BSB: Erceg Does it Again as Cal Clinches

For the second game in a row, sophomore Lucas Erceg slugs an eighth-inning homer to break a 2-2 tie with Washington, as the Bears clinch their fifth series in a row to stay atop the Pac-12.

It was déjà vu all over again for the No. 24 California baseball team on Saturday in Seattle, as the Bears once again broke an eighth-inning, 2-2- tie with a solo home run from Lucas Erceg, and closer Dylan Nelson came on for his second save in as many days, as Cal took its fifth series in a row with a 3-2 win over Washington, keeping the Bears at the top of the Pac-12.

“I think these guys expect to win, every time they take the field,” said Cal pitching coach Mike Neu. “There’s just no fear, and an expectation of doing well. It’s fun, because then, you can just let these guys play, and let them do their thing, and you feel confident going into any series, with the way we’ve been pitching, playing defense and getting clutch hits.”

The Huskies (13-9, 1-4 in Pac-12) got a stellar effort from starter Tyler Davis, who moved into second place on the program’s all-time rolls for innings pitched with 9.0 frames of six-hit ball with six strikeouts, but the Bears (17-5, 4-1) were able to find the cracks.

Davis – who did not allow a single home run during his All-American season in 2014, and had allowed just one circuit shot this season – allowed two to Cal on Saturday: A game-tying leadoff shot into the jet stream in left by first baseman Chris Paul, and Erceg’s two-out opposite-field job to left in the top of the eighth.

“He’s been unbelievable,” Neu said of Erceg, who he personally recruited. “The last two games, he’s gotten those two huge home runs, and then we held it down from there. He’s been great at third base, and I know he hasn’t pitched much, but he’s one of our better guys on the mound, too, and we haven’t even used him much. He has been great.”

Davis retired the first nine men he faced, throwing first-pitch strikes to each and not getting anywhere near a three-ball count before Paul sent the seventh pitch he saw high into the wind blowing out to left for his fifth home run of the season.

“Even though the pitching is really tough right now, and our guys aren’t scoring many runs, that’s to be expected in this conference,” said Neu, who’s seen the Cal offense average just 2.25 runs over the last four games. “But, they’re still getting the hits when we need them, and that’s the difference.”

Davis got behind Paul, then Aaron Knapp before striking him out looking, and then hit Erceg in the forearm. He then fell behind Brett Cumberland 2-0 before allowing a single to right to the Cal backstop. Brian Celsi flew out to left on the first pitch he saw, and Davis was able to get out ahead of Mitchell Kranson 0-2, but after missing on two straight pitches, he allowed a jam-shot parachute single into short right field to bring Erceg around to score.

“With Chris Paul and Erceg hitting those home runs, those were huge hits to get us in the game, and keep us there, and then obviously take the lead, but I thought other guys had competitive at-bats, too -- Kranson got a big RBI hit on a tough pitch,” Neu said. “I think we were just able to keep the pressure on him, but he did do what big pitchers do in big situations – he made bit pitches. But, our guys did a pretty good job against him the whole way through.”

Cal took a 2-1 lead on that single, after starter Ryan Mason somehow had allowed just one run over the first three innings, despite allowing seven hits. Mason – who did not figure in the decision – left the bases loaded in the bottom of the first with a strikeout and a well-timed grounder to first, and got a few breaks in the bottom of the second.

After Mason hit Will Sparks with his first offering, Sparks was brought back to the plate for failing to make an effort to get out of the way. Mason promptly hit Sparks again, sending him to first. With Sparks going on a hit-and-run, catcher Joey Morgan flailed at a pitch down and away, and missed. Instead of a stolen base for Sparks, the umpires determined that Morgan interfered with Cumberland’s throw, so Sparks was sent back to first, and Morgan was called out.

Levi Jordan then used an inside-out cut to parachute a single into short right over the outstretched glove of second baseman Max Dutto, but Sparks had to freeze to see if Dutto would catch it, holding him at third.

Mason then needed just two pitches to get Matt Jackson to ground into a 6-4-3 double play to end the threat.

Washington got two men on in the bottom of the third, and scored on an Alex Schmidt sacrifice fly before Mason got a liner off his glove that deflected to GrandPre for a force out at second, proving that, at least on Saturday, he was the best magic act outside of Las Vegas.

“He definitely was pretty solid with his fastball, and [Husky Ballpark] is one of those places where the weather, it’s raining, it’s windy, it’s probably not the best atmosphere just to be able to get a feel for your pitches,” Neu said. “It was windy, wet and cold, so I don’t think he had his best feel, but I thought he made some really good pitches, and he caught a rhythm a couple times, but honestly, a lot of those hits were really soft contact. They just put them in the right place. I think he pitched better than his line showed.”

