The first recruiting class that came in following the reinstatement of the baseball program, following the drama of the 2011 season, came up big in the second game of the series against No. 15 USC, keyed by first baseman Paul, who went 2-for-4 with a double and three RBIs in the Bears’ 7-5 comeback win.
“It was huge to rebounding back after getting jumped a little bit yesterday,” Paul said. “It was big for us, and I think we can carry this momentum into tomorrow.”
Muse-Fisher provided a solid 3.1 innings of relief after starter Ryan Mason allowed 10 base runners in the first 3.0 innings, and Nelson closed things out with his second 2.0-inning save of the season, allowing two walks and nothing else.
“We knew, coming into the weekend, that all three of them would have to play big roles,” Esquer said of Paul, Muse-Fisher and Nelson. “We knew Muse-Fisher was going to have to pitch in a big spot for us, Nelly’s going to be in there at the end of the game, and unless a guy like Chris Paul in the middle of the order has a solid performance and helps us, it’s going to be tough for us to win. They all came through today.”
Paul and Muse-Fisher were part of the first recruiting class to sign after the program was saved from extinction following a College World Series run in 2011, in the face of the program’s cancellation. Nelson came in a year later. In the three seasons following the run to Omaha, Cal has gone 78-83 overall, and 35-55 in Pac-12 play. This year, the Bears are well on their way to the playoffs, at 32-17 overall, and 16-10 in the Pac-12.
“I’m so proud of those guys. They’ve been through a lot, and to help us and contribute to beat a team like USC, that may be the best team we’ve played all year,” Esquer said.
Though not part of the Senior Day festivities, redshirt junior Brian Celsi -- who was also a part of that class -- went 2-for-4 with a run and an RBI – a key seventh-inning double to left center that broke a 5-5 tie after Celsi’s opposite-field drive glanced off the mitt of Bobby Stahel, attempting a dramatic over-the-shoulder grab at the wall.
“It was huge,” Esquer said of the double. “A little luck on our side. The kid made a great attempt at the ball, and the ball just came out of his glove. It could just as easily have stuck, and we could still be playing.”
The Bears clinched a winning record in conference play for the first time since 2011, and did it despite falling behind in the first inning for the second game in a row. Mason, for his part, has been wildly inconsistent over his last five starts, Sunday included. With outings of 8.0 innings and 9.0 innings sandwiched in between a 10-hit, four-run outing and a 3.0-inning, five-run outing, it’s been one week on and one week off for the veteran righty.
“10 base runners in three innings, nobody’s going to win doing that,” Esquer said. “They’re a good team. If it comes straight out of your hand, and you’re sloppy with it, they can put a pounding on you. If you don’t have secondary stuff to break them down, they’re going to thump you. I have a huge amount of respect for that team over there. He was just flat and up. I think, sometimes, he tries to throw too hard, and he throws through his sink, and the ball elevates.”
Mason allowed four straight one-out hits in the top of the first, starting with a double down the left field line by Garrett Stubbs, and then an RBI single on a 3-1 fastball to first baseman Jeremy Martinez. After two more singles, Mason was able to get a 1-2-3 double play off the bat of Blake Lacey to get him out of the jam.
In the top of the second, Cal fell behind 2-0, after Mason allowed two straight singles to lead off the inning, then a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly off the bat of Stahel, but he then got Stubbs to fly out to end the frame.
“We’re fortunate that it was just a one, one and a one,” Esquer said of Mason’s first three innings. “He’s a competitor, and he wants to be out there. We’re glad he’s on our side.”
Cal struck back in the bottom of the frame, putting up three runs on a one-out two-run triple down the right field line by freshman Preston GrandPre to cash in a walk by catcher Brett Cumberland and a 2-0 single by Celsi.
Second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz then flied out to right, allowing GrandPre to tag up and score.
The lead didn’t last long, though, as the Trojans once again scored a run in the top of the third, when Lacey drove home Timmy Robinson on a sacrifice bunt.
After 2.0 scoreless innings by Muse-Fisher, Cal posted another cooked number in the bottom of the fifth. Going into the bottom of the fifth, the Bears were 0-for-4 with two outs on the game, but that all changed with a two-out double from Devin Pearson – who nearly missed a home run by mere feet – and then, a two-run double by Paul following a walk to Erceg– the Bears’ only hit up to that point with runners in scoring position – to give Cal a 5-3 lead.
