Texas A&M Downs Cal in 12, Forces Game 7

COLLEGE STATION, Tex. -- Texas A&M forces a seventh game with a 4-3 win in 12 innings against California, the second night in a row that the two teams have needed extra frames to decide a victor.

COLLEGE STATION, Tex. -- The difference between No. 3-seed California and No. 1-seed Texas A&M on Sunday night was style. The Aggies trusted one of their best hitters -- Nick Banks -- despite the fact that he’d gone 0-for-9 against the Bears, leading into the fateful 12th inning of Sunday's Game 6 of the College Station Regional.

Cal – with hot-hitting Devin Pearson at the plate with runners aboard in both the 10th and 12th innings – called for their right fielder, who was 7-for-15 on the Regional, to bunt.

Pearson moved runners over -- runners who were eventually stranded -- and Banks got the go-ahead RBI single in the top of the 12th off of Lucas Erceg, as the Bears lost, 4-3, in the second straight extra-inning affair between the two teams.

“I was just looking for a pitch that I could drive,” said Banks. “I wasn’t trying to do too much, there. I was just trying to put the bat on the ball and get a good pitch I could put a good swing on.”

“Banks is the guy you’d rather not let beat you, and he beat us there,” said Cal head coach David Esquer. “We got beat by achievement, and in a game like that, that’s what you want. You don’t want to get beat by somebody failing. You want someone to achieve, in order to win the ballgame, and they did that.”

Texas A&M head coach Rob Childress, for one, was grateful that Pearson didn’t get to swing the bat in a similar situation.

“I was certainly thankful for that,” Childress said. “He’s a guy who’s hard to put away. I know their catcher (Mitchell Kranson) is really swinging the bat well, and we’ve give up a couple home runs to him, but that two-hole hitter really makes me nervous. He’s got a really good approach, and Devin Pearson’s a really polished hitter.”

“We’ve got two pretty good hitters behind him,” Esquer said of the dual decisions to sacrifice Pearson, referring to Erceg and Chris Paul, who went a combined 2-for-10 on Sunday, 1-for-5 with runners on base and 1-for-4 with runners in scoring position. “We’re running a pretty good lineup, so if we can get that one big hit, then we can maybe roll that into a multiple-run inning, but we want to get that one run first.”

With the win, the host Aggies forced a winner-take-all showdown for the right to move on to a Super Regional on Monday at 6:30 p.m., Central, at Blue Bell Park, a curtain call for a pair of games that have been the tightest of the tournament thus far, with Sunday’s game drawing 5,693, outpacing 5,569 that saw Saturday’s 14-inning marathon.

“The crowd was electric tonight,” Esquer said. “We had our chance. We had a one-run lead in the ninth, and they came back. It was just going to go back and forth that way. I’m really proud of my team, for them to be so resilient and keep coming back. It’s a great crowd. There’s probably thousands of them rooting against us, and we have about 50, plus our 25 in the dugout. I couldn’t be prouder. Great game. Wish it had gone our way.”

The two teams have now played a total of 24 innings against one another over the past two days, both emptying bullpens and benches.

“We’ve played almost three games, and we’re tied 1-1,” said Esquer. “You don’t see that too many places.”

“Just another heavyweight fight,” said Childress. “If you’re a fan of baseball, just like I said last night, you couldn’t have asked for anything more, again, tonight, from both teams.”

The aforementioned Kranson – who came into the postseason 5-for-34 in the final nine games of the season – continued his case for Most Outstanding Player in the Regional, poking his second home run in two days to lead off the bottom of the seventh – bringing the score back even after the Aggies got an RBI single by Michael Barash with two outs in the top of the frame – and going 2-for-4 on the day.

“I figured that they were probably going to go soft at the beginning, and then they got to a 2-1 count, and I was sitting dead-red fastball, and got it and didn’t miss it,” Kranson said.

Kranson has now gone 8-for-15 over the weekend, with three runs scored, five RBIs, two home runs and one double.

“The last three weekends of the year, I felt like I was hitting the ball right at people, hard,” Kranson said. “I was squaring up on most balls, and it’s baseball. Ball’s going to fall. I love the crowd. I love the noise. I wanted to be up with guys on base. Too bad I hit that ball right at the second baseman – just another hard ground ball [in the 10th] – but I love the atmosphere here, and it’s awesome to make them quiet.”

“He’s hitting with great confidence,” Esquer said. “There’s no one else we’d like up at the plate, other than Mitch. Quite frankly, when we roll through the middle of our lineup, we’re pretty confident that something good can happen, between Pearson and Erceg and Chris Paul and Mitch, as well. We just need the other guys to table-set a little bit, and have something happening when they get up.”

Kranson’s second jack of the weekend prompted a flurry of pitching moves from Childress, as he immediately went into an all-hands-on-deck situation to try and force Monday’s “if necessary” contest.

After reliever Corbin Martin allowed two straight one-out singles after the home run, Childress sent three more pitchers to the mound to work around the Bears. Kyle Simonds issued an eight-pitch walk to second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz, and then gave way to Blake Kopetsky, who had a triple in the early game.

