Perseverance Pays Off for Devin Pearson

He thought he was going to play football at Stanford. He wound up starting in right field for the California baseball team. Devin Pearson knows the value of perseverance, especially after three injuries in his first three seasons, and now, he leads the Golden Bears into College Station, Tex., for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.



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REGIONAL SCHEDULE
Friday, May 29
12 PM (CT) Game 1: No. 3 Coastal Carolina vs. No. 2 California
6 PM (CT) Game 2: No. 1 Texas A&M vs. No. 4 Texas Southern

Saturday, May 30
12 PM (CT) Game 3: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2
6 PM (CT) Game 4: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2

Sunday, May 31
12 PM (CT) Game 5: Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4
6 PM (CT) Game 6: Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5

Monday, June 1
6:30 (CT): Game 7: Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6 (if necessary)

On Friday at 10 a.m., Pacific, No. 25 California will square off with Coastal Carolina in the opener of the College Station, Tex., Regional. It’s taken four years for the Bears (34-19) to return to the playoffs. There’s been plenty of adversity along the way.

“I’m so excited. We definitely thought we’d be here last year, and it was disappointing not to be, so to finally be there, it just says a lot about our team and how we’re able to respond to adversity,” says junior starting right fielder Devin Pearson, who is himself no stranger to adversity.

Coming out of Carmel (Calif.), Pearson was headed to Stanford. He was sure of it. He had a 4.2 GPA. He was named an all-state football player three times, playing quarterback, receiver and defensive back. He was league MVP in both basketball and football. He was everything the Cardinal could want in a walk-on defensive back.

“My grades were good. But, with Stanford, if you didn’t apply for early enrollment, you got thrown in with the normal students. I had a 4.0, but I didn’t get in,” says Pearson.

Pearson calls the situation a “fiasco.”

“I thought I was going to play football,” says Pearson, whose father, Dennis, played in the NFL for the Atlanta Falcons.

“I was going to be a preferred walk-on, and I didn’t get in, in February, grade-wise. They told me I didn’t get in,” he says. “I had pretty good grades, so that was really weird. Then, I went to play for Noah, in the summer, and I was pretty sure I was going to go to Oregon for baseball – a walk-on with a scholarship for my sophomore year.”

Noah is Noah Jackson, a former outfielder for California. After playing two years of minor league baseball for the Chicago Cubs organization, he took an outside sales job at FedEx, but before all of that, he founded the First Base Foundation in 2003. The First Base Foundation is the parent organization of the California Warriors – a summer travel ball team. Jackson played at Cal from 2001 to 2003, during head coach David Esquer’s early years, playing in the Baton Rouge, La., Regional in 2001.

With nowhere to go following his senior season, Pearson turned to Jackson, and Jackson turned to his old head coach.

“He’s the main reason why I’m here,” says Pearson. “He helped me meet with teams, had guys come out and watch me play, and I was pretty much going to go to Oregon, and Noah said, ‘Hey, Cal’s coming to watch you. You should definitely think about going there,’” says Pearson.

“I was scouting for the San Diego Padres at the time, and Devin just hadn’t been a really high baseball recruit, because of the sports that he played,” says Jackson. “He happened to be a perfect fit for Cal. He was a perfect student-athlete for the program. For him, it just got late into the summer, and he needed a place to go.

“He was with me during the summer, with the California Warriors – the travel ball team that I had – and it was a perfect fit for Cal -- his game, and the style of play that Cal has.”

So, Jackson set up a meeting, so that Esquer and pitching coach/recruiting coordinator Mike Neu could see Pearson in person.

“He wanted to see who he was,” says Jackson. “I had a good relationship with Eskie, just having had Mitch Delfino – who’s one of my guys – also come here, and they were looking for an outfielder, especially a right-handed-hitting outfielder. At Evans, that's a perfect fit, and somebody who can not only play center, but also the corners. Eskie was interested and wanted to see what they had. It was a little late in the recruiting season, but his concern was just making sure they could get him into school, and if it was going to be a fit that way.”

Pearson agreed to come to Berkeley as a walk-on for his freshman season, and what a freshman season it was.

Thrown into the mix right away, Pearson hit .302 with eight doubles, two home runs and 17 RBIs in 51 games, going 15-for-45 with runners in scoring position and hitting .303 against Pac-12 competition. Cal had its worst season ever under Esquer, as the Bears struggled under the weight of the graduation and drafting of almost all of the major contributors to the 2011 College World Series run. Cal went 23-31 on the season, and 10-20 in Pac-12 play.

•••••

Pearson’s sophomore season – 2014 -- saw him take the leadoff spot in the lineup, with the Bears primed to make a run at the postseason, but injuries cut Cal off at the knees. Though Pearson wasn’t injured, per se, he had missed all of summer and fall with a torn labrum in his shoulder, suffered during the summer of 2013 while he dove into a base in the Northwoods League in mid-June. Pearson had the labrum surgically repaired in October, but he wasn't the same, come spring.

Esquer asked Pearson if the shoulder affected him.

