BERKELEY -- Not even Hot Pocket filling fresh out of the microwave is as hot as California first baseman Chris Paul right now.
After fueling the Golden Bears’ 7-5 win on Sunday evening with a 2-for-4, three-RBI performance, the senior was at it again in Monday’s series finale against No. 15 USC, going 3-for-3 with five RBIs as No. 22 Cal clinched the final home series of the year with a 7-2 win.
“He hit that ball to right center field the other night, and that’s kind of the telltale sign: When he’s driving the ball to right center field, he can cover the whole plate,” said head coach David Esquer. “He showed that, and we needed someone with a big performance. We needed somebody to lead us, and he was able to do that.”
The Bears were very loose before the game, and showed off some late-season goofiness by giving reserve outfielder Grant Diede a shave behind Esquer as he was interviewed on the Pac-12 Networks.
“We have to be loose,” Esquer said. “It almost has been, the teams that we have, have to play that way. There’s a fine line, and I tell them. There’s a fine line between being loose, and being an idiot, and you’ve got to find that fine line. I tell them: We’ve got to be carefree. You can’t be careful and you can’t be careless.”
Cal (33-17, 17-10 in Pac-12) has now won 10 of its last 13, has won each of its last four series (10 in total) and is one conference win away from tying its highest conference win total ever – set by Bob Milano’s 1995 team, which finished in third place with 18 Pac-10 wins.
Paul now has seven hits in his last 10 at-bats, with eight RBIs and three doubles. On the series, Paul went 9-for-13 (.692) with nine RBIs.
“It’s big,” Paul said. “I’m just up there, looking for a good pitch to hit, and I’ve been getting them. I’ve been taking advantage of those pitches, and right now, at a time like this, when you’re hot, you’ve got to try to stay hot.”
While Paul provided the fireworks at the plate, the Bears got a clutch relief outing from freshman righty Erik Martinez.
The first-year reliever took over for starter Matt Ladrech in the top of the fifth inning, striking out second baseman Dante Flores with two on and two out with an 87 mph fastball at the knees. Martinez then went on to throw 3.0 more shutout innings, allowing just a hit and striking out four more, walking one.
“Unbelievable,” Esquer said. “We kind of felt, and Mike [Neu, pitching coach] has watched enough tape to know that he felt like Erik Martinez’s stuff matched up well with them. The ball doesn’t come straight out of his hand. If the ball comes straight out of your hand, they’re on it. We felt like his stuff matched up well, it was just when we were going to use him. We didn’t think he would go that long, but he just kept throwing strikes and kept staying out of trouble.”
Paul – in his final home game of the regular season (there is still a chance that Cal hosts a Regional) – had three of the Bears’ seven hits against the Trojans (35-18, 16-11), driving an RBI double to right to key a three-run third, and then driving in two more runs in the fifth and sixth with a two-run double over the head of third baseman Blake Lacey and a two-run single up the middle with two outs in the bottom of the sixth.
Martinez earned the win – his second of the season – while USC starter Mitch Hart dropped to 7-3. Cal is now in sole possession of second place in the Pac-12, with one series left – a road set against Oregon State, which has won eight of its last 10.
Cal finished the home portion of the schedule with a program record 25,090 having come through the Evans Diamond turn styles this season, averaging 836 fans per home date. The program also set a record for average home attendance for conference games, averaging 1,147 fans per Pac-12 home game at Evans Diamond (17,204 total).
“This team keeps surprising us,” Esquer said. “That’s a tribute to the leadership they have – the Devin Pearson’s, the Ryan Mason’s, the Brian Celsi’s, the guys that came in and they started it in fall ball. They wanted to make a statement, and get this program back over the hump. They felt like they were right up to the edge last year, and just couldn’t get through the door. They knew it wasn’t just a simple step through the door. They had to knock it down.”
BLOW BY BLOW
For the third time in the series, the Bears fell behind early, with freshman lefty Matt Ladrech allowing a walk and then two straight two-strike singles in the top of the first.
Cal had a golden opportunity to answer back in the bottom of the frame, with Pearson working a six-pitch walk from USC starter Mitch Hart with one out, but on a swing-and-miss on a hit-and-run play at the plate by Lucas Erceg, Pearson was hosed at second by Garrett Stubbs. Erceg then delivered a line-drive single into center, and moved to second when Hart walked Paul.
With two down and two men on, designated hitter Mitchell Kranson crushed the first pitch he saw to right, but directly at A.J. Ramirez for the second out.
In the bottom of the second, Cal once again got two men on, with one out, thanks two walks from catcher Brett Cumberland and shortstop Preston GrandPre -- the first unintentional walk of the season for the freshman infielder, drawing a standing ovation from the dugout.
But, second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz swung and missed at a fastball away for a strikeout, and Aaron Knapp -- who’s looked out-of-sorts at the plate all series – popped out weakly to left to end the threat.
Tenerowicz made up for his strikeout, though, in the next frame, turning an inning-ending unassisted double play on a liner by Trojans RBI leader Timmy Robinson.
