BERKELEY -- Aaron Knapp’s older brother Andrew Knapp got his first walk-off hit in his first ever game as a California Golden Bear, against Utah, in 2011. Both Andrew, and the boys’ father -- Mike Knapp -- went to the College World Series.
Aaron Knapp may yet find himself in Omaha – No. 13 Cal came into this weekend enjoying its best 41-game record since the 2011, when the Bears reached college baseball’s biggest stage – but he did get that walk-off monkey off his back on Saturday, as a two-out, ninth-inning flare single over shortstop brought home the game-winning run in a 5-4 victory over No. 6 Arizona State.
“I felt like I’d been seeing it really well this weekend,” Knapp started, before his teammates hit him with the ice-water shower from the Gatorade bucket. “That was pretty cold,” he smiled.
“I had some close plays at first that I didn’t get, so I was going up there, seeing if I could get a pitch to hit. That guy [reliever Ryan Burr] who was coming in, he was a little off, recently, so I just went with it,” Knapp continued. “This is my first walk-off, ever, in anything. That was pretty cool.”
“Punch one the other way, that’s all I was thinking, too,” said head coach David Esquer. “Punch one through somewhere. We’ve played two nights in a row with one of the best teams in the nation, and we believe we can do that, and we’re learning to do that on a daily basis. That’s the growth of our team.”
Before Knapp’s walk-off, though, another young Bear had his moment to shine: Erik Martinez.
After reliever Chris Muse-Fisher got the first two outs in the top of the eighth – including a hot-shot back up the middle after already nearly taking a ball off his face an inning prior – the soft-tossing lefty gave up a ringing double off the right center field wall to first baseman Joey Bielek, putting the winning run in scoring position in what was to that point a 4-4 tie.
After intentionally walking Friday night’s hero Trever Allen, Muse-Fisher was pulled for Martinez. On the freshman righty’s second offering to pinch hitter R.J. Ybarra, he gave up a hard shot to third.
Drawn-in third baseman Lucas Erceg -- who had to range to his left to even get a glove on the ball. Instead of stopping it, though, Erceg’s mitt deflected the ball towards center, but shortstop Preston GrandPre was positioned well enough that he was able to stop the ball from careening into center, saving the go-ahead run, but loading the bases.
Up stepped freshman second baseman Andrew Snow, who came into the game hitting .330. Martinez fell behind 2-0, before a fastball was fouled straight back. He then missed just off the inner half of the plate to fall behind, 3-1. Martinez stole a strike on the outside corner, and then came back with a swing-and-miss, 85 mph slider for the final out of the eighth, leaving the bases full of Sun Devils.
"This was as big a win as we’ve had all year, against a national top-10 team after a tough loss last night. This showed me a lot about our team." Cal head coach David Esquer
“It was huge,” Esquer said. “At this level of the game, it can turn on just the smallest play or execution. Martinez’s at-bat there with Snow was huge, with the 3-2 pitch. Then, the play at third base that we didn’t make, I don’t know if he should have made it or not, but we didn’t make that play.”
Martinez may not have gotten the win – that honor went to Alex Schick, who tossed a 1-2-3 ninth on 12 pitches – but it was his 0.1 inning relief outing that swung the momentum back into the Bears dugout for the final time in a game that saw three lead changes and two ties.
“That was an awesome team win for us,” said Devin Pearson, who went 2-for-4 with an RBI triple in the third and a solo home run in the bottom of the sixth – giving Cal (28-15, 14-9 in Pac-12) a 4-3 lead at the time. “It’s huge, it’s huge.”
Freshman catcher Brett Cumberland picked off two runners and threw out one trying to steal on the evening, giving him four put-outs on the bases over the past two games. He’s cut down two of the last three runners trying to steal on him, and that’s no accident.
“I’ve really been working on my footwork and my arm strength over the past week, really trying to improve that,” said Cumberland. “I’m feeling a lot more comfortable behind the plate, not just catching, but throwing.”
“He’s maturing behind the plate,” said Esquer. “The last two weekends were the best weekends he’s caught all year. There’s a little bit of the rough go the last two nights with wild pitches not blocked, that caused big movement – the tying run scored on a wild pitch today – but he’s getting better, and he’s playing better.”
Cumberland also put the Bears up early, with a first-pitch home run to left center field off of starter Ryan Kellog (who dropped to 7-2), with one out in the bottom of the second.
BLOW BY BLOW
Cumberland preceded his seventh home run of the season – his first since he put two over the fence in a 14-6 win over Utah on March 27 – with a key back pick in the top of the second to erase David Greer, aboard after he took a one-out, 1-0 pitch to the arm.
That back-pick freed up starter Ryan Mason to get Bielek to fly out to center to end the inning.
Mason got into even more trouble in the top of the third, allowing a leadoff single to Allen, and a one-out seeing-eye single through the left side to Snow.
Mason’s first pitch to Dylan Sewald was smoked over the leaping glove of first baseman Chris Paul for an RBI double, and his 2-1 offering to Jake Peevyhouse was lined again over Paul for a two-run single.