With the bases loaded, Kopetsky was able to induce a grounder to first off the bat of Aaron Knapp, where first baseman Hunter Melton threw home to erase Preston GrandPre.

Childress then went to Mark Ecker, pitching for the first time this weekend, but sporting a 2.81 ERA in 25.2 innings this season out of the bullpen.

“Kind of like last night, I was kind of mad at myself, because I was one hitter too late, going to [Ryan] Hendrix,” Childress said. “I was mad at myself again there, for not letting Kopetsky start that inning with two lefts coming up. Corbin’s stuff was really crisp the inning before, and I wanted to try to save as many guys as we could, but at the same time, you’ve got to empty the chamber, because there is no tomorrow. Once they hit that home run, it was on again.”

Ecker came in on fire, throwing four straight fastballs to Pearson, and overpowering him with a 94 mph heater up for a swing-and-miss strike three.

“He was electric,” said Childress. “That was a huge punch-out.”

Ecker went on to throw 3.1 innings of relief – more than he did during the entire month of May -- allowing just one run on one hit and two walks, while striking out three.

Ecker allowed that next run in the very next inning, as first baseman Chris Paul sent a high fly ball to medium-deep left, but left fielder Logan Taylor -- playing in his home park – lost the ball in the lights, and it fell to the turf about 45 feet from him. Paul motored around second and took too big a turn at third, before quickly scampering back and avoiding the tag by third baseman Logan Nottebrok.

Up stepped Kranson – the hero of the previous two games – and he promptly lofted the first ball he saw from Ecker to left, deep enough for a sacrifice fly to drive in Paul, and give Cal the lead for the second time, 3-2.

Bears starter Matt Ladrech went 5.0 innings, scattering four hits and allowing one run, with one walk and four strikeouts, but was lifted after his second time through the lineup, much as he was against Oregon State.

Lefty Chris Muse-Fisher tossed 1.2 innings of relief, but allowed two men to reach with two outs in the top of the seventh. He was pulled for freshman righty Jeff Bain, who, after allowing the groundball single through the left side by Barash, allowed one single and one walk in a scoreless 1.1 innings of relief.

“We were in the lead going into the ninth inning, and you can’t be in any better position than that,” Esquer.

Bain – who threw just 22 pitches – was lifted for two-way player Erceg to start the ninth inning. The erstwhile third baseman – who’d gone 0-for-3 at the dish, but had a sacrifice fly to get Cal ahead, 1-0, in the first inning – came into the top of the ninth hot, firing fastballs between 93 and 94.

Erceg got help on his first batter, as Jonathan Moroney sent a hard hopper to new third baseman Paul – moved over from first when Erceg took the mound – who made a stretching stab, then threw to first, where his own defensive relief -- Nick Halamandaris -- made a sprawling save for the first out.

Erceg then gave up a flare single just over a leaping GrandPre to Logan Nottebrok, and let his first-pitch fastball to pinch hitter Ronnie Gideon leak out over the plate, where the versatile sophomore sparkplug was able to drive it inside the left field line for an RBI double, tying the game.

“I thought, right out of the chute, they were kind of on him,” Esquer said. “Quite frankly, they’ve been facing a lot of softer pitchers during the tournament, from Texas Southern, and our first pitcher. I thought that they were probably a little more comfortable with a little more velocity against him, early.”

Gideon had come on to pinch hit for Barash – one of the best defensive catchers in the SEC – in part because he’d caught 30 innings over the previous two days.

“We just felt like he had a chance to pop one,” Childress said. “Barash, he caught 17, 18, 20 today, I’m not sure, and yesterday, and it’s been hot. He’s had some really good at-bats in game one today, and again today, but we felt like Gideon had a chance to run one out of the ballpark, and he certainly went up there ready to hit. He sat there for a long time today, and got his opportunity.”

The Bears’ plate approaches in the bottom of the ninth can best be described as: ‘Go long or go home,’ as GrandPre lined out to center, Halamandaris took a massive cut at a fastball away to go down swinging, and Tenerowicz popped out on the second pitch he saw after going to his knee to offer at the first.

Erceg worked around a leadoff single in the top of the 10th, and an intentional walk to Banks, thanks to an inning-ending double play grounder off the bat of Melton, with a bare-handed turn by Tenerowicz and another sprawling save by Halamandaris at first.

The bottom of the 10th saw Knapp reach via a walk, and Pearson bunt him to second. Erceg was walked intentionally with Paul – who was 5-for-14 on the Regional – on deck.

“They got a little long, a little long,” Esquer said. “Even Lucas, I think, sometimes, you can’t manage those emotions. They want to really produce, and maybe try a little too hard. To be able to relax, if you noticed, that swing by Banks to get the base hit, that was a nice, smooth, easy swing. He did not try to do too much with that. The same with Mitch in the last couple days. In the moment, they’re able to back off a bit and trust their ability to have the best chance for success.”

Paul flew out weakly to right, and Kranson grounded out to second on the first pitch he saw, ending the threat.