“I asked him, now, to tell me honestly, and he said, ‘Honestly, Coach, it was bothering me a lot, but I had to play,’” says Esquer. Was it to the point where Esquer considered sitting him? “Only if it was mentally. Only if it was mentally. I don’t think he was in a position to hurt himself more. I don’t think he would have hurt himself more; I just don’t think he was at full strength.”

Pearson hit just .190 in 45 games.

“I said, ‘Yeah, it definitely affected me.’ Physically, I was limited a little bit, and then, also, missing the fall, it felt like I was kind of at a disadvantage,” says Pearson.

The first month of the season was basically spring training for the 5-foot-11, 205-pound outfielder, and it showed.

“I felt pretty good over the first couple of weeks, and then you hit that patch where you struggle, and I kind of went into panic mode: ‘Try to fix this, try to fix that,’” he says.

The weakness in his shoulder wreaked havoc with his swing, and even his throwing motion, despite the fact that it was in his non-throwing shoulder.

“Getting your elbow up and pulling down, that affects it, and then hitting, in terms of keeping your hands back, it’s huge. I have pictures of me last year, where I’m trying to hit, and my hands are near my head,” Pearson says. “You start leaking out, and you’re diving at curveballs and all sorts of stuff. Last year, yeah, it was physically, but it was also mentally. I kind of collapsed.”

There were times where Pearson had a crisis of conscience.

“I think, at Arizona State, when coach first took me out, it was like, ‘Wow, I’m not playing today; this is on me,’” he says, recalling the April 12 game in Tempe. “I didn’t start the second game at Arizona State. I told coach, that I wasn’t mad that he took me out. I was mad at myself, that I let it get to that point.”

Pearson was trying to fix the carburetor and the ignition all by himself, while going 100 miles per hour, trying to help lift Cal into playoff contention, “when all I had to do was just drive, and the fall gives you the time to toy with stuff, and I felt really confident coming into this season, ready to go.”

As if that wasn’t enough, during the season-ending series at Oregon, Pearson broke third metacarpal in his left hand, suffered diving in the outfield during a pre-game warm-up. He missed the entire summer.

•••••

When Pearson returned to action in the fall of 2014, Jackson -- a native of Marin -- had been brought on as a volunteer assistant at his alma mater, coaching the outfielders -- including Pearson.

“When I was scouting, going to all the college games, coaching was always something that I wanted to do,” says Jackson. “Having a good prior relationship with coach Esquer, and him giving me the opportunity to come back was really awesome. I helped out and volunteered my time last year, as well, just helping out in the office, doing social media and doing some of the academic stuff for the team. When the opportunity came this year, I jumped on it. It’s kind of a homecoming for me.”

Pearson, though, got off to a slow start yet again, going 6-for-31 with two doubles and a home run in his first eight games. Then, he started to heat up. Over the next five games, Pearson went 9-for-19 (.474) with seven runs, six RBIs, a home run and four doubles.

On March 7 against Chicago State, while fouling a ball off in the bottom of the seventh, Pearson felt a familiar pop in his hand. It wasn’t the metacarpal. It was the hamate bone, again in his left hand.

“I threw my bat down, and I knew right away that it was broken. It felt like my other injury that I had last year. I knew something was wrong,” Pearson says.

Pearson missed more than a month, as the Bears flirted with .500 with him on the shelf.

“It was just slow,” Pearson says. “I wanted to be back out there, and I wanted to play.”

On April 11, Pearson made his first appearance back from injury, coming in as a pinch runner in an 11-10 win over Stanford.

He finally got back into the swing of things on April 18, in the series finale at then-No. 2 UCLA, going 1-for-1 as a pinch hitter.

Then, Pearson began to take off. A week later, Pearson started a white-hot streak at the dish, going 24-for-56 (.429) with two home runs, nine RBIs, 13 runs and five walks through the end of the season.

That torrid run surged Pearson into the team batting lead (.350), and earned him a spot on the Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 team. His unique blend of power and speed – he has four stolen bases in seven tries, two triples, 10 doubles and four home runs, slugging a team-best .567 with an on-base percentage of .407 (just behind first-team All-Pac-12er Chris Paul’s .408). Pearson’s strong arm has recorded a team-best five outfield assists.

“I’d say it’s just being relaxed in big spots at the plate,” says Pearson. “I just feel confident and relaxed. You’ve just got to slow the game down a little bit. Mainly, it’s just the mental stuff, being able to go up there, knowing I’m going to get it done. I definitely feel more fresh, now, especially with my shoulder healing up, and I feel 100 percent ready to go.”

He’s been as big a cog as any in the Bears tying a program-best 18 conference wins and 34 overall victories – tied for the most wins by a Cal team since 1995. And now, they’re on the doorstep of the College Station Regional, hosted by No. 6 Texas A&M.

“I watched Texas A&M play LSU the other day, at Texas A&M," says Pearson, "and looking at that atmosphere and that field, it’s big-time, so to be able to play there and show what we’re capable of doing, it's really exciting."


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