Cal baseball senior Mitchell Kranson strikes a blow for the everyman as the Bears head into season with high expectations

Mitchell "El Gaucho" Kranson mustache you a question: Are you ready for Cal baseball?

The night before the final game of California's 12-2 win on March 22, 2015, over Washington, the Bears went out to eat at a local Seattle establishment called El Gaucho. It's a steakhouse. Dimly lit. 

With some steak juice still perhaps simmering in his new mustache, Mitchell Kranson went 4-for-5 with a double and two RBI against the Huskies, and, quietly, a mustachioned legend was born. The name didn't belong to the restaurant anymore. It belonged to the man with the traffic cop soup strainer.

Over a 10-game stretch starting with that game, Kranson and his lip sweater went 14-for-40 (.350), with six runs, six extra-base hits (four doubles, two home runs) and six RBIs.

Kranson and his facial ferret, though, went into the postseason on a 5-for-34 slide over the final nine games of the regular season.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBGWHK9MCOw

In College Station, Tex., Kranson and his fantastic flavor saver found new life, and went 8-for-18 with two home runs and five RBIs, including a walk-off home run against Texas A&M on May 30 in the 14th inning. It was on that night that El Gaucho was formally introduced -- cookie duster and all -- to the world.

While he didn't quite have the born-for-internet-memes facial fur that Kranson sported, there was one player in the Cal firmament that knew the feeling as El Gaucho circled the bases: Devon Rodriguez.

"It was a yelling-at-the-TV moment," said Rodriguez, whose walkoff single up the middle to win the 2011 Houston Regional has become the seminal moment in the movement to Save Cal Baseball.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHsvdSPgzdg

"'Get up ball get up get up," Rodriguez urged, "and then just letting out lots of yells and excitement. It honestly felt like I was there. And, watching the game, I kept wondering why no one was sitting on the guy's slider and I knew if there was one person who would do it, it'd be Mitch, and the rest is history. Definitely pretty cool being on the other side and being able to watch a hit like that live."

The Bears, of course, fell to the Aggies in the Regional final, ending Cal's best season since 2011, but Kranson and his upper lipholstery weren't satisfied. Neither were the rest of the 'Stache Bros. 

"Being that close to getting into the Super Regionals, we were like, 'Wow, we almost made it,' but then, losing? We were all ready to just get going, get home from summer ball and get going and be back with our guys," says the man with the lush lower brow.

•••••

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1550790-cal-gets-walk-off-... Cal head coach David Esquer, who has his team poised to make another deep playoff run, ranked as high as No. 8 in the nation in preseason polls, and only as low as No. 13, knows that, after last season, there are no more excuses, no more recruiting holes to hide behind. This is the proverbial corner to be turned for a program that at one point went to the playoffs in three of four seasons.

"Being good on paper doesn't mean anything," Esquer says. "I caution our team all the time: The games aren't played on paper. No matter who we're supposed to be, it really doesn't matter, unless we're really good at winning that one-on-one battle, and playing better than the other team that day."

Kranson, out of Concord (Calif.) De La Salle, is every bit 5-foot-9, 210 pounds. The motorcycle cop comparison is more than apt: He looks like he's come straight out of Central Casting for a walk-on part on CHiPs as Background Officer #1. He's not cut. He's not chissled. He doesn't have a jaw hewn from granite. He's got a soft, friendly, open face and, when he grows it out, a shoe-polish black beard ("All natural," he says, proudly). He looks like he should be wearing a flannel shirt and an orange hunting vest, or a beaten canvas ballcap in the front of a big rig cab. He was born as a ready-made beer league softball player. But, boy, can he hit.

"It's kind of fun, because you walk through airports every day, and obviously, the eyes are going to go straight to the Mason's, who are 6-6, or the Schick's, or those type of guys," says Kranson, referring to two of his pitchers with much more altitude -- Ryan Mason and 6-foot-7 Alex Schick. "It's fun. I think the mustache has kind of given me a little recognition. It sticks out, that's for sure."

