In 2011, as Cal miracled its way to the College World Series, and back from cancellation, Esquer paced. From Houston, Tex., to Santa Clara, Calif., all the way to Omaha, Neb., Esquer paced, up and down, up and down in the dugout.
“From first pitch to last, back and forth in the dugout, the whole time,” 2011 closer Matt Flemer said, the day after the Bears walked off, 9-8, against Baylor.
“I think best when I’m on the move,” Esquer said on Friday, as Cal moved to 19-5 overall, and 6-1 in Pac-12 play, maintaining a first-place tie with No. 9 UCLA and hammering out 15 hits – seven of which were for extra bases.
Of those 15 hits, freshman catcher Brett Cumberland had two – both home runs – as he drove in a game-high three runs for the Bears. It was the second time this season that the young backstop went yard twice in the same game, as Cal put four balls over the wall against Utah (8-16, 2-5 in Pac-12).
The other two circuit shots coming from reigning National Player of the Week Lucas Erceg, and designated hitter Nick Halamandaris -- his first of the season as he works back into the lineup from an offseason injury to his right shoulder. Halamandaris finished the night 2-for-4 with two runs, a home run, a double and two RBIs from the eight-hole, in front of Preston GrandPre, who went 2-for-4 with two runs and two RBIs, as well.
“We gave him a couple weeks, and he was trying to rehab during games, and that was hard to do,” Esquer said of Halamandaris. “We took him back a little bit, let him get more work in, and he looked like he was getting ready, and obviously, he looked like that today. We’ll see what happens over time, but I would say it’s a good start.”
For the third week in a row, the Bears (19-5, 6-1) were without Friday-night ace Daulton Jefferies, but that didn’t matter much for Cal, as freshman righty Jeff Bain won his third straight game as Jefferies’ understudy, going 5.0 innings, allowing six hits and two earned runs, while walking one and striking out two as he moved to 4-0 on the season.
Bain got plenty of help from a Cal defense that turned four double plays on the night, getting Bain out of a two-on, one-out jam in the second; a two-on, no-out jam in the fourth; and a two-on, one-out jam in the bottom of the fifth.
“If you ask me the reason we’re able to have the season we’re having now, it’s because of our defense,” Esquer said. “That has supported our pitching, and I have told our players, ‘Our pitching is pretty good, but our pitching is real good when we play defense.’”
Cal sprinted ahead with a five-run second, when a thigh-high, 2-1 offering from starter Bret Helton deep into the right center field gap for an RBI double – just his second hit of the season – to drive in Mitchell Kranson, who got his second start of the year in left field. Kranson continued his hot hitting, going 2-for-5 on the night, with one run and one double. Over the past three games, Kranson is 8-for-13, with four runs scored, three RBIs and three doubles.
“That was our only chance to get Halamandaris in the lineup,” said Esquer, who couldn’t put Kranson at DH, because that’s where Halamandaris was inserted, nor could he put Kranson at first, where Chris Paul is hitting .351, or at third, where Erceg is hitting .394, or behind the plate, where Cumberland is hitting .337. “Kranson, he earned the right to be in the lineup, but we had no other opening unless we stuck him out on the field somewhere, so left field was the place we were going to stick him.”
That laser beam spelled the end for Helton, who gave way to Trenton Stoltz, who fared no better. Freshman shortstop GrandPre took the first pitch he saw from Stoltz and shot it through the left side to plate two more runs. GrandPre himself advanced to third on a wild pickoff throw, and then rode home on a sacrifice fly by Aaron Knapp.
Up stepped Erceg, who unloaded on an 0-1 fastball in the lower inside half of the strike zone and sent it just inside the foul pole in right for his fourth home run in the past five games, giving him a team-high seven round-trippers on the season.
After a run-scoring double play got Utah on the board in the bottom of the fourth, Cumberland sent the first of his two long balls over the fence to give the Bears a 6-1 lead.
“He’s had some periods where he’s like a freshman, and he’s not going to stay hot the whole time, but he’s come out the other side and had a game today, like he had at Stanford,” Esquer said. “He’s a freshman in the four-hole, and that doesn’t happen too often. It only happens with really special players, and he did have some ups and downs, but part of his ups is a game like today, with two homers.”
Bain got a little loose in the bottom of the fifth, allowing a leadoff single by left fielder Wade Gulden, before striking out pinch hitter Hunter Simmons with an exploding fastball down and away. But, Bain then walked Josh Rose on five pitches, with his fourth missing low and in and skittering to the backstop, moving Gulden to third.
With second baseman Kody Davis -- who’d gone 0-for-2 against Bain up to that point – at the plate, Bain paid close attention to Rose, firing three straight pickoff throws to first. But, as soon as Bain took his attention off of Rose, he broke for second. Bain spun and threw, but was far too late, putting two men in scoring position for Davis, who, five pitches later, lined an RBI single through the right side to make it 6-2, Bears.
