“We’re not that team anymore,” said Cal pitching coach Mike Neu, who’s team took down No. 8 Oregon, 6-2 on Saturday, ensuring a series win over the Ducks – the second straight series the Bears have taken from Oregon, the fourth straight series Cal has won this season, and the 10th game in a row in which the Bears have come out on top.
At this point, the jury is still out on whether it’s better to be lucky or good, but, at the moment, the Bears (15-3) are both, for the second night taking advantage of multiple Ducks miscues.
“You make your own luck, if you’re there to accept what opportunities are there, and it may be lucky, but we’ll take it,” said head coach David Esquer.
Only three of Cal’s six runs on the night were earned, as second baseman Daniel Patzlaff -- a true freshman out of Huntington Beach (Calif.) Fountain Valley who’d started just five games before Saturday, and just one at second – committed two errors – one that led to a two-run third for the Bears, and then a muffed Aaron Knapp bouncer over the mound with two outs and a man on, followed by a ground ball that went under his mitt that led indirectly to three more runs as part of a four-run sixth.
“We’re just better [than last year],” Esquer said. “At that point, we were limping. Our best player -- Mike Reuvekamp -- had a broken hand, and as time moved on, when we were without him, we weren’t nearly the team we were when we were at full strength. That’s what happens when you’ve got just enough players, and your best player’s hurt. We’ve got more than just enough players, because we’ve got a couple guys hurt.”
Cal is still without Robbie Tenerowicz and Devin Pearson -- the latter of whom will be out four weeks with a broken hamate bone – but the Bears have not missed a beat.
“Guys have stepped up, and the level of play has been the same,” Esquer said.
Starting pitcher Ryan Mason vastly improved on his last 5.0-inning outing, muddling through some early hard contact to go into the ninth inning, scattering five hits and allowing two runs – one earned – with two walks and four strikeouts.
“I still don’t think he’s at his best,” Esquer said. “That just shows you what kind of competitor he is. He is one of the best competitors – as a pitcher -- that I’ve ever coached because he doesn’t have to be good to give you a chance to win. He did that tonight. I thought he was better than last week. I think he’s on his way to continuing to improve.”
Mason was sitting on just 89 pitches through eight innings, so went out to start the ninth, in hopes that he’d be able to tally his first complete game of the season. Instead, he allowed a leadoff walk to Phil Craig-St. Louis and a fading liner to center off the bat of Brandon Cuddy. That ball skipped past Knapp – who went 2-for-5 on the day with two runs – as he got his feet tangled, allowing Cuddy to reach second and Craig-St. Louis to score. That was only the second error Cal’s made in the past three games.
Senior righty Dylan Nelson then came on, got a sacrifice bunt out of Oregon’s leading home run hitter Shaun Chase, then struck out powerful right fielder Jakob Goldfarb before getting Mark Karaviotis to ground out to shortstop Preston GrandPre for the final out of the game.
BLOW BY BLOW
Cal got its first two leadoff men of the game into scoring position – a tapper over the mound in the first by Knapp, who eventually got to third on two straight groundouts, and a double off the right field wall by Chris Paul to lead off the top of the second. While the Bears struggled against lefty starter David Peterson, the Ducks crept ahead for the first time in the series against Mason.
Mason allowed a two-out walk in the top of the second to Goldfarb, and then a ringing double into the right field corner by Karaviotis. Goldfarb – running on the pitch -- ran through the stop sign at third to score, putting Oregon up, 1-0.
Mason continued to leave the ball up, getting two fly outs in the top of the third, but seemed to settle down.
“I thought he was a little flatter,” Esquer said of Mason’s early work. “Some balls were in the air. That’s not him. When he’s going good, there’s a lot of poor contact on the ground.”
In the third, Cal broke through against Peterson, with a little help from the Ducks defense. With one out, Knapp again sent a hopper over the mound and up the middle for a clean seeing-eye single. Brian Celsi then reached on a bad-hop grounder through third baseman Matt Eureste for a single against an infield used to playing on the all-turf field at PK Park in Eugene.
Up next was Erceg, who sent a bouncer up the middle. Patzlaff tried to field the ball, step on the bag and throw to first all in one motion, but the ball skittered through and into center, scoring Knapp to tie the game, and putting men on second and third. Brett Cumberland then send a grounder to the right side of the drawn-in infield, scoring Celsi on the 3-1 groundout to put the Bears ahead.