“The double, he was throwing me a lot of change ups, kind of mixing and matching, and I was trying to see a pitch up,” Paul said. “He hung a change up first pitch, and I just kept it fair down the line. I was pretty excited about that.”
Muse-Fisher struggled out of the gate in the top of the seventh, after recording two of his three strikeouts in the top of the sixth.
The senior lefty plunked Stubbs with his first pitch in the seventh, and then gave up a hard shot to the right side to Martinez, but Tenerowicz laid out to make a diving stop and fired to first for the out.
Stubbs – who came into the game with a team-leading 18 stolen bases – broke for third on a 2-1 delivery to Robinson, and the throw from Cumberland to Lucas Erceg looked to be in time, but Erceg tagged Stubbs’s inside hand – shielded form the umpire – instead of the outside hand, and Stubbs was ruled safe. Muse-Fisher then walked Robinson to put men at the corners, spelling the end of his afternoon.
In came sophomore righty Alex Schick, who delivered a 92 mph fastball on an 0-2 count to Dante Flores, who turned that around and sent a sacrifice fly to right to cut the lead in half.
Lacy then banged a 1-1 curve through the right side to tie things up at 5-5. After Schick gave up a looping single to David Oppenheim, pitching coach Mike Neu came out for a talk. That confab seemed to work, as Schick got USC home run and RBI leader A.J. Ramirez to swing and miss at a curve to end the threat.
“Part of it – and, not to make excuses, because we won – but we didn’t come out of finals the sharpest,” Esquer said. “We had maybe one team practice, and we were relying on a lot of guys to get work on the side and to get ready. I don’t think anybody’s been sharp, but we were competitive and we battled. Muse-Fisher, he was sharper than that at Campbell. Finals sometimes takes it out of our guys a little bit, and you never know how you’re going to come out of it, and you can’t get a bigger test than playing ‘SC.”
“Struggling last night and getting run out of the ballpark, it was a wake-up call,” Celsi said. “We bounced back. We’re resilient. It’s been huge for all of us. To come back and beat a team like this and get some momentum going, it’s just baseball now. We only have to focus on baseball. We don’t have school anymore, and that’s different. It’s different to have a lot of free time. Now we can focus all on baseball. It’s really cool.”
Paul led off the bottom of the seventh and came up with his second hit of the day – a hard grounder up the middle, to the right of the second base bag – for a single, and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt from Mitchell Kranson.
After Cumberland spanked a liner to right that nestled dutifully into the glove of Ramirez, reliever Tyler Gilbert was lifted in favor of Brooks Kriske. Enter: Celsi.
On the first pitch he saw from Kriske, Celsi drove a ball deep into the left center field gap, and, as he rounded first, saw the ball go in and out of Stahel’s mitt, falling to the base of the wall for an RBI double, breaking the tie for good.
“The same guy got me on a ground ball to second with the bases loaded, and I was just looking for a fastball,” Cels said. “I knew his off speed wasn’t that strong, so I was looking for a fastball, got it, put a good swing on it. He almost made a hell of a play, but I lucked out, and it was good enough. I hit it well, and I saw him back, and I was like, ‘This has got a chance,’ not to go, but to get in the gap, and I hit first base, I see it pop out of his glove, and the crowd goes crazy. It was so cool. It was pretty cool.
“To have that come through, at the end of the game, to come up clutch, that’s awesome,” said Celsi, who, like several other fourth-year players, made a point of going over to the stands, post-game, and getting a few patented Justin Hugs from former Bears lefty Justin Jones, who all but gave his left arm to the program to ensure the World Series run in 2011, and is now in the process of returning to school to finish his degree. “Getting a big hit was cool, too.”
After several poor late-inning outings at home, Nelson came on in the top of the eighth, one inning earlier than he normally enters.
“We try to set it up with Schick in the seventh and Muse in the eighth and me in the ninth, but we had to pick up Ryan today a bit,” Nelson said. “He’s been picking us up all year, so it was nice to get a chance to return the favor a little bit. To get a lead, it’s a big deal, so we had to get that win.”