Bain was pulled after 5.0 innings, having thrown just 67 pitches.
“He wasn’t pitching comfortably, I didn’t think,” Esquer said. “He didn’t really have very many of his secondary pitches, and we were in the lead, so that allowed us to do that. I think he was fine, and got through it, but he wasn’t sharp.”
Cal went right back to the well in the top of the sixth, scoring five more runs on a leadoff home run from Halamandaris, RBI singles by Erceg and Paul, an RBI ground out by junior Brian Celsi and a fielder’s choice to third by Kranson. The ball by Kranson was a one-hopper to third, but the throw home was low, forcing catcher A.J. Young to go down to block it. Paul – as soon as the ball headed for dirt – broke hard for the plate, and swerved around Young to score.
Reliever Collin Monsour -- who had a rough outing on Wednesday, going 1.1 innings and allowing one run on five hits against Fresno State on Wednesday – came on in the sixth, and allowed two straight one-out single, before a two-out base hit by Gulden to left plated another run for the Utes.
A two-run homer off the scoreboard in right off the bat of Cumberland kept the ball rolling for the Bears in the top of the seventh, but once again, Utah chipped away at Monsour for a run in the bottom of the frame, with two straight first-pitch one-out singles and a sacrifice fly off the bat of Dallas Carroll.
A pair of seldom-used reserves got into the action in the top of the ninth for the Bears, as with two outs, catcher Matt Ruff -- in just his second game, taking his second at-bat – was hit in the point of his left elbow by a 3-1 pitch from reliever Tanner Thomas. Sean Peters -- used mostly in late-inning defensive relief and as a speedy pinch runner – got his shot next, and drove a double deep into the left center field gap, bringing Ruff around to score his first career run.
Monsour gave up four singles and hit a batter in the bottom of the ninth, before getting a line-out to second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz by Gulden. Tenerowicz got his first hit since Feb. 22, after being on the shelf with a wrist injury when he singled up the middle off his hands with two outs in the top of the eighth.
ODDS AND ENDS
• Tenerowicz is the first of reinforcements to come back off the injured list for the Bears. Jefferies is set to throw about two innings of relief work this weekend, if the occasion calls, and be ready to ease back into the rotation next weekend against Washington State in Berkeley. In two weeks, Cal should get starting right fielder Devin Pearson (broken hamate bone) back, as well, and once the calendar turns to May, the Bears should also get back top right-handed middle reliever Keaton Siomkin, who’s been on the shelf all season while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
“Having Robbie back out there a little bit today is helpful,” Esquer said. “There’s more coming, because we still have Pearson, Siomkin, other guys who will eventually get healthy for us.”
• Given all the time that key pieces have missed, Esquer said that, if told his starting right fielder and No. 2 hitter, his ace Friday-night pitcher, his best reliever, his starting second baseman and arguably one of the better power bats on the roster – a former eighth-round draft pick by the Seattle Mariners – would be on the shelf for much of the first half of the season, he wouldn’t have believed that his team could be sitting tied for first place in the Pac-12 with UCLA. The No. 9 Bruins, it should be noted, edged Washington State, 4-3, on Friday.
“No chance, no chance,” Esquer said. “But, you have to hand it to the guys who have stepped in and done a great job. [Max] Dutto stepped in and held [second base] down for us, until Robbie could get back, and Kranson got hot in the DH spot to give us another hitter, and another option out there. Bain has stepped up and started on Fridays and we haven’t skipped a beat. If they don’t do that, that’s a different story. If those players don’t step in and do that for us, it’s a different story.”
• Asked whether it would be Bain (4-0 2.41 ERA) or Erceg (leading the team with a .387 batting average, 7 home runs and 24 RBIs) would be the team MVP at this point, with Bain stepping in for Jefferies and Erceg earning National Player of the Week honors for his series against Washington, Esquer couldn’t decide.
“You cannot diminish the importance or speak any higher of the importance of Bain giving us what he’s given us, coming in when Jefferies got a little sore,” Esquer said. “He looks good, and Jefferies has thrown this weekend, and could be on his way back, but what Bain has given us has been unbelievable.”
Jefferies threw a bullpen on Thursday in Salt Lake City, and looked good throwing on Friday. “He’s a go at some point this weekend, if we need him,” Esquer said.
Cal faces the Utes’ junior righty Dalton Carroll -- arguably, Utah’s best pitcher – on Saturday at 5 p.m., MT, and will counter with 6-foot-7 junior righty Ryan Mason.
Carroll brings a 3-3 record and a 3.44 ERA into Saturday’s tilt, and appeared in 15 games with 11 starts last season, going 1-5 with a 5.31 ERA. In 59.1 innings of work, he recorded 38 strikeouts to 11 walks, the second-fewest in the league.