That set the stage for a three-run outburst in the bottom of the frame, starting with Pearson reaching on a booted grounder to short. After Erceg flied out to the track in right, Paul drove a 3-1 offering from Hart the other way into the right center field gap, plating Pearson.
After a walk to Kranson, Hart uncorked a wild pitch to Cumberland on an 0-1 offering, allowing both runners to advance. Cumberland then sent a bleeder up the middle to score two, putting Cal up for good, 3-2.
“It was huge, and it kind of got us rolling,” Paul said. “It set up a three-run inning for us, especially scoring Devin and getting runners in scoring position and getting a couple more. That was a big momentum shift for us, and kind of killed them a little bit.”
The fourth inning turned adventurous for Ladrech, who allowed an infield single to leadoff man Dante Flores -- a ball that Paul dove to his right to stop, but Ladrech could not get to cover first in time for the toss. Ladrech got Lacey to ground into a tailor-made 6-4-3 double play, and got ahead of designated hitter David Oppenheim 2-2, before Oppenheim ramped a grounder off of GrandPre’s glove for his 19th error of the season.
Ramirez sent a single under a diving Erceg to put two men on for Angelo La Bruna, but Ladrech caught him looking at a curveball on the outside corner for strike three to wriggle off the hook.
“He was working really hard, and part of it’s being a freshman,” Esquer said. “He gets to that two-strike count, and he’s either 0-2 or 1-2, and each pitch, as the count progresses, each pitch gets a little worse as he tries to nibble. He’s not free-and-easy with the 2-2 pitch and the 3-2 pitch. He tries to shave and paint and split the plate a little bit. He’s got the kind of stuff that, most left-handers, they can only be good when they’re in your face, and he’s got to be fearless. He was [at the start of the season]. He got us far enough in the game to allow us to use our pen.”
The top of the fifth saw Ladrech get two quick outs, before allowing a double down the left field line and into the corner by Martinez, prompting pitching coach Mike Neu to call on Erik Martinez for relief work.
Cal’s Martinez worked around the dangerous Robinson, walking him on four pitches, before getting Flores swinging at a fastball at the knees to end the inning.
Pearson led off the bottom of the fifth by smoking a single over shortstop off of reliever Brent Wheatley, who then hit Erceg in the foot.
After coming inside to Paul, Wheatley left one out over the plate, and the senior obligingly sent a two-run double inside the third base line to push the Bears’ lead to 5-2.
“I think I saw two sliders, but I’m not completely positive; I think I might have blacked out,” said Paul. “I just saw a pitch up, got my barrel out and hit it pretty well.”
Martinez fanned two in the top of the sixth, getting Oppenheim swinging on the slider and punching out Ramirez with an 88 mph fastball for a three-pitch K.
In the bottom of the sixth, Tenerowicz worked a five-pitch walk, and moved to second on a wild pitch from reliever Marc Huberman as he struck out Knapp. Another pitch in the dirt on ball four to Pearson moved Tenerowicz to third. Huberman then walked Erceg on five pitches before Paul banged the first pitch he saw back up the middle for a two-run single.
“That dagger, that two-run base hit, that was the dagger right there, that really gave us a little bit of breathing room,” Esquer said. “We messed up a first-and-third situation on the safety squeeze, and it looked like they were going to keep the game close. You leave it to chance a little bit, but he gave us that breathing room.”
“I was looking to get a pitch up, get something I could drive,” Paul said. “I saw him yesterday, and he challenged me with a fastball, so I was trying to see that again, and I got it and put a good swing on it.”
Martinez gave up a two-out triple to Stubbs in the top of the seventh, on a slicing liner to the left field line that was just out of the reach of a diving Celsi but promptly fanned Jeremy Martinez, who looked at a curve for a called strike three.
“We thought, ‘Maybe one or two [innings], but Mike kept saying, ‘Well, let’s send him out there, let’s send him out there, let’s let him start the inning,’ and he just kept doing it,” Esquer said.
Were Martinez to falter, Esquer was ready to put in righty Alex Schick -- who worked an unsteady 0.2 innings on Sunday – and in Schick’s final two bullpen tosses, he threw one over the catcher Matt Ruff and spiked a curve in the dirt.
“We were going to go with [Jeff] Bain at the earliest, and Schick to get us out of a jam, and then, even with Erceg, we thought, we’ll start with Erceg, and Schick would be the guy to come in, in case something gets a little squirrelly,” Esquer said. “I didn’t see [the final two warm-up pitches], and that’s a good thing, because I was putting him in.”
Erceg moved to the mound for the ninth, pumping in fastballs between 91 and 94 mph and giving up just one, one-out walk before getting a fly out to center and a groundout to second to send USC home.
“For us, as a team, it’s a huge confidence builder,” Paul said. “We know we can play with anybody. We almost took two from UCLA, took two from a top-15 team in the nation, and I think we showed a lot of people that we’re for real, and we can play. We’ve just got to keep this momentum going into next week.”