Reliever Jason Freeman worked around a one-out walk to GrandPre in the bottom of the 11th – the sophomore shortstop’s second walk of the Regional, after earning just one unintentional free pass during the regular season – by getting the big-swinging Halamandaris to strike out at a change up down, and catching Tenerowicz way out in front of an 80 mph change of pace for another K.

Erceg – en route to throwing a season-high 4.0 innings – got the first two outs in short order in the top of the 12th, but then allowed a hard single to the left side to Mitchell Nau -- his third hit in five trips to the plate.

The next pitch Erceg delivered was to Logan Taylor, who sent a chopper to GrandPre deep at short. GrandPre – who had been exceptional with the leather throughout the first two games of the Regional – threw high to first. Halamandaris hopped up to grab the throw, and came down on the bag, but replay showed that he came down a hair too late, allowing Taylor to reach, and Nau to move to third.

“Our guys were sure that he didn’t come off the bag there,” Esquer said. “The explanation I got was that the umpires felt like he did. I know the mechanic of the umpiring, when the throw is high, then the first base umpire has to go to the throw, and it’s usually the home plate umpire who has to go cover the bag. I respect them. They did a great job all night. That play didn’t beat us. We had plenty of opportunities throughout the game.”

Banks then came up with his liner to center, and Knapp alertly threw to third, as he saw Taylor make a wide turn at second. Paul tagged Taylor, but just a beat after Nau touched home, putting the Aggies ahead by a run.

“That was huge,” Childress said. “It just seemed like that whole play was in slow motion. Taylor put his head down and kept running. I would have liked to have seen what the next guy would have done. Maybe we get a big hit there if he’d stayed at second. It was aggressive, and thankfully [Nau] touched the plate before they tagged [Taylor] out at third base. Certainly very fortunate.”

Erceg went 4.0 innings, allowed two runs – one earned – on five hits, with one walk and six strikeouts.

“I thought he settled down,” said Esquer. “He was able to go to three pitches after the first inning. You come in, as a reliever, in a tight situation, he’s going fastball-curveball. But, I thought he was able to throw a change up and a breaking ball, as well, in the second and third innings that made him a little more effective.”

The 10th inning seemed to repeat itself in the bottom of the 12th, as Knapp worked a walk, and Pearson sacrificed him over. Erceg – who hit 11 home runs during the regular season – popped out to shallow left for the second time on the day (his third high pop out to the outfield on the day).

On an 0-1 pitch, Paul sent a grounder to the right side, handcuffing Melton. Knapp made a wide turn at third and headed homeward, but Melton threw to Nau, who took over for Barash.

Nau threw to Gideon – who took over for Nottebrok at third – while Freeman broke to cover first, leaving nobody at home. Knapp – in his second rundown of the day – looked at Gideon, not realizing nobody was covering the plate.

“Typically, you get ready to wheel a runner with two outs, if they’re going to go to first, and it’ll be a bang-bang and a safe call,” Esquer said of the decision to send Knapp. “Just trying to be aggressive. He had an open lane, there, at the end. He just couldn’t out-run that third baseman. I will never fault our team for being aggressive.”

Gideon faked a throw home, causing Knapp to hesitate ever so briefly, losing a crucial step. Gideon was then able to dive and tag Knapp from behind for the final out.

“I threw a fastball away, off the bat, I knew it was my bag to cover first,” said Freeman. “I know that Melton was going for the ground ball. I got to first and didn’t realize that nobody was covering home. I didn’t think that guy was going to round third. I turned around and realized that it was also now my bag to try to cover. I tried to get there as fast as I can, but, thankfully Ronnie Gideon really sold out and put his body on the line there and got the last out for us.”

One final thought: If Knapp doesn’t get thrown out, Kranson comes to the dish with a runner in scoring position.

Neither head coach offered up any substantive guess as to who would start Monday’s Regional finale. Cal could easily go with Bain, who threw just 22 pitches on Sunday, and three pitches on Friday.

“All hands on deck, on the last day,” Esquer said. “It could be the last day of the season. We have nothing to hold back. I know Daulton Jefferies has mentioned that he will be ready to pitch. We haven’t used Alex Schick much, and Erik Martinez can probably come back, and Dylan Nelson is probably going to be back in play for us, as well. They’ll do the same. Anybody that they’ve used already, I’m sure, will pitch a little bit, if they can. It’s just one of those games that, when you get to the ‘if necessary’ game, it’s all hands on deck.”

Texas A&M could very well go a few innings with Friday starter Matt Kent, who threw 90 pitches in 7.0 innings in a 5-0 win over No. 4-seed Texas Southern.

“Certainly, he’s ready to go,” Childress said. “All hands on deck tomorrow. I don’t think anybody’s sore this time of year. They’ll be ready to go tomorrow.

Kranson, for one, is very ready.

“Personally, I’m ready to catch all nine, even if it goes extras,” Kranson said. “I know our team is ready. This is a special group to be around, and it’s fun playing with everyone of these guys.”

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