COLLEGE STATION, Tex. -- It’s been 1,455 days since Devon Rodriguez broke Danny Freisinger’s voice.
It’s been three years since California last put on its rally capes.
But, at 10:09 p.m., CT, after 13 and a half innings, in a 1-1 tie with No. 1-seed Texas A&M, the Golden Bears’ Friday starter -- Daulton Jefferies -- put on a black cowboy hat and unbuttoned all but the top button of his white jersey, throwing the tails over his shoulders.
Three minutes later, junior catcher Mitchell Kranson -- affectionately known as El Gaucho -- sent a 2-1 hanging curveball from Texas A&M reliever Ryan Hendrix just barely over Nick Banks and the right field wall, walking off the Aggies, 2-1, and ending the Bears’ first extra-inning game of the season.
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“I thought he was going to catch it,” Kranson said. “It felt pretty good off the bat. At the beginning of the game, the wind was blowing really hard, in, which is the exact opposite of how it was blowing yesterday. I think it was maybe the ninth or 10th inning, the wind started blowing back out. When I hit it, I knew it had a chance, but when he jumped up, I was jumping, too, at first base, hoping that he didn’t catch it.”
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“I think it hit the wall on the other side, on the way down,” said head coach David Esquer. “It was pretty close, but it counts.”
Cal now controls its destiny in a regional for the first time since winning the first two games of the 1991 Midwest Regional in Wichita, Kan. The Aggies and Coastal Carolina – who the Bears beat on Friday – meet in an elimination game on Sunday at 12 p.m., CT, with the winner going on to play Cal at 6 p.m., CT. The Bears now need to win just one more game to advance to the Super Regionals against the winner of the TCU Regional in Dallas, Tex.
“We’re not done yet,” said head coach David Esquer, who, as he did in 2011, wore a path up and down the dugout as he paced. “That doesn’t get you to where we want to go, but it sure does help.
“Our team grew up a whole bunch, this year, and our program grew up, again, a whole bunch, just in this game. But, we’re not done, yet. We have not finished anything, and would not be surprised to be seeing Texas A&M again. We’ll take whoever the next game comes against.”
As for the timely rebirth of the Rally Capes? The first time they appeared, it was Dwight Tanaka who proposed the idea to Dixon Anderson and Matt Flemer during a 15-inning marathon against Rice at AT&T Park in San Francisco. This time around, it was all Jefferies, as A&M tried wearing soda 24-pack boxes, plastic cups and nacho trays on their heads to try to out-mojo the Bears.
“There are so many leaders who step up,” Esquer said. “Daulton got the team together, and he wasn’t the only one, but he got the team together and tried to get them going there, at the end. I like any team event that just keeps their spirit and keeps them close and bonded as a team. Whatever it takes.”
Before Banks watched the wall-scraper eek into the night, he, himself, had a possible game-winning homer wiped off the board thanks to junior Brian Celsi.
With two outs and one on in the bottom of the 11th, Banks sent the first pitch he saw from reliever Dylan Nelson deep to left, but Celsi – starting his second game back after taking time off due to a sore hamstring – leaped into the air, stuck his glove over the wall and brought what would have been Banks’s seventh home run back into play, and ending the inning.
“From what I remember,” Celsi said, “it went over, and I caught it. I kind of blacked out. Coolest thing I’ve ever done. I just looked at my glove and found the ball. Pretty stoked. It was cool.”
“Win or lose,” said head coach David Esquer, “that was probably going to be one of the greatest games in program history. Thank goodness it turned into one of the greatest wins in program history. That was two teams, really going at it, and it hinged on every pitch. So many heroes throughout the day. Fortunately, El Gaucho here, Kranny, ends up with the hero’s hat.”
The first of those heroes was starter Ryan Mason, who dueled Aggies ace Greyson Long to a standstill. Mason threw 8.0 innings, shutting out A&M from the second inning on, allowing six hits and three walks while striking out three on 95 pitches, as his defense rolled up two double plays behind him.
One missed double play – a grounder third baseman Lucas Erceg fielded, and instead of throwing to second, tried to chase down and tag Blake Allemand -- led directly to an RBI single by Logan Taylor in the top of the first. That infield single was on yet another possible (though unlikely) double play ball, that went off the glove of a diving Erceg, and behind shortstop Preston GrandPre.
