“We came into this game today, talking about, ‘We’re not going to get swept,’” Erceg said. “That was a season-long goal, so for us to come out here and do all that, and for me to let loose with good swings, it brought a whole new energy to the team.”
Erceg came into the series having hit .232 over his last 14 games, and after an 0-for-3 night on Friday, went 2-for-4 on Saturday, and broke out for his first home run since May 9 in Sunday’s performance – a fifth-inning two-run shot that broke a 2-2 tie.
“We’ve ridden him a little bit throughout the season, and sometimes, a little bit too much, so to see him get hot and swinging the bat well in practice earlier this week, we knew he was about to get back on track,” said head coach David Esquer.
“Baseball’s a funny sport,” said Erceg. “You’ve just got to trust in the process, and that’s what I’ve been doing the whole season. I’ve had my ups and downs, and I’d say this weekend was definitely an up for me, and the team. We came off of two losing games that were pretty embarrassing, so for us to come out here and beat them on a Sunday in front of 3,300 fans was pretty amazing.”
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Mitchell Kranson -- known as “El Gaucho” – got his fifth start behind the plate in place of freshman Brett Cumberland, as the freshman backstop felt uncomfortable following batting practice, owing to a balky wrist.
“He hadn’t really had his bat speed, so we figured that, hey, if we’re going to play a couple of doubleheaders in a Regional, Kranson would be a viable option to catch that second game,” Esquer said.
Kranson did not disappoint, and after going 0-for-7 the previous two days, was instrumental in getting Cal (34-19, 18-11 in Pac-12) out in front of Oregon State (38-16-1, 19-10-1 in Pac-12) early.
With one out in the top of the first, Kranson sent a bases-loaded fly ball to center for a sacrifice fly, putting the Bears up, 1-0, and then led off the top of the fourth with a line-drive single to right, riding home on a Preston GrandPre double into the left field corner.
“That was a big deal,” Esquer said. “You don’t want your team to press when you’ve been shut out two days in a row. We had a couple great pitching performances and some opportunities to plate a run, so to get a run early was a big deal for us.”
The Beavers, though, came back, working a two-out walk from Bears starter Matt Ladrech in the bottom of the fourth, before slugging freshman K.J. Harrison sent a liner back through the box to put men on first and second for Joe Gillette.
Ladrech fell behind 2-0, but came back with a change up for a called strike and then a fastball that was fouled back. But Gillette lined the fifth pitch he saw -- a hanging curve -- to left. Sean Peters -- starting in place of Kranson – got a late break on the sinking liner, and the ball got under him as he dove forward, rolling all the way to the wall for Gillette’s third triple of the year, and tying things at 2-2.
“That was an ill-advised dive, and they maybe would have gotten one instead of two,” Esquer said. “It just is, you’ve got to be out there enough, and you don’t want to hold his hand through it, but he was being aggressive. If we’re going to err, I want to err on the side of aggressiveness.”
Enter: Erceg. Before the game, Erceg and Pac-12 Networks broadcaster (and Cal alum) Roxy Bernstein exchanged pleasantries after batting practice, and that’s when Erceg made a bold prediction.
“I was having some small talk with Roxy after batting practice, and I told him, ‘I’m feeling one today,’” Erceg said. “Once I hit it, I told him before the game that I would acknowledge him if I did, and sure enough, I did.”
Following a one-out double inside the third base bag by Devin Pearson, Erceg drove an 0-1 curveball down, over the right field wall for a two-run home run, his 11th of the season, swinging momentum back to the Cal dugout after the Peters dive.
“It was one of those things where we could continue to go a bad way, or were we going to be able to punch right back,” Esquer said. “I think that signified that we were going to play this game tough.”
Ladrech had largely crusied through the first 4.0 innings, but got into a spot of trouble in the bottom of the fifth, giving up a leadoff single to Scotland Church. After a tailor-made 6-4-3 double play, Ladrech needed some help from Erceg’s glove to keep the Beavers at bay. Second baseman Christian Donahue sent a hot shot behind the bag at third, and only a diving stop by Erceg was able to save extra bases.
Two pitches later, Erceg charged a slow chopper on the left side and made a strong throw to first to retire Caleb Hamilton to end the inning.
“We’ve got to play defense, that’s key to us,” Esquer said. “I tell them all the time, we’ve got pretty good pitching, but we’ve got really good pitching when we play defense.”