Kranson is much more easily affable than Tony Renda, who, at 5-foot-8, 173 pounds, won the Pac-10 Player of the Year for the 2011 season. He was always told he was too small, too skinny, too short, too slow -- too much nothing, not enough of anything. Renda, though, had the flinty stare that could cut you to pieces, and had tree trunk thighs hidden under his baggy baseball pants. Kranson, on the other hand, has an easy smile hiding under his lip rug and a physique that could best be described as "unassuming."

They're more similar than they look.

"Absolutely. There's definitely the wow factor they both have," says Rodriguez, who played with both Renda and Kranson. "When you see Renda crush a ball back up the middle off a 97-mph pitch, or see Mitch make a diving play at third, or put a ball in the track stadium, everyone always is like, 'Wow. I was not expecting that.' And I think they both use that as fuel when they play, because I know Mitch loves proving people wrong, and Renda was the same way."

Also, like Renda, Kranson is very difficult to strike out. Last season, Kranson was one of the 20 hardest batters to strike out in all of Division I college baseball, and is the hardest to K in the entire Pac-12. 

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1616086-cal-baseball-fall-... When he first came to Cal, he didn't really have a position. He had played both third and catcher in high school, but didn't seem to have arm enough for either, though he was a good receiver, and a deceptively quick-footed fielder. Despite having an injured right wrist for the second half of 2015, Kranson gunned down two would-be base stealers in the College Station Regional, and provided the Bears their best catching performance of the year, despite only catching six games over the regular season.

This year, with third baseman Lucas Erceg an academic casualty, transferring to NAIA Menlo College, Kranson will start at third, with switch hitting Brett Cumberland returning to his post behind the plate.

"Whatever role we've given him, he's excelled at," Esquer says. "He doesn't just play average. He plays beyond your expectations."

"Personally, it doesn't really affect me," Kranson says. "I've always been the guy that gets filled in, and that's great for me, because I love being in the lineup and playing for Cal every day. Team-wise, we've got good cameraderie this year, and Erceg did a lot for us, but I think our team is definitely going in the right direction. I think we have the hitting to make it up, for sure."

He may look average, but he's anything but.

"I think that's kind of the mystique behind him -- that he looks like he would be average, but he's not average," Esquer says. "He looks like an average outfielder, at best, and he's above average. He looks like an average catcher, at best, and he's above average. He may look like an average third baseman at best, and he'll probably do the same. Not many people can play all those three positions, and help you. He's able to do that. He's still an option behind the plate, if you need it, but when people think of, 'What's the fall off between Lucas Erceg and who you're going to play this year?' Well, when it's Mitchell Kranson, it doesn't feel like that far a fall."

•••••

In baseball, there's the myth of the so-called Christmas Day hitter -- a hitter so natural, so gifted, that he could roll out of bed on Christmas Day, put on his spikes, grab a bat, face live pitching and get a hit. I actually called Kranson that in our Fall Ball In Review. The thing is, Kranson is an actual, factual, Christmas Day hitter. 

"Part of what's helped me go through Cal is my relationship with Devon Rodriguez, and realizing that it is a long season, and coming out super-fast is important, but not burning yourself out is also very important. I took time off right after fall ball," Kranson says. "I didn't touch a bat for probably a month. I started my hitting regimen the day after Christmas."

He also took time off during the summer, to heal, and to regrow the source of his power: His pushbroom.

Courtesy Devon Rodriguez
 "I ended up shaving the mustache a couple days after we got home from Texas, and then, me and Devin [Pearson] had kept the 'stache for a while, so we decided that the first day of Christmas break, we would start growing them out, so we had beards forever, and I just shaved my beard yesterday [Monday]."

Hirsute horticulture aside, when he started hitting after Christmas, Kranson worked with Rodriguez, and he had a special gift, to boot.

"I keep telling him to reach his full potential he's gotta wear the sweatshirt I got him out in public more," Rodriguez laughs.

