COLLEGE STATION, Tex. -- California hasn’t been in a postseason winner’s bracket since 1995, but on Friday, thanks to a 9-3 win over No. 2-seed Coastal Carolina, that’s exactly where the Golden Bears are heading, thanks to starter Daulton Jefferies.
“You want your guy to keep matching zeroes, and hold them down. Daulton was able to do that,” said Cal head coach David Esquer, who’s improved to 9-9 in the postseason. “I thought he did a great job … I think it was one of his best performances of his career here, and I really think it breaks through a wall for him, as far as coming up with those big performances that you want your Friday night guy to come through with.”
Jefferies ground his way through 7.0 innings, striking out the final three hitters he faced – two with two men on base – on 115 pitches, 73 for strikes.
Thanks to a masterful performance from the sophomore right-hander, Cal advances to Saturday’s 6 p.m. (CT) game against the winner of No. 1-seed Texas A&M and No. 4-seed Texas Southern in Friday’s nightcap.
“Jefferies was better than us,” said Chanticleers head coach Gary Gilmore. “The kid threw the ball well, 90, 95. You hear that a lot in the world, to get up in that batters box is a lot different than to hit it. He did a great job. Tip your hat to him. He did better than our whole team today.”
Jefferies held the top of the Coastal Carolina lineup 0-for-11 on the afternoon.
“They had a lot of lefties, so we tried to attack the outside of the zone as much as possible,” said Jefferies, who moved to 6-5 on the season. “We tried to keep them off balance and get ahead. My last few outings, I wasn’t getting ahead of being aggressive, so this was a change of pace here. I just attacked.”
The Bears needed more than just Jefferies, though, to down an admittedly depleted Chanticleers roster, and that something more was catcher Mitchell Kranson, starting his seventh game behind the plate for freshman Brett Cumberland, who’s dealing with a sore wrist.
Kranson – affectionately known as ‘El Gaucho’ -- went 3-for-4 in his first career playoff game, driving in two runs, scoring one himself and catching a runner stealing second as part of a strike-‘em-out-throw-‘em-out double play to end the bottom of the fifth.
The 5-foot-9, 205-pounder got the Bears going in the top of the second, cashing in a leadoff triple by hot-hitting first baseman Chris Paul -- his team-leading fourth of the year – with a line-drive single to center.
“There was a guy on third base, less than two outs, I was looking to hit something on the right side,” Kranson said. “I happened to get a good pitch, I was able to drive it up the middle and get a hit while getting an RBI at the same time.”
Coastal Carolina (38-20) answered back in the bottom of the second on a fly ball home run to left by first baseman Tyler Chadwick that just kept carrying and carrying thanks to the hot Texas air.
That, though, was the only run that the Chanticleers would get against Jefferies, who allowed just three hits and three walks on the day, with five strikeouts. He retired eight of the next 10 batters he faced, and didn’t allow a runner to reach second until walking the first two men in the bottom of the sixth.
Meanwhile, the Bears (35-19) were busy piling up 13 hits, with four Cal batters posting multi-hit days, and every starter reaching base safely. All but one starter –junior Brian Celsi -- had at least one hit, paced by Kranson.
In the top of the fifth, the Bears added two more runs, but could have had more. Celsi fisted a 2-2 offering from lefty starter Shane Sawczak up the middle, but a lay-out grab by second baseman Seth Lancaster foiled that ambition. After Preston GrandPre flared the second pitch he saw into center for a single, Cal second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz stepped to the dish, already 1-for-1.
Tenerowicz sent a fly ball out to left center, where a diving snare by left fielder Josh Crump robbed the sophomore infielder of his fourth hit in his last six at-bats.
With GrandPre aboard, center fielder Aaron Knapp drove the fourth pitch he saw into the left center field gap, bringing home a run with his seventh double of the year.
Right fielder Devin Pearson then dropped a first-pitch fly ball double – his 11th -- just inside the left field line to up the lead to 3-1. Pearson finished 2-for-4 on the day with a run and an RBI, and continues his hot hitting. Since April 25, a week after returning to the lineup following recovery from a broken hamate bone, Pearson is now 26-for-60 (.433) with two home runs, 10 RBIs, 11 runs and five walks.
“He hasn’t been the same guy [since coming back],” said Esquer. “Devin’s been pretty consistent for us. Those couple hits he got for us – especially the one down the line – were huge. Runs were hard to come by. The score doesn’t indicate how tough the game was, up until the seventh inning. By then, it was a one- or two-run game where each hit that could drive a run in was a big hit, and Devin got one of the biggest ones for us.”
Brock Hunter -- one of Coastal Carolina’s top middle innings men – came on to throw the sixth, and after striking out Paul on a fastball away, gave up a first-pitch single to Kranson. With Kranson – who hasn’t even attempted a stolen base on the year – at first, Hunter threw wide and high over to first on a pickoff attempt, allowing Kranson to scamper to second.
Cumberland – in the designated hitter role on Friday – then promptly banged a single through the right side, putting men at first and third.
Celsi – who’d been limited because of a hamstring issue – bounced Hunter’s third offering over the mound, and as Lancaster went the short way to first, Kranson trotted home to grow the lead to 4-1.
Jefferies began to labor in the bottom of the sixth, as he had trouble locating his fastball, walking leadoff man Crump on five pitches. He was able to strike out center fielder Anthony Marks on a fastball up and away, but then walked shortstop Michael Paez on eight pitches, with a wild pitch moving Marks to second.