Ladrech earned his team-best seventh win of the year, allowing two runs on five hits and one walk with two strikeouts, throwing 77 pitches. It was his best outing of the past month, and his first win since he defeated Arizona on April 26.
Ladrech’s outing put a capper on a strong weekend out of the starting rotation, which had been shaky in recent weeks. The three starters – Ladrech, Ryan Mason on Saturday and Daulton Jefferies on Friday – combined to go 17.0 innings with just 6 earned runs allowed. Over the last three series, the Bears’ three starters had gone 51.0 innings and allowed 29 earned runs – a 5.12 ERA.
“You want your pitching to be hot, and to be good going into the playoffs, and I think they all had really solid performances, where we feel like they had command of their stuff and could pitch to a plan,” Esquer said.
Ladrech got some more run support in the top of the sixth, when second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz chimed in with a first-pitch drive to left center for an RBI single, putting Cal up, 5-2.
Freshman reliever Erik Martinez then came on in the bottom of the frame, striking out the side as he faced the heart of the Oregon State lineup.
“Coach [Mike] Neu felt like the middle of their lineup had some better swings against him the second time up, with [Jeff] Hendrix and [K.J.] Harrison,” Esquer said. “We got five good innings out of him, and we had Martinez, who’d pitched well earlier, so let’s not give that middle a third shit, and we’d piece it together that way.”
Martinez, though, wasn’t as dominant as he’s been for the balance of the regular season, and allowed a walk and a one-out double to pinch hitter Kyle Nobach in the bottom of the seventh. Pinch hitter Billy King then sent an RBI ground out to second, before lefty Chris Muse-Fisher came on to face switch hitter Donahue. Unbeknownst to Donahue, who flipped over to the right side, the southpaw hurler is actually better against right-handed hitters.
After falling behind 2-0, Muse-Fisher got a comebacker from Donahue that he was able to knock down. Though he didn’t find the ball straight away, he sprung off the mound, gobbled it up and made a strong throw to first to get Donahue by a hair and end the inning.
Tenerowicz struck again in the top of the eighth, sending a slicing drive down the right field line on the first pitch he saw from reliever Sam Tweedt for his third extra-base hit of the year, driving home Sean Peters -- aboard via a hit-by-pitch – to put the Bears up, 6-3.
Tenerowicz went 2-for-4 with a run and two RBIs from the nine hole in the final game of the regular season.
After Tweedt was lifted for Ryan Mets, sophomore Aaron Knapp pulled out his lob wedge and stuck a pop-up bunt right into the turf up the third base line, no more than 30 feet from home plate, and six inches from the foul line.
The bunt single brought home Tenerowicz for the final tally, as Muse-Fisher worked a 1-2-3 eighth, and closer Dylan Nelson did the same in the bottom of the ninth, striking out two.
“The strength of our team has been our bullpen,” said Esquer, who saw his relievers give up eight earned runs in in 3.1 innings of work during the first two games of the series. “All our bullpen guys had pitched well, so to see them come back, we were not sure of the bullpen at all the last two days.”
The win gave Cal (34-19, 18-12 in Pac-12) its best conference win total in program history, tied with the 1995 team that finished third in the Pac-12, and ended a 12-game losing streak to the Beavers. With playoff selections being announced at 9 a.m., Pacific, on Monday, Cal is expected to return to the postseason for the first time since 2011.
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“It’s not a done deal until we get announced tomorrow, but I’m as proud of this team as any team we’ve had, because it took a lot to get back here,” Esquer said. “We’ve gone through some tough times, and even internally, the struggle to get to be nationally competitive – we’ve been close, but we haven’t been there. To be a playoff team again, it makes me emotional, because it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in coaching, was to get us back.”
While neither the Bears nor the Beavers will host an NCAA Regional – the 16 sites were announced during the ninth inning -- there is the chance that both stay on the West Coast for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
UC Santa Barbara was selected to host at the home stadium of the California League’s Lake Elsinore Storm, and Cal State Fullerton was selected to host at its on-campus venue, meaning that three of the possible six Pac-12 teams to be named to the postseason could stay out West, with No. 2 UCLA hosting. Esquer, though, has another preference.
“I actually hope we go abroad,” Esquer said. “It’ll be a good experience for our players to go experience another stadium, another part of the country and some different competition.”