Cal battered Arizona 8-3 on getaway day on Sunday, rattling off 13 hits, including a 3-for-4, 3-RBI day from junior designated hitter Nick Halamandaris, who tripled for the first time in his Cal career, and stole a base (the third of his career) for the first time since his freshman season.
Coming into the game, Halamandaris had been mired in a 12-for-67 (.179) slump, spanning 22 games, since returning from offseason shoulder surgery. Hitting coach Brad Sanfilipo said three weeks ago, while Halamandaris was getting in his daily, early work before practice, that the left-handed power hitter was still in extended spring training, for lack of a better term.
“To be honest with you, I feel like my season started against Stanford,” Halamandaris said. “Coach Sanfilipo and I have been working hard, and I’ve had some decent at-bats, way better at-bats the last three series, and today, my rhythm and timing felt good, and I was able to get the big part of the barrel on some balls, and you hit the baseball flush, you’ll get hits.”
He broke out in a big way on Sunday, starting with driving in a run with an RBI single as part of a four-run fifth inning that flipped the momentum from the Wildcats, which scratched out a run in the bottom of the fourth on a one-out RBI double to left center by J.J. Matijevic to score Jared Oliva.
Halamandaris’s first-pitch single broke a 1-1 tie, which came about thanks to a one-out, first-pitch single by Mitchell Kranson, followed by a first-pitch double from Devin Pearson, and a mishandled shot to short off the bat of Preston GrandPre, which plated Kranson. A sacrifice bunt by Robbie Tenerowicz, after Halamandaris’s single, scored another run, as did a groundball single through the right side off the bat of Aaron Knapp.
“That’s huge, and it’s one of the toughest things we’ve dealt with the last couple years,” said Halamandaris. “We’re right there. We scratch and claw for one, and then it’s difficult to cap it off. When you’re playing a high-caliber team, they’re going to keep coming at you. To have a little bit of explosion, to take the air out of their sails, was huge for us.”
Halamandaris tallied his first career triple in the seventh, scoring freshman shortstop GrandPre on a ball hit to the 349-foot right field corner at Hi Corbett Field (Evans Diamond’s corners are 320 feet from home plate).
“It felt good, but it’s mostly the park we’re playing at,” said Halamandaris. “It’s a pretty big diamond, and it stuck right in the corner for me, and, luckily, I had enough gas to get to third.”
“The ball was hammered, and he did a great job, but it might not be a triple anywhere else, certainly not at our yard,” said pitching coach Mike Neu.
Halamandaris then rode home on a sacrifice fly by Tenerowicz.
“4-1 is nothing for Arizona, especially at this field,” said Halamandaris, well aware that the Wildcats came into the series with a Pac-12-best .310 batting average. “To keep tacking on, that was big time.”
After a single to right center by GrandPre with two outs in the eighth plated catcher Brett Cumberland (aboard with a one-out first-pitch single to center), Halamandaris struck again, singling to left to plate Pearson, who reached on a first-pitch, two-out single to left off of reliever Cameron Ming.
“It just feels good to help out the team,” Halamandaris said. “You come in with personal stuff, but having a good season like we are, to be honest with you, it just feels good to get a good, team win. It’s fun to be a part of it. With the shoulder and all, it’s been a little bit of a process, but that’s just baseball. You’re going to have days like this, you’re going to have days like I’ve had, and I’m definitely fortunate to have a day like this to close out a sweep.”
Also of big help for the Bears was a fully-loaded bullpen. After Daulton Jefferies went 7.0 innings on Friday, and junior righty Ryan Mason went 8.0 strong on Saturday, both Alex Schick and Dylan Nelson were still available for work, each having thrown less than 30 pitches over the previous two nights.
With starter Matt Ladrech (who moved to 6-4 on the season) throwing 94 pitches (57 strikes) in just 5.0 innings of work, Neu had to rely on the bullpen to negotiate home plate umpire Ryan Bleiberg’s tight zone.
