BERKELEY -- Two weeks ago, when No. 13 California came within two innings of upsetting then-No. 2 UCLA down in Los Angeles, head coach David Esquer knew that his Bears were close to turning a corner. It turns out, he was right.
Since dropping a 4-0 midweek contest at Stanford, Cal has now taken two straight Pac-12 series, sweeping Arizona on the road and taking the final two of three games from No. 6 Arizona State this weekend at Evans Diamond, coming back to win the finale, 8-6, on Sunday, in front of a season-high crowd of 1,728 in Berkeley.
“This is probably as good a series win as I’ve had in 16 years,” said Esquer. “Against this type of opponent, with what’s at stake for us, and our team growing into being a team that can play at this level on a consistent basis, hey, hit doesn’t get any better than this weekend, but we will get better.”
The Bears (29-15, 15-9 in Pac-12) have now clinched at least a .500 finish in conference play, and only three teams in the history of the league has a team finished above .500 and not made the playoffs.
Following center fielder Aaron Knapp’s game-winning single on Saturday night, the sophomore speedster again provided the winning blow against the Sun Devils (29-15, 14-7), scorching a two-run triple down the right field line in the bottom of the eighth to put Cal up, 7-6.
Knapp’s hit was the centerpiece of a four-run, five-hit, two-out rally, something Knapp is all-too-familiar with, after watching his older brother Andrew Knapp play with the 2011 team that had five walk-off wins en route to Omaha.
“He just said they didn’t panic,” the younger Knapp said. “That’s what we’re doing right now – we haven’t had very many come-from-behind victories this year, and I think this weekend and last weekend, starting with UCLA, actually, we just felt at-ease in the late innings, which we usually don’t. It’s just nice to get rewarded at the end of the day.”
That rally was capped off by an RBI single off the bat of Devin Pearson, who finished the series 8-for-13, with 4 runs, 5 RBIs, 2 home runs, a triple and a stolen base.
“We were on top of the world,” Pearson said of the ninth-inning rally. “We came back, getting the big hit, then adding one on was even bigger, getting that security. The amount we’ve had to come back this weekend, we felt like we could do this. We could keep scoring runs, and we did it.”
“He’s locked in,” Esquer said. “He was locked in at Arizona, and hey, just trying to keep him feeling good and seeing the ball as big as he is, because he’s been a key figure in these last few games.”
The rally started when pinch hitter Nick Halamandaris -- who was just 1-for-7 on the series, after starting his career on an 8-for-21 tear against the Sun Devils – punched an RBI single through the right side, scoring catcher Brett Cumberland, who led off the inning by taking a dose in the middle of the back.
“It’s tough to pinch hit, with a runner in scoring position,” Halamandaris said, through a smile. “I’d left a few guys on in scoring position earlier in the series, so that was a good one to make up for it. It was awesome. For the run to score, to start the rally, that was a fantastic team win. That was really fun to be a part of. It was fantastic.
“Truthfully, in years past, we probably would have been a little deflated. This year, we’ve got something special. We’re always pushing, and we’re feeling the rhythm of the game a little better, and we’ve really never given up, really until the last out.”
For the third game in a row, Cal tallied at least 10 hits – banging out 14 on Sunday, 10 on Saturday and 15 on Friday -- with the first four hitters in the lineup going 7-for-17 with 6 RBIs, led by Knapp and Pearson, who each went 2-for-4 with 2 RBIs. In total, four Bears tallied multi-hit days, including redshirt junior Brian Celsi, who went 3-for-4 in the eight hole. For the second day in a row, Pearson slugged a crucial home run, tying the game at 4-4 with a solo shot in the bottom of the fifth.
“I was looking for something I could drive on that first pitch, because they’d thrown me a lot of fastballs,” Pearson said. “I got one right into my barrel, and took advantage of it. It was awesome.”
The Cal bullpen had to do yeoman’s work on Sunday, as starter Matt Ladrech -- who came in with a 2.16 ERA and a .249 opponent batting average – lasted just 1.2 innings, giving up 7 hits and 4 runs – all earned – before former weekend starter Jeff Bain came on in relief.
Bain, Chris Muse-Fisher, Dylan Nelson and Lucas Erceg tossed the final 6.2 innings, giving up just three total hits and two runs, allowing the Bears offense to keep chipping away.
“It’s fight,” Esquer said. “This is a Sunday that was going to go back and forth. We’re down. We give up four in the first two innings, and our Sunday starter, who’s been reliable, is out of the game, and we’ve got to find a way to piece through seven innings to stay competitive, and they did a great job.”
BLOW BY BLOW
After the Sun Devils notched a run in the top of the first on an RBI single to left center off the bat of designated hitter David Greer, the Bears stormed back in the bottom of the frame, all starting with a bad throw from catcher Brian Serven.
With one out and Pearson at first, Cal first baseman Chris Paul ground out a 10-pitch at-bat, but struck out looking. Severen then tried to catch Pearson stealing second, but threw high and wide, allowing Pearson to scamper to third.
Erceg – who started the game at third – then sent a line-drive single to the right of the second base bag to bring Pearson home, easily. Next up was Cumberland, who saw Erceg steal second on a ball low and away.
Cumberland then brought home the sophomore phenom by driving a hanging change up to the deepest part of the park just to the left of center field. Were the wind not howling, the ball would have easily been over the fence, but instead, the sophomore backstop had to settle for an RBI double, putting Cal ahead, 2-1.
Arizona State stormed back in the top of the second, starting with a ground rule double off the bat of Trever Allen for his fifth hit of the series. After Allen was sacrificed to third, left fielder Jake Peevyhouse -- who came into the finale having gone 2-for-6 – sent a looping single into shallow center for his fifth RBI of the weekend, tying the game at 2-2.