Nelson, though, promptly walked shortstop Reggie Southall, who was bunted to second by Stahel. Nelson’s first delivery to Stubbs was skied to left center, but a strong throw by center fielder Aaron Knapp prevented Southall from advancing.
Nelson’s second walk of the inning was more of an unintentional, intentional walk, as, after a first-pitch fastball, he threw four straight breakers, pitching around Martinez and putting him on first with a 91 mph fastball high.
Two pitches later, Nelson was rewarded, as Robinson flied out to center to end the threat.
“Senior Day, I was a little amped up,” Nelson said. “My arm felt pretty good, and the first guy took some good pitches and then I wanted to be smart there, to A.J. He’s a good hitter, so with an open base, one-run lead, I was protecting a lead, and battled through it. I think I threw him about five breaking balls in a row there. Probably should have been six.”
After a leadoff single in the bottom of the eighth by Tenerowicz, a bunt by Knapp went awry when reliever Marc Huberman fielded the roller and fired to second to erase Tenerowicz. While the intent there was to move a runner to second with one out, Knapp made up for it by stealing second – his 10th swipe of the season.
One pitch after the theft, Pearson sent a hard, low liner through the right side to put men at the corners for Erceg. While the big-hitting third baseman didn’t deliver a big blow, he still was able to work a five-pitch walk for the second time to once again set the stage for Paul.
Paul took the first pitch outside, and, after a pitching conference with Trojans head coach Dan Hubbs, Huberman served up a fly ball to deep right. While not enough to leave the yard, Paul’s drive was still deep enough for a sacrifice fly, bringing Knapp home for the final tally.
“I thought it was going to go,” Paul said. “Off the bat, I thought it was going, but with that wind, I hit it a little too high, I guess, to get out of the yard, but at least we could get one run across. That was awesome. Having my parents here, on Senior Day, the end of my career here, it was a very special day. It meant a little bit more.”
Nelson needed just nine pitches to finish off the top of the ninth, evening the series at one win apiece.
“Mike [Neu] has liked the way that Nelly’s been throwing lately,” Esquer said. “He felt that’s the way that we were going to ride, if we had a chance. Tomorrow, probably a different story. Erceg will probably be the guy at the back end.”
Erceg did plenty in the ninth, though, hauling in a pop out to lead off the inning, and charging on a tapper by Lacey for the second out, before Nelson induced a grounder to short by Oppenheim for the final out.
“He’s a great player,” Nelson said. “Our offense did a great job of picking us up and getting that add-on run in the eighth inning. That’s huge. A good team win. It’s an awesome moment. My family and friends are out here, supporting me my whole career. It was great to get a win.”
The win – and the season, as a whole – helps put an appropriate capper on Paul’s final year in blue and gold at Evans Diamond. The first recruit to commit to the Bears following the program’s reinstatement, Paul had hit over .300 in each of his summer ball seasons, only to come into his senior year with a career batting average of .236.
“This year, especially, but my whole career here has been up and down,” Paul said. “I’ve learned a lot through it, and it’s built me, character-wise as a person, and as a baseball player. It’s awesome to have this as my senior year, one of the better teams we’ve had here at Cal, since I’ve been here, at least.”
Paul is now hitting .324 in 46 games, with eight home runs, 91 total bases (second on the team only to Erceg’s 103), 37 RBIs (again, second only to Erceg’s 38), a team-best .535 slugging percentage and a .406 on-base percentage.
“I’m trusting myself,” Paul said. “I’m trusting that I can get it done, day in and day out. It’s been having that confidence. It’s knowing that everyone has my back, and I’m just going out there and playing. I’m playing like I have nothing to lose, and I may have held back a little bit, before. It’s good to finally show it.”
Though Senior Day was on Sunday, the series is still not over. Because the series has been televised on the Pac-12 Networks, the rubber match is set for Monday at 7 p.m., also on the Pac-12 Networks, with freshman lefty Matt Ladrech (6-4, 2.71 ERA) going up against USC righty Mitch Hart (7-2, 3.48).
Ladrech’s last two outings have been sub-par, as he hasn’t gotten past the fifth inning in either. As such, fellow freshman – righty Jeff Bain -- will be available for long relief, as will redshirt junior Keaton Siomkin and freshman righty Erik Martinez, who eads the staff with a 1.69 ERA in 17 relief appearances.