Those notches on Cal's belt? Three wins against 2014 College World Series participant UC Irvine, an 11-1 win over Super Regional participant Stanford, 2 wins against regional participant Oregon and, after Sunday, three wins against regional participant Washington. The Bears have won five series in a row after dropping 2 of 3 games to Duke, and those last two series, they've win without their best pitcher.
“The kids have been in this situation a couple times this year, and this is one where you’ve got to learn how to put a team away, and how to play on Sunday,” said head coach David Esquer. “I think, after last week, letting it get away from us, I think they came out with a little bit of a different attitude, and really played a good ballgame.”
The Bears are now tied for first place in the Pac-12 with 2013 national champion and current No. 7-ranked UCLA, after a 20-hit effort against Washington, sparked once again by Lucas Erceg. After hitting two go-ahead home runs in the eighth innings of the previous two games to lead to twin 3-2 defeats of the host Huskies, Erceg went 3-for-6 with his third home run in the series and two doubles on getaway day.
“I think I’ve been seeing the ball well, sticking with my approach that I’ve had since the beginning of the year, and that was that,” Erceg said.
The sophomore third baseman drove in four runs and scored two himself, finishing off a 6-for-13 weekend in which he drove in 6 runs, scored 5 and tallied 5 extra-base hits in what should be a very strong case for Pac-12 Player of the Week honors, following that honor being picked up earlier this season by teammate Chris Paul, who was the only Bears starter on Sunday not to record a hit.
“He was on fire,” Esquer said of Erceg. “They really didn’t have much to get him out with. If he made an out, it was a hard out. It was maybe him not getting his best swing on it, but he hit two balls – he hit one ball just barely foul that was a home run, in his next-to-last at-bat, and the last at-bat, the ball dropped down right in front of the fence and the guy caught it, so he was swinging the bat really well.”
Erceg wasn’t the only offensive star on the day, as junior Mitchell Kranson went 4-for-5 on the day, with two runs and two RBIs. Five other Bears tallied multi-hit days, including freshman shortstop Preston GrandPre going 3-for-5, left fielder Grant Diede going 2-for-4, junior right fielder Brian Celsi going 2-for-5 with two runs and an RBI, Brett Cumberland going 2-for-5 with two runs and an RBI, and leadoff man Aaron Knapp, who went 2-for-5 with two runs, a walk and an RBI.
“We had been waiting for someone to establish themselves in that six hole for us, because it’s been a vacant part of our batting order all year, and to get some production out of that spot, that makes it a different lineup,” Esquer said of Kranson’s production.
The Bears got leadoff men on in five innings, including four of the first five. Of the five leadoff men Cal put aboard, all five came around to score – including Cumberland in the seventh, thanks to drilling his fourth home run of the season off of reliever Ryan Schmitten.
BLOW BY BLOW
Washington – which finds itself shorthanded due to injury on its pitching staff – sent six men to the hill on Sunday, with the Bears scoring at least one run off of all but one Husky hurler. Starter Spencer Jones -- making his first spot start of the year after 12 straight relief appearances – lasted just 2.0 innings, giving up 4 runs – including a first-inning 0-1 two-run circuit shot to Erceg to right center field – the second time Erceg had scored a tater off of Jones, with the first coming in the eighth inning of Friday night’s win.
“I swung at a bad pitch on Friday night, so I learned from his tendencies, and just made an adjustment to think of hitting a ball up and driving the ball,” Erceg said.
The Huskies came back for a run in the bottom of the first against Cal starter Matt Ladrech on a two-out RBI single up the middle by Branden Berry, but the Bears got that run back in short order thanks to a Washington throwing error that turned a two-out infield single by GrandPre into a run by Kranson, who reached on a leadoff single.
Ladrech was a tough puzzle for the Huskies to solve for the rest of his outing, escaping a two-on, one-out jam in the bottom of the second by striking out catcher Joey Morgan, and stranding speedy Braden Bishop at second in the bottom of the third by striking out powerful first baseman Branden Berry. Ladrech did get into a spot of trouble in the bottom of the fourth, after a Kranson RBI single cashed in a leadoff double up the first base line by Cumberland in the top of the frame to extend the lead to 4-1.
Ladrech allowed a 1-0 single to designated hitter Josh Cushing to lead off the inning, and with one out, got a would-be double play grounder to roll to short, but after GrandPre’s flip to Max Dutto erased Cushing, Dutto’s throw to first popped out of Paul’s glove.
Third baseman Nyles Nygaard then sent a chopper between the mound and third for Erceg, who – after making two dazzling plays at third earlier in the game – cmae charging in to field the ball. His throw to first, th ough, took Paul up the line, and off the bag, sailing into foul territory, allowing Nygaard to reach second and bringing home Mitch Bevacqua. Ladrech then got Morgan to fly out to end that threat.
The Bears batted around in the top of the fifth, sending 10 men to the plate and scoring four runs on five hits – more than the Huskies had tallied in the entire game up to that point.
GrandPre led things off with a single, and moved to second on a four-pitch walk to Knapp. Both of them rode home on Erceg’s double high off the right field wall, making him 4-for-4 with 2 home runs, 2 doubles and 5 RBIs over his previous four plate appearances.
Erceg moved to third on a groundout by Cumberland, and then Celsi sent a perfectly-placed suicide squeeze up the third base line to score Erceg and head into first with a single, himself, making the score 7-2.
After a Kranson single moved Celsi to third, second baseman Max Dutto cashed in Celsi, and with that, the Bears had more than enough cushion to keep riding Ladrech, who improved as the game wore on.
Ladrech got a 5-4-3 double play to end the bottom of the fifth, escaped a jam with men at the corners by getting a well-timed fielder’s choice grounder from Nygaard to end the bottom of the sixth, and worked around a one-out walk in the bottom of the seventh.
“Especially after we were scoring some runs, he was able to strand some runners, and that actually took a little air out of them,” Esquer said. “For him to go seven innings for us, that’s a big one, especially with [Daulton] Jefferies not going this weekend. That’s a bullpen saver.”
The Bears added three more runs off of Schmitten in the seventh, thanks to Cumberland’s no-doubt-about-it solo shot and Kranson’s double into the left center field gap to plate Celsi. Kranson came around to score after a single to the right side by Grant Diede, and then rode home on a wild pitch to GrandPre.
Once Ladrech was done (7.0 IP, 8 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K), Jesse Kay pitched a scoreless eighth, and Collin Monsour got the first two outs in the ninth, followed by a short, two-batter outing for Erik Martinez, who had not pitched since last Friday against Oregon.
“He’s probably going to pitch some innings on Wednesday, and he hadn’t been off a mound,” Esquer said of Martinez. “We kept him off the mound in Tuesday’s game, because he’d been pitching a lot for us, and we didn’t use him through the weekend. He was throwing a bullpen anyway, so it was good for him to actually see a couple hitters.”
Cal tacked on a run in the top of the ninth on a two-out single to right off the bat of Knapp.
• Second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz came back for an inning of defensive work in the ninth, as he’s been cleared to play defense for the past three games. He still has yet to be cleared to swing a bat, after injuring his wrist early in the season.
“We’ll take as much as we can get from him,” Esquer said.
• Martinez will start Tuesday’s game at Fresno State, set for a 6:35 p.m. start on Wednesday. Martinez will likely go 3.0 innings, and the rest of the game will go to the bullpen, as Cal prepares for a weekend in Salt Lake City to face Utah, which fell, 11-2, to UCLA on Sunday. The Utes are struggling, with a 7-15 overall mark and a 2-4 record in Pac-12 play.