Dylan Sewald then tallied a ground ball single through the right side, reaching base for the 26th consecutive game. With two outs, Colby Woodmansee -- who came into the day on an 0-for-10 skid -- sent a sharp single under a diving Preston GrandPre, putting the Sun Devils up, 3-2.
Serven then atoned for his earlier sin by sending an RBI single to left, bringing Sewald home and putting Arizona State up, 4-2. Enter: Bain.
“It was pretty earl in the game, and I just thought of it as getting into a start, and continuing what was going on from last week,” said Bain. “I kept the same pre-pitching routine, being as routine as possible about it, and not make it feel like a relief outing.”
The freshman righty was presented with Greer, who came in hitting .389 with runners on base, .409 with runners in scoring position and .342 with two outs.
“I came into the game, and I wasn’t really locating, went 3-0, and then I just split the plate in half, trying to put it into Cumby’s glove,” Bain said.
Greer then sent a 3-1 one-hopper back to the mound, ending the threat.
Bain retired the Sun Devils in order in the top of the third, and a one-out single by Paul and an RBI double by Erceg brought the Bears to within one run in the bottom of the frame.
Bain worked around a one-out walk to Sewald in the top of the fourth by getting a key double play off the bat of Andrew Snow. He then needed just six pitche to retire Arizona State in order in the top of the fifth, before Pearson’s one-out, first-pitch bomb brought things even in the bottom of the inning.
In the top of the sixth, the Sun Devils finally got to Bain, with a leadoff single by Allen and a one-out walk to Peevyhouse chasing the freshman righty.
Lefty Chris Muse-Fisher -- who tossed 1.1 innings of scoreless relief on Saturday – came on, and promptly walked Sewald on six pitches, loading the bases. A sacrifice fly by Snow pulled Arizona State ahead, 5-4, before Muse-Fisher got Snow to ground out to third to end the threat.
Sun Devils starter Brett Lilek exited after throwing 93 pitches through 5.0 innings, having allowed 4 runs on 8 hits, bringing Eric Melbostad to the hill. Melbostad gave up a screamer to Cumberland, but the ball settled dutifully into the mitt of center fieler Sewald for the first out.
Kranson singled up the middle, before GrandPre flew out to center, prompting yet another pitching change. Like Cumberland earlier, left fielder Celsi drove a 1-0 offering high into the teeth of the wind to center, where Sewald was easily able to haul it in for the final out of the inning.
After the Bears stranded two in the bottom of the seventh, with Paul popping out and Erceg striking out, Arizona State crept ahead again in the top of the eighth, as 5-foot-6, 140-pound Jordan Aboites tallied his first career home run off of senior righty Dylan Nelson to lead off the inning.
“We were chasing one at that point, and that worried me a little bit,” Esquer said of stranding Pearson and Robbie Tenerowicz, who reached on a one-out walk and a leadoff single, respectively. “And then, they come out with a home run to lead off the next inning. That doesn’t really feel good, that the baseball karma’s working right, where you don’t score on your opportunity, and then you give one up right away.”
With one out, Sewald leaned into a 1-2 offering from Nelson and took the pitch on the right elbow. Esquer came out to argue that Sewald didn’t make a good-faith effort to get out of the way, but home plate ump Mike Jarboe -- who took a lashing from the dugout on a called third strike at the shins to Erceg one inning earlier – disagreed.
After a brief pitching conference with coach Mike Neu, though, Nelson was able to get Snow to ground into a 5-4-3 double play to escape the jam.
Cal then exploded for four runs in the bottom of the eighth off of reliever Darin Gillies, making his third appearance in three days, rattling off four hits with two outs to take the lead.
Knapp was almost the last man out, when he took a 1-1 pitch at the shins for a called strike, prompting yet another lashing from the crowd, and Esquer. The next pitch was on the inside corner, but was called a ball, inside, instead of strike three, seemingly a make-up call.
“It looked in to me,” Esquer said.
“I was just trying to see something straight,” Knapp said. “He crossed the catcher up, first pitch was a slider, and it was low, so it was nice to see that not called a strike. Then, he called a really low pitch the pitch right after. I was just trying to see if I could get something to hit, drive something.”
One pitch later, Knapp dropped his triple down the right field line, scoring pinch runner Max Dutto and Celsi – aboard with a two-out single -- to get the Bears on top by a run.
Erceg came in from third to pitch the ninth, moving Kranson from designated hitter to third base, and neither missed a beat.
Erceg pumped in 94 mph fastballs and used his 79 mph slider to keep Woodmansee off balance for a leadoff strikeout. Two groundouts later – including the game-ender to Kranson -- and the Bears had dealt the Sun Devils their first series loss in Pac-12 play.
“Everybody who stepped in did a good job: Halamandaris with the hit, Dutto with the run, Kranson hasn’t played an inning of first base and Erceg hasn’t pitched much all year, all those guys factored in to us winning,” Esquer said.
THE BIG PICTURE
Beyond dealing the Sun Devils their first series loss, Cal is now off to its best start since the Bears also went 29-15 to start the 2008 season, which ended in a two-and-out appearance at the Long Beach Regional. Even the 2011 College World Series team did not have this good a record through 44 games.
“This gives us a lot of momentum,” Knapp said. “This team is supposed to be sixth in the nation, and we competed with them for three games.”
At no point in the series did either team lead by more than 2 runs.
“A lot of us say we should have swept,” Knapp said. “It just gives us a lot of momentum and a lot of confidence.”