Mason allowed a one-out hard line-drive single and then a double just inside the bag at third before hitting Goldfarb on a ball that bounced in the dirt to load the bases, but while the Oregon defense let down its starter, the Bears defense picked up theirs. After Mason hit Karaviotis, the home plate umpire Jake Uhlenhopp said that Karaviotis did not make an effort tot get out of the way. Despite argument from Oregon manager George Horton, Karaviotis stayed back in to hit, and promptly hit into an inning-ending 5-3 double play started by Erceg.
Cal once again got a runner into scoring position in the bottom of the fourth and the bottom of the fifth, but couldn’t push anything across.
Mason got a 1-2-3 inning in the top of the fifth, needing just 10 pitches, then fanned Nick Catalano to lead off the top of the sixth – retiring his sixth straight Ducks leadoff hitter – and after giving up a hard single to right by Craig-St. Louis (who then stole second), retired the next two men to end the threat.
The Oregon defense struck again in the bottom of the sixth, when, after a leadoff walk to Max Dutto, a sacrifice bunt by Grant Diede and an RBI single up the middle by GrandPre, the speedy Knapp stepped to the plate.
Knapp sent a third high-hopper over the mound to second, where once again, Patzlaff had trouble fielding the grounder, allowing Knapp to reach.
“It’s always nice, the first inning, to have the first leadoff runner get on, and it sets the tempo for the game, and if that’s going to be my two-hit night, then I’ll take it,” said Knapp, who was one of four Bears (Cumberland, Paul and GrandPre being the others) to register two-hit nights. “I’m not going to complain. Our field’s playing hot, so I might as well use it to my advantage.”
Catcher Tim Susnara got lazy on the first pitch to Celsi, allowing a swing-and-miss strike to get by him and all the way to the backstop, moving GrandPre to third. With Knapp going on the next pitch, Susnara couldn’t block the ball in the dirt, and Knapp took second. After Peterson fanned Celsi, he was lifted for reliever Josh Graham, who promptly served up a ground ball to Erceg that rolled under Patzlaff’s mitt at second, allowing two more runs to score.
Cumberland then rocked a single through the right side, and Paul sent a single to left, forcing a play at the plate where Erceg narrowly avoided an up-the-line tag by Susnara to score the fourth run of the inning.
“He had good stuff. I was impressed with him,” Esquer said of Peterson. “I thought he threw really nice and easy, but in this league, you have to battle through some guys that are good, and you’re going to have to eventually find a hole or an opening to crack, and to take advantage of that, and continue to play good defense, and play strong yourself, so it matters when you get that crack.”
Mason retired the next six batters he faced in short order, needing just 20 pitches over the next two innings.
“The biggest thing for him is that he got better and better as the game went on, and that’s why we were going to give him a chance to finish it.”
Mason went out for the top of the ninth, but dealt an eight-pitch walk to Craig-St. Louis, then the fading liner to Cuddy, prompting Neu to come out. As Neu walked to the mound, Mason held the ball out, in unusual deference to Neu, as he’s been known to argue his case to stay in the game.
“We’ve definitely had some arguments on the mound, before, so I’ve won a couple, and he’s probably won one, but there was no arguing that one,” Neu said. “He definitely gave us more than we could ask for, and we were going to bring in Nelson. We had Nelson fresh and ready. There was no reason to let him go out there, and he did an outstanding job.”
Nelson – who needed just eight pitches in the bullpen once Mason began to creak, and then just eight pitches on the mound once he entered to warm up -- came on with two men on and one out, and finished things off with relative ease, needing just nine pitches.
“It was a warm night, so it was no trouble at all,” said Nelson. “You just pound [Karaviotis] with fastballs, pitch was working, and we’ve got a four-run lead at that point, so I made him put it in play. Preston’s been playing really well, especially for a freshman. He’s been playing really well all year, so we got the ball to him, game over, and now, we’ve got to get one tomorrow.”
Cal goes for the sweep against Oregon on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Evans Diamond, with Matt Ladrech (3-1, 2.05 ERA) squaring off with Jack Karraker (1-1, 1.50 ERA). Karraker leads the Ducks staff in ERA, and has struck out 19 to just six walks in four starts and 24.0 innings of work.
“We’re just going to pitch his game,” Neu said. “His strengths are throwing any pitch in any count and attacking the hitters, and he’s been able to develop – even though he’s thrown well – I think he’s gotten better with his stuff, being able to mix pitches and mix locations, so I think we’re just going to attack them the way he pitches, which is any pitch, any count. It should be a good match-up.”