During winter break, Kranson went and stayed with Rodriguez at his mother's house. Rodriguez -- who battled knee and shoulder injuries in his final three years in Berkeley -- is still trying to hook on with a team for Spring Training, but intends on hitting the independent league circuit again, this year, in the American Association.

The two share similar hitting styles, though Rodriguez has more length and leverage. Both leave their bats in the zone for a long time, giving them more of an opportunity to make contact.

"Yes, that's one of the things we actually worked on when he came down in the winter," Rodriguez says. "But I definitely think what defines him is his ability to compete against anyone and everyone. I'm sure most people on the opposing team count him out when they see him walk to the plate, because of his size, but I learned real quick that I'll take Mitch against any pitcher in the country."

The pair became close during their shared time in Berkeley, with Kranson and Rodriguez rooming together on the road, and, of course, at Casa Rodriguez this winter.

"Me and him have had a pretty special bond since he was a freshman, and even since I've graduated, we talk every day," says Rodriguez. "I see him as family like a little brother so i had to make sure he's ready to roll this season."

"He gives me a lot of advice on how to handle things and coaches, and he's been on a team where they were projected to do really well, obviously, in that 2011 season, so he helps me get a handle on that kind of stuff," says Kranson. "My time at Cal has been up and down. It's all about just trying to be ready, and want to be the best I can be for my team and my coaches, and at the end of the day, I just want to be in the lineup, and if you're in the lineup, you're obviously getting an opportunity to show out."

Some of that advice has been on how to deal with Kranson's newfound fame.

•••••

The unassuming Kranson, when he committed to the Bears, told Esquer and the coaching staff that they'd have to up their batting glove budget. He was going to go through a lot.

"I probably get accused of cutting batting gloves from him, to get new ones, because I'm a batting glove snob," he says. "I've gone through a lot, and we're lucky, at Cal, to be sponsored and have a good sponsorship, so I can get batting gloves whenever I want, because I know most programs aren't like that. I've probably been through 50 to 75."

He's a blue-collar worker, and because he's such a dilligent hitter, he burns through batting gloves at an alarming rate. That's what he does: He grinds. That's all he knows.

So, when he hit the walk-off home run against the Aggies, and became an instant celebrity, it was a novel sensation. Like Sherriff Bart, he rapidly became a big underground success in this town.

"I mean, that home run helped a lot," Kranson chuckles. "When I first checked my phone after that home run, I had over 130 text messages, hundreds of notifications on twitter, Instagram, Facebook, so that definitely helped. It's pretty funny that it took off, the way it did."

The one message he remembers was from Rodriguez.

"I do remember -- I had a lot of text messages after that game -- but I do remember his, and his was, 'Hey, congratulations on the hit. Welcome to being in the elite group,' being the two biggest hits in Cal baseball history," Kranson says. "Obviously, it's an unreal accomplishment, and an honor of being able to have that, but he's pretty easy-going, and he said to just manage it and have fun. Take advantage of your opportunity."

That's what Kranson has done, and what he will do, this coming season.

"I guess the biggest difference would be that Lucas could throw you out by six steps, and Mitch throws you out by one, but you're still out," Esquer says of Kranson's third base work. "It's not like Lucas makes outs, and Kranson makes them safe. It looks a little different, but I think the production will be just fine. You don't replace a Major League talent all the time, and that's what Lucas Erceg is -- he's a Major League Baseball player. it's unfortunate it didn't work out with us, but when the answer is Mitchell Kranson, you're not as afraid of the fall."

Part of the anticipated smaller falloff on offense is the fact that Nick Halamandaris has been absolutely raking this winter. Standing in the outfield and watching him pepper the facade of Edwards Track Stadium with gopher balls is something to behold, and that's not even taking into account that the players watching the display whisper about what they call an "800-footer" that their first baseman put onto the track in said stadium. There's obviously some exaggeration, but it's hard not to see that Halamandaris has found an extra gear when it comes to power.

