“Dave [Esquer] does a great job with the team,” said Aggies head coach Rob Childress, who fell, 7-3, to Cal in Omaha, ending A&M’s season, and is looking forward to the rematch. “When you talk about the job that he’s done, just being the rock for that program, as long as he’s been there, that’s his program, and all of his players, they were looking for places to go play [when the program was cut in September of 2010]. Some of them left at semester, and in 2011, he got them to the College World Series. You can see that he’s getting it back to where he expects it to be, where he wants it to be, and they’ve got some big, strong, physical kids up and down that lineup. They’re very good on the mound, and they’re extremely well-coached. He’s one of the best coaches in the country.”
[RECAP: Kranson, Jefferies Power 9-3 Win]
The Aggies came into the playoffs ranked 28th in the nation in ERA (3.14), ninth in batting average (.307), ninth in home runs (64), ninth in slugging percentage (.472), 18th in scoring (7.0 runs per game) and 34th in hits (575). A future match-up between them and the Bears -- who came in ranked 51st in the nation in homers (42) and 71st in slugging (.409) in a conference known for its pitching – should be an entertaining affair.
“It doesn’t get easier from here,” Esquer said. “It’s a matter of facing Texas A&M with a hostile crowd in their home park. You just hope you get your team ready to play, your team can find a little bit of a groove, your hitters can relax down and you have to play defense.”
While the Aggies will be playing in their home stadium, Cal will be the designated home team.
The Bears will throw junior Ryan Mason (6-3, 3.18 ERA) and will have almost all of their bullpen bullets left. Jeff Bain threw just three pitches on Friday, and Erik Martinez just 19.
“It’s a big seven innings that we don’t have to piece together the back half of that bullpen,” Esquer said of starter Daulton Jefferies’s winning outing in the early game on Friday, which helped to preserve the relief corps.
Mason – a sinkerballer – has kept the longball in check all season (not allowing a single home run), but the Aggies didn’t get their 64 homers by accident. As the Bears saw on Friday on a second-inning solo home run by Tyler Chadwick, routine fly balls can get pushed over the fence.
“If he’s pitching the way he can pitch, there’s going to be a lot of groundballs, and there’s going to be a lot of action on the infield,” Esquer said. “We’re going to have to be ready for that.”
[FEATURE: Bears Return to National Relevance]
The Aggies have saved No. 1 starter Greyson Long for the second game, and while he’s not quite as impressive as Texas A&M’s injured starters – hard-throwing lefty A.J. Minter (Tommy John surgery) and Tyler Stubblefield (tore ACL the second day of fall ball) – he’s held the line just fine for much of the season.
Long is the first Aggies pitcher to start 9-0 since now-Major Leaguer Michael Wacha in 2012. The All-SEC Second-Team hurler struck out 10 in 6.0 innings in the SEC Tournament against Alabama, and struck out 12 in 7.0 scoreless against Ole Miss in the last weekend of the regular season. Against No. 1 LSU, he threw 6.1 innings, allowing six hits and three earned runs, while striking out four and walking three. On the season, Long has a 2.62 ERA in 15 starts, throwing 86.0 innings and allowing a .214 batting average against. He’s struck out 100, and allowed 37 walks.
Stubblefield did pitch in the SEC Tournament, for the first time this year, throwing a scoreless inning against Vanderbilt in the semifinal. In his second frame, though, he fielded a Dansby Swanson bunt and threw it up the line for an error, leading to a five-run inning that secured a 12-3 win for the Commodores.
At the dish, right fielder Nick Banks -- who made two highlight-reel grabs in right to keep Texas Southern down when the game was just a two-run affair – is one to keep an eye on. Banks slugged the first honest-to-goodness homer of the Regional (not a fly ball that just kept carrying) in the bottom of the fourth.
The lefty-swinging Banks came into the weekend hitting .369, and has started 55 of 56 games. He is one of four Aggies to have over 40 RBIs on the season (44), and leads A&M in ripples, with three.
Banks also has the best arm of the Texas A&M outfielders, and one of the better outfield arms that Cal has seen this season. His into-the-sun sliding grab with the bases loaded in the sixth was arguably the biggest play of the game.
“Nick had a great at-bat with two strikes, hits a home run, gives us a little bit of breathing room in the fourth inning, and Matt [Kent] continued to make it stand,” Childress said. “We were able to get off the field in the sixth inning with an amazing play by Nick, and we scored some runs there in the eighth inning to put it away. With two outs, there’s no read on that play; they’re going to score all three runs if that gets by Nick.”
Perhaps the best stick in the Aggies’ lineup, though, is Mitchell Nau. He’s got four taters on the season, but leads A&M with 15 doubles. His .375 average paces the Aggies, as does his on-base percentage, which saw a boost from .465 after his 2-for-3 night at the dish.
Tigers starter Ryan Rios kept the Aggies off balance much of the night, scattering seven hits over 6.2 innings, and allowing just two runs and one walk.
“He’s got a great feel to pitch. You could see us start to get a little bit tight there, the second time through the order, and he continued not to give in and made pitches,” Childress said.
How does Rios compare with Mason? Well, for one, he doesn’t throw as hard, but he is a sinkerballer.
“You have to take away – you have to move up in the box, see a sinkerball pitcher up, but he did a really good job of keeping the ball down, and he fed off of us for the first two or three times through,” Banks said. “You’ve got to let the ball get deep with a guy like that, and put your crosshairs on the opposite field gap.”