Once again, though, Cumberland helped to save Mason’s bacon, firing a back pick to first to erase Peevyhouse on the third pitch to shortstop Colby Woodmansee, who then popped out to right to end the threat.
The Bears capitalized on the momentum, and with one out in the bottom of the third, Knapp rolled an infield single to second, beating out the throw from a charging Snow, and then coming all the way around to score on a line shot by Pearson into the left field corner for a triple.
“I needed a single and a double mixed in there,” said Pearson, who got the two hardest hits in the cycle. “We always talk about being able to respond to stuff, and to come out today and to just respond today, we had the lead, they came back, we came back again, it shows how tough our team is.”
An RBI groundout on a hot shot to third by Paul brought Pearson in, tying the game at 3-3.
“He’s locked in,” Esquer said of Pearson, who is 6-for-9 over his past two games, including a 4-for-5 night on Friday. Since Pearson’s return from a broken hamate bone, he’s gone 12-for-30 (.400). Over the past five games, he’s 10-for-19 (.526) with 6 RBIs, three doubles and a home run. “I told him in Arizona, he was locked in, and he was swinging the bat well there. That’s been a big right-handed bat boost for us.”
Mason finally settled in, needing just five pitches to get through the top of the fourth, nine pitches to get through the fifth (allowing two, two-out singles, including one of the infield variety) and six pitches to get through the top of the sixth.
As Mason found his groove, so did Kellog, retiring eight straight before allowing a leadoff home run to Pearson in the bottom of the sixth, smoked off the Xavier Nady mural in left, giving the Bears a 4-3 lead.
“He went first-pitch fastball, and then tried to flip in a change up or a slider away, and it just came right to my barrel,” Pearson said.
Mason finally gave up the ghost in the top of the seventh, allowing back-to-back singles to Allen and Dalton Dinatale. With Snow squaring to bunt at an 0-1 pitch by Mason, Cumberland came up with another back pick, this time to second, as he caught Allen napping and taking a bit too many liberties with his lead, which Cumberland said he noticed during the game on Friday night.
“First and second, nobody out, and all of the sudden, you go runner at second with two strikes and one out, that’s a big deal,” Esquer said.
But, five pitches later, Snow flared a single to right, spelling the end for Mason, and bringing Muse-Fisher in with two men on, and just one out.
Sewald lined a 3-1 offering from Muse-Fisher right back towards the senior lefty, who only avoided serious injury to his face and head by getting his glove up in time to deflect the line drive towards first. The ball was too far way, though, on the deflection, from Muse-Fisher and from Paul to make a play, loading the bases for pinch hitter Zach Cerbo. Cerbo worked the count to 3-2, and though Muse-Fisher got him swinging and missing on the payoff pitch down and away,
After Martinez’s heroics in the top of the eighth, and Schick getting Woodmansee swinging and missing at a 93 mph fastball at the knees to end the top of the ninth, it was time for El Gaucho to ride again.
Left fielder Mitchell Kranson -- who earlier got the first leg hit of his life when he beat out a slow roller with a headfirst slide into first base -- led off the bottom of the ninth against ace reliever Darin Gillies -- who struck out two in 1.1 innings on Friday – with a 2-2 double down the right field line, causing the 1,247 at Evans Diamond to erupt.
Kranson was pinch-run for by speedy Sean Peters, and GrandPre was given an intentional walk, to keep the possible double play still in order.
With powerful designated hitter Nick Halamandaris due up, Esquer instead opted for the better bat handler in John Soteropulos, in preparation for a sacrifice bunt. Soteropulos squared, and tried a slash on the first pitch, but swung and missed, with the corners in.
With the corners once again cheating up, Soteropulos laid down a bunt on the second pitch he saw, but Arizona State (29-14, 14-6) had the wheel play on, meaning that late-inning defensive replacement third baseman Jordan Aboites was able to charge, field, and throw back to third, where shortstop Woodmansee was covering, erasing Peters.
“We probably should have slashed there,” Esquer said. “You have to read the defense a little bit. We’re calling it, but in the heat of battle, you’ve got to read the defense, and the play there is, when you run that wheel play, you’ve got to swing.”
Still, Cal had two men on, but only one in scoring position. Esquer pulled another lever, subbing Brian Celsi for .159-hitting Robbie Tenerowicz.
Celsi worked a five-pitch at-bat, finishing it off with a hard one-hopper to the mound that reliever Ryan Burr was just able to knock down with his glove, but that groundout meant that both runners advanced into scoring position.
“Celsi had a great at-bat,” Esquer said. “He didn’t get rewarded for it, but he had a great at-bat off the bench. This is a big win. This is as big a win as we’ve had all year, just to play at home – we haven’t played great, necessarily – against a national, top-10 team after a tough loss last night. This showed me a lot about our team.”
Three pitches later, Knapp was the hero, setting Cal up for a rubber match with the Sun Devils on Sunday, when freshman lefty Matt Ladrech (6-4, 2.16 ERA) takes the mound against Arizona State’s southpaw, Brett Lilek (3-2, 3.66), at 1 p.m.