“That was a nice outing, right there,” gushed pitching coach Mike Neu. “We had Mason dialed tonight. We’re feeling pretty confident right now. When you pitch and play defense like that, you have a chance to win every single game. That’s really encouraging, especially in Arizona, where runs are scored in heaps, sometimes. It’s been a pretty good first two days.”
The Bears (25-14, 12-8 in Pac-12) won their first series since the March 27-29 set on the road at Utah, having dropped two of three to Washington State, Stanford and No. 3 UCLA in the interim. The Wildcats (24-16, 9-11) have now lost four straight, five of their last six and 10 of their last 12.
“I thought that was huge,” Neu said. “Last weekend, at UCLA, we were four outs away from winning that series, and I thought our guys competed, especially our pitchers. They competed so well in that final game, and it was just a well-pitched, tough game. It was a tough loss to go back home, with a series loss, against one of the highest-ranked teams in the country, and a first-place team. We had that series. To come in this weekend and to win the first two with a chance to sweep, it really feels like were back to how we were playing earlier in the year.”
With the win, Cal moved ever closer to the magical 15-win plateau in league play -- which has, historically, meant a near-automatic bid into the postseason -- by keeping pressure on junior righty Nathan Bannister.
Sophomore center fielder Aaron Knapp led off the to of the first with an 0-2 double to right center, and freshman catcher Brett Cumberland reached via a hit-by-pitch with two outs, before Bannister was able to wriggle off the hook with a fly out by Mitchell Kranson.
Bannister retired the next six Bears in order, but cracked in the top of the fourth. Junior right fielder Devin Pearson -- batting sixth in the order for the second straight night, after missing a month due to a broken hamate bone– came up with his biggest hit since returning to the lineup full-time on April 21, in the top of the fourth.
First baseman Chris Paul singled to lead off the frame, and with one out, Kranson doubled down the right field line on the first pitch he saw from Bannister. Following suit, Pearson did the same, driving in both Kranson and Paul to give the Bears a 2-0 lead.
“It helps a lot having Pearson back, healthy,” Neu said of the veteran outfielder, who went 1-for-3 with an outfield assist on the night. “I think Pearson is a leader. He just plays hard all the time, and when he’s in the game, he gives us a little extra spark. Obviously, he plays great defense, really, really competes every time up and he gives us more depth in our lineup. We were struggling a little bit, lacking that leadership. He makes everyone around him play better.”
Mason -- having earlier escaped a two-on, two-out pickle in the bottom of the second with a pop-out by left fielder Ryan Aguilar, and gotten a key double play after a leadoff single in the bottom of the first – got into his third jam in the bottom of the third, as Justin Behnke reached to lead off the frame on a throwing error from freshman shortstop Preston GrandPre. But, Mason needed just five more pitches to record three straight groundouts – including the final two to GrandPre – to end the frame.
“The biggest challenge facing those guys was probably their first four guys that they have – all big, power guys,” Mason said. “Just getting ahead in the count against those guys really put them off their game plan. They had to get something on the infield and beat it out or get something by the infield. If you stay ahead of those guys, you can do what you want with them. I didn’t really panic, because I felt I had good command of the zone.”
Mason (5-2, 2.78 ERA) dropped his season-high of 3.55 by more than a run with his outing against Arizona, allowing just five hits and walking one, while striking out two.
“I think he was trying to search for something a little bit in his delivery,” Neu said of Mason, who went a career-low 3.0 innings, allowing eight hits and five runs, against the Bruins a week ago. Before that, he had allowed just one run in 6.2 innings against the Cardinal, but three weeks ago, he allowed four runs on seven hits in 6.0 innings to the Cougars. “He was struggling with commanding his fastball and his change the way he’s been doing it. I don't think he’s necessarily pissed horribly, but he just gave up some 0-2 hits, and wasn’t as sharp as he normally is.
“Today, he just turned it on. He was outstanding. The numbers show it, but his sinker was downhill, his change up was great. It was a classic Mason outing, and hey, you don’t expect every pitcher to have his best stuff every time out, but he definitely did have two outings where it wasn’t great. This is when you want him to shine – in a road win, like that. It was pretty awesome.”
The 6-foot-7 sinkerballer depended mainly on his supporting cast in the field, which returned to what head coach David Esquer had earlier called the brink of championship defense.
“Everything was really working, but mainly, defense was the biggest key,” said Mason. “I only struck two guys out, so that’s 22 outs that they have to come up with, and they did a great job.”
After Pearson’s double, Mason got into another spot of trouble in the bottom of the fourth.
First baseman J.J. Matijevic -- picked in the 22nd round of last year’s MLB Draft – popped a payoff pitch from Mason down the left field line for a two-out double, setting the stage for right fielder Jared Oliva, but it was Pearson who once again took the spotlight, cutting down Matijevic on a strong throw home after Oliva singled to right, ending the inning.
“That was a big-time play by Devin Pearson,” said Mason. “He threw that runner out by, I’d say, 15 feet. He did a phenomenal job on that one. It was two outs, no one on, and I shook Mike off on a 3-2 pitch to the guy that hit the double – I threw a change up instead of a fastball, which was my mistake – and then the next guy plays the field very well and hits a groundball through the hole of the fast infield. Devin picked me up on that one.”
But, the Bears struck again in the top of the fifth, with two straight singles to lead off the frame by second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz and Knapp. With one out, Paul sent the first pitch he saw from Bannister – who suffered just his second loss of the season – to center to drive in Tenerowicz. Cumberland then took the first pitch he saw out to right for a sacrifice fly, plating Knapp for the final tally.
Mason allowed just one more hit for the rest of his outing, as sophomore Alex Schick came on in relief for the second night in a row, allowing a one-out single in the bottom of the ninth, and nothing else.
The Bears conclude the series with Arizona on Sunday at 12 p.m. at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, before returning home for a Tuesday date with Fresno State, and a weekend set in Berkeley against No. 12 Arizona State.