BERKELEY -- Even without his devastating curveball working well, No. 13 California freshman righty Jeff Bain still silenced Fresno State on Tuesday, tossing a lifetime-best 8.2 innings and coming within just a few pitches of the Bears’ first complete game since May of last season.
Instead of a complete game, though Bain had to settle for his fifth win of the season, as Cal downed the Bulldogs, 4-1, at Evans Diamond for their fourth straight win.
“That was as competitive outing as he’s had all year, because he didn’t have his great stuff,” said head coach David Esquer. “I think he’s learning how to compete, and just get guys out. He doesn’t feel like he has to feel good and be on top of his game in order to give us a chance to win.”
Bain was aided by sparkling defense behind him, as third baseman Lucas Erceg made a face-first dive into a chain link fence to snare a foul pop up to lead off the top of the sixth, and redshirt junior left fielder Brian Celsi turned in a sprawling grab in foul ground for the first out in the top of the ninth.
Erceg suffered lacerations to the side of his head and his chin, but did not have concussion-like symptoms.
“He didn’t lose consciousness, and we don't think there’s any chance of a concussion,” Esquer said.
Shortstop Preston GrandPre -- Bain’s recruiting classmate – also turned in several standout plays in the six hole, and second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz flashed the leather with a sliding backhanded stop up the middle.
“Winning defense, at the right times,” said Esquer. “We talked about that. Robbie made a nice play up the middle, and GrandPre continues to make good, solid plays for us. He’s young, and may make a mistake here and there, but he’s made far more good plays than he’s made bad plays for us.”
After allowing a two-out single in the top of the first, Bain set down 17 of the next 18 Fresno State hitters, and didn’t allow another hit until Taylor Tempel led off the top of the ninth with a single to short.
Even more impressive was the fact that Bain recorded just two strikeouts (he’s averaging over 5 Ks per 9.0 innings), and spun the gem without an effective curveball.
“You just keep the fastball down in the zone, and just kind of hope they hit it to someone,” Bain said. “The only pitch that was really going for me today was my fastball. Everything was off of that. I had to work off my fastball and keep it down, because those guys are super aggressive. Keep the ball around the zone, and your chances are good.”
Watching Erceg and Celsi work was all the more heartening for Bain, considering he didn’t have his best stuff.
“That was a dangerous play there,” Bain said of Erceg’s dive. “But, outs like that, you’re just grateful for.”
As for the Celsi play – which could have been a trap – Bain said, “Only Brian will know.”
Bain also bounced back from a five-hit, three-earned run outing last time on the bump, going 5.0 innings in a loss to Stanford on April 21.
“I wasn’t so sharp, and it kind of lit a fire under me a little bit,” said Bain, who went 2-1 in the place of an injured Daulton Jefferies during the first four weeks of conference play, but has been so-so over his last two outings, allowing five earned runs in 8.0 innings of midweek work. “It was preparation leading up to the game, adjusting to a role, getting back into the midweek position, being up during the weekends with the possibility of going in, and getting back, ready to start, making sure your pens are on time. All the little things, beforehand. You just have to adjust. It took a couple weeks, and it shouldn’t have, but we’re back.”
Cal (27-14) staked its freshman starter to an early 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first, with senior first baseman Chris Paul starting a two-out rally by taking a payoff pitch to the upper arm.
Freshman Brett Cumberland -- getting the night off behind the plate by taking over designated hitter duties – rattled off the first of three straight singles, with base hits by catcher Mitchell Kranson and right fielder Devin Pearson driving in one run apiece.
Kranson – starting just his fourth game behind the plate this season, and first since an 8-1 win over Chicago State on March 8 – proved to be just what Bain needed on the receiving end, with his only blemish being a passed ball in the top of the ninth with closer Dylan Nelson on the mound.
“Kranson hasn’t caught at all in probably 30, 40 games,” Esquer said. “He probably hasn’t caught Nelly much, either. Maybe he was just trying to help him out a little too much, trying to freeze the glove and make the catch, and the ball got away from him.”
The Bears added a third run in the bottom of the second. With one out, Tenerowicz sent a grounder to second off the chest of Ryan Dobson, who threw short to first, allowing the sophomore infielder to reach.
Sophomore center fielder Aaron Knapp then sent a flare double down the left field line to put men at second and third for Erceg, who grounded out to Dobson, playing deep at second, to plate Tenerowicz.
Cal tallied another run in the bottom of the seventh, without even recording a hit. GrandPre struck out on four pitches against reliever Anthony Arias -- who tossed 3.0 innings in relief of lefty freshman starter Ricky Thomas -- but reached when his swing-and-miss strike three ended up in the dirt, and catcher Taylor Ward threw wide to first.
With the ball rattling in foul ground, GrandPre reached second, where he was sacrificed to third by Celsi.
Tenerowicz sent a swinging bunt to the left of the mound on a 2-0 offering by reliever Jake Schull, and a charging Korby Batesole tried to throw home. GrandPre slid and snuck his left hand under the tag to give the Bears a 4-0 lead.
“It’s better than him hitting a line drive that he feels good about, but we don’t score,” Esquer said.
The offense was once again a bit stagnant, as the 2-3-4 hitters went 1-for-10 on the day, and Cal recorded just four hits, but the two-out rallies were an encouraging sign for Esquer, particularly against a Fresno State team that’s 22-24 overall, but with the No. 77 RPI in the nation.
“We’re still kind of pushing a little bit,” Esquer said. “The way we scored was very positive. Two runs with two outs and nobody on base, and we scored the third run on just a ground ball, give yourself up to score the run, and then GrandPre made a great slide on the last play to score the fourth run, which was kind of a put-away run for us, I thought.”
Fresno State finally got on the board in the ninth, with Tempel leading off with a single to the hole at short. One batter later, he rode home on a single up the middle by Ward.
Bain’s bid for the complete game came to an end, as Esquer called for Nelson, who fanned Kevin Viers on three straight slurves to end the contest, sending Cal into a weekend home series with No. 6 Arizona State on a four-game winning streak.
“We just weren’t going to let him string too long,” Esquer said of Bain, who threw an economical 101 pitches, 69 for strikes. “He’s got a lot of momentum, and as soon as you lose that momentum a little bit, it’s time to get our best guy in, and we have all the confidence in Nelly coming in, but we wanted to give him a chance to run the table.”
The win was all the more sweet for the Bears, given that the Bulldogs had battered them, 7-2, on March 25 down in Fresno. Cal’s RPI, incidentally, is now No. 49 in the nation – firmly in the range for the playoffs. The Bears’ win was their 27th on the season. They won 26 games all of last season, 23 in 2013 and 28 in 2012. In the 2011 College World Series year, Cal won its 27th game on May 3.
“I think our guys are feeling more like themselves, when we were winning games and playing well early in the season, and scoring enough runs, but suffocating them with defense and some nice plays when we had to,” Esquer said. “I think they’re relaxing down into that comfort zone against that upper level of baseball.”