The Huskies out-hit the Bears 12-6, but 10 of those 12 hits were singles, with two weak grounders that squeaked through the infield (either off a glove or off a base), two infield singles and one ball knocked down into shallow center by the wind. The only extra-base hit for Washington was a fifth-inning RBI double off of Mason by Chris Baker, who went 2-for-4 on the day. That double drove in leadoff man Braden Bishop, who reached on a controversial dropped third strike call.

“He did a great job, he competed, and that called third strike, Cumberland thought he caught it, and the umpire didn’t give a call, so we assumed he did,” Neu said. “Cumby probably should have just thrown that ball [to first] anyway, but that turned into a run, so outside of that, he could have easily went seven shutout, and been fine.”

Mason got into more trouble in the bottom of the seventh, allowing a two-out single by Branden Berry -- who had a nine-game hitting streak halted by Jeff Bain on Friday, but went 3-for-4 on Saturday – and then a double to left by Schmidt, with Cal avoiding giving up a run thanks to a strong throw from left fielder Denis Karas, who got his third straight start in left.

Mason – who threw 88 pitches in 6.2 innings of work (more than he did going 8.0 innings last weekend against Oregon) – was then lifted for sophomore righty Alex Schick, fresh off of 5.0 no-hit innings against San Francisco on Tuesday.

Schick – who came into the weekend allowing a miniscule .107 batting average to opposing hitters – got behind Baker 3-1 before getting the Huskies shortstop to fly out to center to end the threat.

After Erceg’s two-out shot in the top of the eighth, Schick got a quick 1-2-3 eighth, striking out both Sparks and Morgan looking with a nasty curve.

“I don’t know, for sure, what he would say, and it’s been more than just the last two outings – I think it’s been the last four or five,” Neu said. “He’s really, really showed improvement. We really just try to get him a little bit more downhill. We actually watched a video – we were fortunate to play Duke that first weekend – of [Mike] Matuella, because of the similar body type. He did a pretty good job against us, and we tried to see if maybe we could emulate him with Schick, because it was a good comparison. I don’t know for sure if that’s what helped him, but I know that his fastball has been better and hard to hit, and his breaking stuff has been really, really good. His confidence level is really high right now, so we feel really good about putting him in the game.”

Schick got two quick outs in the bottom of the ninth, fanning Kyle London -- who made a sliding grab on a fly ball by Dutto to end the top of the frame – and then getting Jack Meggs to ground out to short. But, after getting within one pitch of finishing the game against Bishop, though Schick couldn’t get the full swing from Bishop on a curve, and then missed with a fastball up, putting the junior outfielder with seven steals on first.

Sure enough, Bishop stole second as Schick walked Berry, and it was time for the hook.

“We probably would have brought Nelly in, [to start] the ninth inning, if Schick hadn’t thrown so well in the eighth,” Neu said. “Schick struck out two of those three hitters, and really had no problem. They had a couple righties coming up to start the inning, so we felt we’d let Schick roll, and Nelly pitched the night before, so we’ll get Nelly ready if we need him, and Schick was one pitch away twice from finishing the game. Once they had two runners on and a lefty up, we felt like it was the right time to let Nelly do his thing, being the closer.”

Nelson dealt his first pitch to Schmidt down and in, for a ball, then got Schmidt to foul back his next offering, out of play. Nelson came back with a loopy slider for a called strike, forcing Schmidt to step out of the box to collect himself. After a check look to Bishop, Nelson let fly with another slider, inducing a groundout to short to end the game, and clinch the series.

“If we’re going to go to somebody, we’re going to go to our veteran guy who’s pitched really well in that role, but we feel pretty comfortable closing with multiple guys right now, if we need to, based on keeping guys fresh,” Neu said. “We were OK with Schick trying to do it, but I think it was a good spot to get Nelly in, and he obviously did the job.”

NOTEBOOK
Cal has now won two straight Pac-12 series without arguably its best pitcher in sophomore righty Daulton Jefferies. Nevertheless, the Bears now own the best ERA – by far – in the Pac-12, at 2.51. In conference play, Cal’s staff ERA is even tinier, at 1.60.

“I think we’ll have him back next week,” Neu said of Jefferies, who’s missed two starts due to biceps tendonitis. “He’s throwing now, and he feels good. We’re definitely being more cautious than we maybe would later in the year, but it’s still early in conference play. There’s no reason to rush him, especially with our other young guys pitching so well. We may have to ease him back in. I don’t know if we’ll use him out of the bullpen early to get him back on track, or if we’ll start him and maybe piggyback him with somebody else.

“Our pitchers have really, really competed well. These young guys have really done such a great job, and you can’t ask for anything more than what they’ve done. They’ve given us a chance to win every time we take the field.”

ON DECK
The Bears go for the sweep on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Husky Ballpark, sending freshman Matt Ladrech (3-2, 1.67 ERA) to the mound against former College of San Mateo righty Josh Fredenall, a senior with a 2-0 record and a 4.05 ERA.


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