“I thought the umpire was pretty tight, but it was both ways, and Ladrech, I think, just relies on getting early contact to the ground and forcing those guys to swing early in the count,” said Neu, who saw Ladrech walk two batters, and get to three-ball counts seven times. “He’s got a little sink on his fastball and attacks the zone, but he also wants guys to chase a little bit, and he just wasn’t getting those calls. They did a good job of staying patient, and kind of waiting him out, but the good thing is, he made some big pitches when he needed to, and he kept us right there. He only hit five, but he gave up one run, and it could have gotten ugly, if they got a big hit, but that was huge. He did a great job competing on a day when it was a tight zone, and he probably didn’t have his best stuff.”
With Ladrech done after the fifth, Neu called upon freshman righty Erik Martinez, who got flustered early, going 3-2 to each of the first two hitters in the bottom of the sixth. Schick entered in the bottom of the seventh for his third appearance in three games, but gave up a double to Behnke, a wild pitch and then an RBI single to Scott Kingery. After getting a foul out from shortstop Kevin Newman, and walking eventual losing pitcher Bobby Dalbec, Schick was pulled for lefty Chris Muse-Fisher.
After giving up a single on his first offering of the day, Muse-Fisher fanned Oliva to finish off a six-pitch at-bat, and then pushed through an eight-pitch battle against Matijevic to get an inning-ending groundout.
As good as Muse-Fisher was getting out of that jam, though, things got a bit hairy for the senior southpaw in the bottom of the ninth. Muse-Fisher allowed a leadoff single to Kingery, and walked Newman on four straight pitches. After getting Dalbec to fly out, Muse-Fisher surrendered a first-pitch RBI single to catcher Riley Moore.
That single spelled the end for Muse-Fisher, but also opened the door for closer Nelson, who earned his sixth save of the season on Friday. It took two pitches for Nelson to get a foul out from Oliva, and three more pitches to get a line out to short off the bat of Matijevic to end the game, and the series.
“I thought Martinez came in there and did an outstanding job,” Neu said “Schick was ready, and we were facing the top of their order, and we felt like he did such a great job the last two nights, he went in, didn’t have his best stuff, but got a big out. We went to Muse, he got a big out, didn’t quite finish off the game in the ninth, but Nelson was available and fresh, and he did it. It was a really good team effort, having everybody available, because you didn’t have to stick with anybody too long. If they start to get in trouble, get another arm in there and go. I think that was huge.”
The loss dropped Arizona to 24-17 overall on the season, and 9-12 in Pac-12 play, while Cal moved to 13-8 on the season, and 26-14 overall.
That 13 win figure is perhaps the most important number on the day, as it means that the Bears are within three wins of all but securing their first postseason berth since the 2011 College World Series year. Historically, only three Pac-12 team has finished with a conference record of over .500 and not punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament: Cal, with a 13-11 conference record in 2005; Stanford, with a 16-14 record in 2012; and UCLA with a 15-12 mark in 2009.
Beyond the historic nature of the sweep, the series in Arizona has helped to somewhat mitigate the body blows Cal took in series losses to Washington State, UCLA and Stanford.
“Obviously, we weren’t playing our best baseball during those three series losses,” Neu said. “We were able to salvage a win out of each of those, even though we felt like we could have won the UCLA series, but to get a sweep – especially on the road – to get to 15 wins is big, but we’re not trying to think about that. We’re trying to play one game at a time and play our best baseball and get better at just competing. I think our team is doing a really good job of that right now. If we do that, I think we’ll put ourselves in position to win a lot of games, and that’s all you can really ask for.
“You can’t control everything in this, but you can control the way you play – how hard you play and how hard you compete. You get in trouble looking ahead a bit. I don’t think we want to do that, but getting a sweep here, after it’s all said and done, it’s huge.”
The Bears return to Berkeley for a Tuesday tilt against Fresno State at Evans Diamond at 7 p.m., followed by a crucial three-game set against No. 11 Arizona State slated for Friday (7 p.m.), Saturday (6 p.m.) and Sunday (1 p.m.), at Evans Diamond.
Cal right-handed pitcher signee Joey Matulovich out-dueled future first-rounder Justin Hooper of Concord (Calif.) De La Salle on Friday, tallying 9 strikeouts in a 2-1 win for Danville (Calif.) San Ramon Valley in EBAL play.