With the tying run at the plate, the Bears began to heat up the bullpen, but Jefferies dialed up the heat, hitting 92 and then 93 as he got ahead of Connor Owings -- he of nine home runs and 48 RBIs on the year -- 1-2. After a phantom foul tip, Jefferies came back to get a called strike three with his change up.
Cal had already had issues with the umpiring crew earlier in the game, with a near-balk pickoff move from Sawczak erasing Pearson and Celsi being called back after leaning into a pitch in the fifth, and those issues flared up again when G.K. Young stepped to the dish.
Jefferies got ahead quickly 0-2 with his fastball, and his 76 mph knee-bending curveball looped dutifully into Kranson’s mitt for an apparent strike three. Kranson flipped the ball back towards the mound and took several steps to the dugout before realizing the umpire had not called strike three.
“I reacted too fast,” Kranson said. “I should have stuck it. That was my bad. I shouldn’t show up the umpire like that.”
Jefferies’s next offering – a similar 78-mph breaker – was called a ball, so Jefferies went back to the heater to get strike three called on a 93 mph fastball on the inner half.
In the bottom of the seventh, Jefferies once again fought himself, issuing a four-pitch leadoff walk to Zach Remillard.
After a visit by pitching coach Mike Neu, Jefferies went to his off speed stuff, and got first baseman Tyler Chadwick to bounce into a fielder’s choice grounder to second.
“We knew coming into the game he was going to come at us with fastballs, he was going to be a one-pitch guy,” said Chadwick. “Early on, we knew exactly what he was. He did a good job of painting the ball away. On the other hand, we missed quite a few barrels, and pitches we should’ve hit. He did a good job locating his fastball, I just think we could’ve done a better job getting the barrel on the ball.”
The play was all the more difficult for Tenerowicz because of the fact that the two teams had combined to record just three ground outs up to that point, but the sophomore ranged to his left and threw back to second for the force.
“You’d like to get a little more action early on in the game to get your feet on the ground,” said Esquer, a former Stanford shortstop. “I noticed that there wasn’t a whole lot in the infield. The ones that were hit later in the game, they made the plays.”
After a Lancaster pop out to GrandPre at short, Jefferies induced yet another groundout from catcher Matt Beaird. After scooping the slow roller at short, GrandPre threw low to first, but was saved by the Pac-12 All-Defensive glove of Paul for the final out of the inning.
“Mike came out and trusted me with what I was pitching,” Jefferies said. “I called my own last three outs. I trust myself. I trust in Mike. I stayed within myself, went right out there and stayed aggressive.”
“Getting through the seventh inning, I really thought he kind of just gutted it out,” Esquer said. “The weather was warm, he was on fumes a little bit, and I thought that really showed a lot.”
Third baseman Lucas Erceg -- who was 0-for-3 on the day – led off the eighth with a tapper to third, where Chanticleers third baseman Remillard looked ready to try to barehand the ball. Remillard, though, changed tack midstream, and as a result, flubbed the slow roller. Erceg was credited with a single, and was backed up with another base hit from Paul, touching off a rally.
Kranson – the best bat handler on the team – was asked to bunt, and he sent a perfect sacrifice to third, but Remillard – committing to the barehand – fired high to first, sending the ball up the right field line and bringing both runners home to stretch the lead to 6-1.
With such a commanding lead – and a 28-2 record when leading after seven innings – Esquer turned to his bullpen for some quick work.
Freshman righty Erik Martinez worked a scoreless eighth, walking one and striking out one on 19 pitches, lowering his ERA to 1.65.
The lead got even wider in the top of the ninth, as Cal got two men on with no outs for Erceg. On the second pitch he saw from reliever Zack Hopeck, Erceg sent a high pop fly back of third. As the ball twisted in the breeze, three Chanticleers converged, with third baseman Remillard calling off both his left fielder and shortstop. In foul ground, Remillard dove back towards the line as the ball came down, only to see it drop just beyond the tip of his mitt for an RBI pop-fly double.
In the 14 games up to the final series against Oregon State, Erceg hit .232. He went 5-for-12 against the Beavers, but his swing was long in the early goings against the Chanticleers.
“He wasn’t swinging the bat great in batting practice, I noticed,” Esquer said. “I thought he was trying a little too hard, trying to get too much lift to his swing. Sometimes, you can get hot with the cheapest hits possible, and he got a couple cheap ones. Hopefully that lets him relax down a little bit.”
Paul plated another run with a sacrifice fly to left, and a gork double by Kranson over first base plated another, giving the Bears their largest lead of the game at 9-1.
That lead shrunk a bit in the bottom of the ninth, when sophomore set-up man Alex Schick threw 31 pitches – just 15 for strikes – and allowed one run on two hits and three walks, leaving the bases loaded before presumptive Game Four starter Jeff Bain was able to clean up the mess, getting two outs on just three pitches, and allowing one inherited runner to score.
“We wanted to get a couple guys a taste out there,” Esquer said. “Erik Martinez and Alex Schick, Alex has been battling himself a little bit, but we’re going to need him before this tournament is over with. I know his velocity was up. I saw a couple of 95s on the board. We’ve just got to get him in the zone a little bit. Bain, to get him a taste on the mound, he probably is going to be that fourth starter in probably the biggest game of the year if we need him.”