Mason did get a liner off the bat of Banks to first baseman Chris Paul, who tagged first to double off Taylor and end the first before any more damage was done. Paul later chased Long with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, cracking a single over second base on Long's 99th pitch of the day, cashing in Devin Pearson, who singled through the left side and advanced to third on a single by Erceg, to tie the game at 1-1.
“[Mason] came out right at the start, and a double play ball that we could have turned, then a ball off our glove to score, then he shut them down the rest of the way,” Esquer said. “That lineup is as good as any lineup that we’ve faced, and he had to be on. He’s been dancing in and out of the zone, trying to get to the bottom of their bats, and coming up with big pitches. We were going to take him out, at one point.”
In the top of the eighth, Aggies catcher Michael Barash led off with a hard hopper that ate up GrandPre, and was then sacrificed over to third by Allemand, putting a runner in scoring position for designated hitter Mitchell Nau -- who came into the game hitting .376.
Pitching coach Mike Neu came out to talk.
“Mike went out there to take him out, and he talked him out of it,” Esquer said. “When he came back, when Mike walked back without taking the pitcher out, I said, ‘Well, he talked him out of it.’ Those are the moments you want to watch, and see what kids do.”
That’s nothing new. Twice this season, Mason and Neu have debated whether or not he would stay in. He’s won once. Now, he’s 2-for-3.
“He wanted the ball,” said Kranson. “If he didn’t get him out, it was his last hitter. If he got him out, we were out of the inning. He wanted it, and we trust Mason, every time he takes the ball.”
Mason’s first pitch to Nau was a sinker down and away, getting away from Kranson and moving Barash to third. Mason reached back and fired a sinker in to Nau, who sent a one-hopper to sophomore second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz, who dropped to one knee and burned a hole into the ball as he stared it into his navel. The ball secure, Tenerowicz fired to first to end the threat, and keep the game tied at 1-1.
It was one of several big-league quality defensive plays by Cal on Saturday night, and Tenerowicz – who went 2-for-6 at the plate – wasn’t done. In the top of the 10th, with Nelson on the hill, Barash sent a 3-2 offering off of Nelson’s outstretched glove, but Tenerowicz, ranging to his right, played the carom perfectly, came back, fielded the ball and threw to first for the second out. Allemand then flied out to right to end the inning.
In the top of the 13th, it was freshman reliever Erik Martinez’s turn to benefit from the slick fielding of the Moraga (Calif.) Campolindo product.
After senior lefty Chris Muse-Fisher walked two of the first three hitters he faced, Cal yanked him in favor of Martinez, who came into the game with a miniscule 1.65 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 32.2 innings.
Martinez allowed a liner over a leaping GrandPre by Logan Taylor, bringing up the powerful Banks. Banks – 0-for-5 as he stepped to the plate, after coming in hitting .371 with nine homers – got ahead 2-0, but a swing and a miss and a foul got Martinez back even. With the count full, Martinez got a swing and miss on an 88 mph fastball at the letters, the strikeout silencing the partisan assemblage of 5,569.
First baseman G.R. Hinsley then tried his hand with the bases juiced, and on the second pitch, he sent a bouncer over Martinez’s outstretched glove, seemingly destined for center field, but instead, Tenerowicz ranged over and took the ball to second to end the inning.
“Our pitching is nothing without our defense,” Esquer said. “Robbie made a couple clutch plays there, to end two innings. When they hit it his way, we’ve got a lot of confidence that he’s going to make that play, and even the ball that ricocheted off the pitcher was another big play to lead off an inning. There were three or four plays there that were big plays that he kind of anchored.”
Martinez earned his third win of the season, going 1.2 innings and allowing three hits, with three strikeouts. Nelson threw a season-high 4.0 innings, allowing two hits and two walks while striking out two, and starting a 1-6-3 double play with two on and one out in the top of the ninth that helped quench an Aggies rally.
“Up and down our lineup, from Ryan Mason to Dylan Nelson to our pitching staff, to our defense, it just kept going back and forth, and our guys were not going to let each other crack,” Esquer said. “I was worried about them getting a little bit mentally fatigued there at the end, but they didn’t. We’ve got so many leaders on the bench that are really just pulling for their teammates, and really root hard for their guys, and I think we felt that every one of them, throughout the day, did it.”