"We'll have the at-bats and the home runs, and with the fall we saw and the spring, our pitchers had it tough," Kranson said. "We hit pretty well."

Could that hitting get them all the way back to Omaha? Cal is ranked in the top 10 in three preseason polls, and at least among the top 13 in all of them.

"It's all on paper, just like coach says," Kranson says. "Being ranked eighth is awesome, and top-10 is an awesome accomplishment, but that's not the accomplishment that we want for the season. I don't want us to be remembered for being ranked eighth preseason; I want to be remembered for going to Omaha, and we all want to be in Omaha, to make sure that we live up to the hype."

It's not about being eighth in the preseason. It's about being one of the final eight when all is said and done, somewhere in Middle America, as the song goes.

For all their talks, Rodriguez has remained tight-lipped about Omaha, and his experiences there in 2011, which included a trip to a tornado shelter with his mother.

"He's told me that it's an unbelievable experience," Kranson says. "It's something I definitely want to experience this year. He said it's the highlight of his baseball career."

"I think it's one of those things that I know it's his goal and the team's goal, but you have to be in the moment and take it game by game," Rodriguez says. "I don't want to talk it up too much. Got to keep him grounded and then, once they get there, then I can tell him everything he needs to know so he's ready to roll. I know he doesn't lack any motivation to get there, but I also know how hard it is to get there, so it's something that I want him to experience for himself."

It was magic in Rodriguez's bat that helped get the Bears to Omaha in 2011. Maybe this time, it'll be a little Mustache Magic, as El Gaucho saddles up for his final ride.

Season Opener: Duke

Cal will face off against Duke in Durham, N.C., on Friday at 1 p.m., Pacific, with Kranson at third, Brett Cumberland behind the dish, and ace Daulton Jefferies on the mound. All three games will be broadcast live on Blue Devil Network Plus (a paid streaming service through Duke’s website.

The Blue Devils went 31-22 last season, and had to endure for much of the season without their eventual top draft pick Mike Matuella, who was injured in the first month of the season, but not before dealing Jefferies and the Bears a season-opening loss at Evans Diamond.

Duke returns sophomore infielder Peter Zyla, who led the Blue Devils in hitting (.311) and drove in 21 runs in 160 at-bats. Junior catcher Cris Perez also comes back after leading the team with 34 RBIs a year ago.

Jefferies' opponent on Friday, righty Bailey Clark, went 4-5 last year with a 2.95 ERA in 58.0 innings of work, with 49 strikeouts.

Duke also added a pair of graduate transfers to the staff, in former Cornell hurlers Brian McAfee and Kellen Urbon, who started eight games apiece last season.

Friday, Feb. 19
Cal: RHP Daulton Jefferies (6-5, 2.92 ERA in 2015)
Duke: RHP Bailey Clark (4-5, 2.95 ERA in 2015)

Saturday, Feb. 20
Cal: RHP Ryan Mason (6-3, 2.98 ERA in 2015)
Duke: LHP Trent Swart (5-2, 1.76 ERA in 2014 - missed 2015)

Sunday, Feb. 21
Cal: LHP Matt Ladrech (7-4, 2.67 ERA in 2015)
Duke: RHP Brian McAfee (5-2, 1.77 ERA in 2015 at Cornell)

Projected Cal Lineup (2015 stats)
CF Aaron Knapp L/R (.310, 23 RBI)
RF Devin Pearson L/R (.355 4 HR, 22 RBI)
3B Mitchell Kranson L/R (.273, 6 HR, 21 RBI)
DH Brenden Farney L/R DNP
LF Brian Celsi L/R (.278, 3 HR, 31 RBI)
C Brett Cumberland S/R (.254, 7 HR, 32 RBI)
1B Nick Halamandaris L/L (.207, HR, 13 RBI)
SS Preston GrandPre R/R (.264, 1 HR, 26 RBI)
2B Robbie Tenerowicz R/R (.182, 8 RBI)


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