordinarily enough, when Lucas Erceg worked a two-out walk, was balked over to second – over the protestations of Oregon manager George Horton -- and rode home on a Cumberland double smashed into the left field corner off of starter Cole Irvin, who lasted just 3.0 innings, and gave up four runs on four hits and a walk, striking out just one and needing 70 pitches.
Irvin spun to pick Cumberland off at second, but his throw kicked off the freshman catcher and went into center field, allowing Cumberland to take third. After falling behind Paul 2-1, Irvin looked to get out of the inning unscathed when he got the senior first baseman to pop up to shallow right, but right fielder Jakob Goldfarb made no secret about losing the ball in the steel-gray sky after it passed through the Evans Diamond lights.
“Sometimes, they lose it in the lights, in the twilight sky, and you’ve got to take every hit you can get,” Paul said. “It goes above the lights, and it’s gone – it disappears. I just ran hard out of the box, and knew that they couldn’t see it very well and tried to hustle. I saw it go up, and I didn’t see it anymore, anyways, so I saw them wandering out there and couldn’t find it, so I put my head down and started running.”
Cumberland easily came around to score, and Paul hustled to second with an RBI double.
Bain hit Mark Karaviotis to lead off the top of the third, but then got Goldfarb to pop out to freshman shortstop Preston GrandPre, and Cumberland hosed Karaviotis at second on a swing-and-miss fastball to left fielder J.B. Bryant. Bryant sent the next pitch bounding to short, where GrandPre came in, took the short hop and fired to first, with a pick by Paul on the other end helping to end the inning. It was the first of several stand-out plays by GrandPre, who had six put-outs on the day, and eight assists.
“Honestly, I’ve taken a lot of ground balls and repetition,” GrandPre said. “In fall, I took 500 ground balls a day. I had to catch 500 balls, and coach [Mike] Reuvekamp has helped me a lot. Coach Eskie, switching gloves to a bigger glove helped me a lot. I was at 11 and a half, and I switched to 11 and ¾, so that helped a lot.”
Esquer – himself a former shortstop – has been taking grounders with a 12.5-inch glove with GrandPre, and just that quarter of an inch addition has helped greatly.
“Erceg wears a 12 over at third base, and he’s got big hands, and knocks down everything with that thing,” GrandPre said. “I think coach Esquer has a 12.5 inch glove, and he messes around with us on the infield, and that inspired me to go bigger. You can really tell the difference. A lot more confidence.”
Cal added two more runs in the bottom of the third, with Erceg bouncing a single up the middle with one out, and then stealing second on a curve to Cumberland. Cumberland then took an 0-2 pitch to the left elbow to put two men on for Paul. Paul took a 1-2 pitch off the hands and sent a jam shot to first, where Cuddy – playing behind Cumberland, got tied up and saw the ball kick off the toe of his mitt and into foul territory back of first, loading the bases. Horton tried to argue runner’s interference, but to no avail.
“The guy made a good pitch, jammed me, knocked my hands off, but I guess I put some weird spin on it, and it spun out of his glove,” Paul said. “That’s one of the weirdest plays I’ve ever seen, and two in a row were like that.”
With third baseman Matt Eureste playing off the line, Halamandaris sent a 1-0 shot to deep short, forcing Karaviotis to hit a moving target as tried to retreat to the bag to secure the force. The ball went wide and off Erceg, allowing him and Cumberland to score, putting the Bears up, 4-0.
Bain gave up a double off the top of the right field wall to Eureste (who went 2-for-4 on the day) to lead off the fourth, but after a line out to center and a pop out to GrandPre behind the second base bag, Bain picked off Eureste, 1-6-5, with Erceg making a diving tag to end the inning.
Reliever Conor Harber came on in relief in the bottom of the fourth, and after striking out Grant Diede, gave up a line-drive single to right by GrandPre and then walked Aaron Knapp on eight pitches before redshirt junior Brian Celsi yanked a double into the right field corner to plate two more runs.
After Harber’s 40-pitch inning, he started the fifth off by surrendering a soaring solo home run to second baseman Dutto -- his second in as many games – in the bottom of the fifth, and another solo homer to Paul with two outs in the bottom of the sixth.
Bain got into a jam in the top of the seventh, allowing a leadoff single back through the box to Eureste, then uncorking a wild pitch to Scott Heineman -- making his first start in center since starting the season with a concussion – and then hit Mitchell Tolman with a fastball in the hip. Bain then gave up back-to-back RBI singles before being lifted for freshman reliever Erik Martinez.
Martinez got ahead of Phil Craig-St. Louis 2-2, before getting a slow grounder up the middle. GrandPre ranged to his left on the slow roller, fielding it behind the bag and flipping the ball to Dutto at second to erase Shaun Chase. Karaviotis came up with an RBI single to right, bring up the powerful Goldfarb.
After getting ahead of Goldfarb with a swing-and-miss slider and a swing-and-miss change up, Martinez served up another grounder to GrandPre, who ranged to his right, picked off the long hop and fired to first, where a veteran pick in the dirt by Paul once again ended the inning.
“You can throw anything over there, and he’s going to pick it,” GrandPre said. “That’s a confidence thing, with him. No matter where I throw the ball, I know he’s going to catch it. That’s really helpful, all around the infield.”
Lefty Chris Muse-Fisher got an easy 1-2-3 eighth, and in the bottom of the frame, Knapp sent a fly ball to left center, where Heineman – trying to make a sliding grab – saw the ball glance off his mitt, bringing the speedy Knapp all the way to third, from where he scored on a wild pitch to Celsi for the final tally.
Sophomore Alex Schick came on for the top of the ninth, and worked a quick 1-2-3 inning, with two strikeouts and a basket catch behind the second base bag by GrandPre.
Junior righty Ryan Mason (2-0, 3.13 ERA) goes to the hill on Saturday at 6 p.m. against freshman lefty David Peterson (2-0, 2.96).
“He hasn’t been as sharp his last couple outings, but he’s a competitor, and he’ll give us his best,” Esquer said. “He’s figured it out every year. Last year he went through a rough spot, and he had to figure it out, and he did by the end of the year. Hopefully, it’s sooner, rather than later.”
NOTEBOOK Cal committed zero errors on Friday, and have committed just three in the past four games. GrandPre and Paul are a big reason for the defensive soundness behind the pitching staff, which sports a 2.82 ERA through 17 games.
“I think we’ve been playing really good defense,” Esquer said. “We’re trying to bridge that gap from just playing good defense, to championship defense, and we’ve got a little ways to go, but I think by not giving them any cracks, defensively, it really keeps a team from coming back. You can suffocate a team if you play good defense. We’re trying to make that jump – not just having good defense, but championship defense.”