Sue Tenerowicz

Mitchell Kranson continues to mash for Cal baseball, going 4-for-5 as the Bears edge USC, 5-4

Mitchell "El Gaucho" Kranson continues to rake, going 4-for-5 with a monstrous home run as Cal edges USC 5-4 despite four errors to open Pac-12 play.

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California head baseball coach David Esquer said after the No. 12 Golden Bears' 5-4 win over USC on Thursday that, “Sometimes, you’ve got to win ugly."

Four errors plagued Cal (11-4, 1-0 in Pac-12), which has committed eight errors in the last two games, after committing 10 over the previous 13. Thee of the flubs were throwing errors on the part of sophomore catcher Brett Cumberland.

"He's been really good, up until tonight," Esquer said. "I think we just chalk it up to a night and move on. We missed a couple balls on the infield that got on us a bit. Uncharacteristically, a couple balls got by [second baseman] Robbie [Tenerowicz]. He's as good a second baseman as there is out there. One of those uglier wins that you have to have if you're a pretty good team, so we'll take it." Despite the fielding miscues,  the Bears won their 10th of its last 12 games, closer Erik Martinez nailed down his fifth save in as many tries, starter Daulton Jefferies won his fifth straight decision and tied his career high with 10 strikeouts and El Gaucho -- Mitchell Kranson -- put on a hitting clinic.

After going 19-for-47 with 9 RBIs since he moved to the two-hole, Kranson went 4-for-5 with a double, two singles and a monstrous solo home run to right field, scoring two runs and driving in one.

Kranson has now gone 17 for his last 24, and he's hitting like he's mad at something. It turns out, he is.

"The biggest thing, I was really pissed off that we didn't close it out at Texas A&M," Kranson said, referring to the Bears' war against the Aggies in the College Station Regional last season. "I want to get back to where we were, playing the best baseball that Cal's played. That motivation is not just for myself, but for my team. It's the first Pac-12 series, but we want to get where we were at the end of last year."

Cumberland, despite his issues behind the plate, was brutal (as far as the Trojans were concerned) at it, going 2-for-3 with two runs and one RBI -- on a titanic solo home run in the top of the third that the golfed from no more than 12 inches off the ground and over the Dedeaux Field scoreboard in right-center field.

"Sometimes, when Cumby hits 'em, boy, he hits 'em like a man hits 'em, and that was a man shot right there," Esquer marveled. "It was like a two-iron off the bat. It was low and then just kept rising."

Jefferies, playing to a crowd bristling with radar guns, didn't face a single inning in which he didn't have a baserunner to mind, save for the sixth, when he allowed a two-out solo home run to Cory Dempster for his first career home run. 

"At the beginning, we started hard then soft, and towards the middle innings, we did soft then hard, starting guys off with change ups and sliders," Jefferies said. "Towards the end, we went hard, hard, hard, and my fastball in was working well. I didn't throw too many change ups, but when I did, it was more right-on-right change ups, getting guys to roll over, and they did that. My slider was working pretty well. I felt good."

Jefferies had to work out of two-on, one-or-no-out jams three times, and his high-stress innings started from the jump.

"I just had to keep my composure," Jefferies said. "There are going to be errors that happen, but that's part of baseball. I can't really control that. Controlling the controllables is key. We were lucky to bounce back after they put some runs on the board. Kranson hit a bomb, next thing you know, Brett hit one too. The good teams can bounce back from that ind of adversity, and we did that. This is a very special team."

Sophomore shortstop Preston GrandPre uncorked a wild through on a routine bouncer with one out in the first, and two batters later, that batter -- David Oppenheim -- took third on a wild throw to second by Cumberland. But, Jefferies got a strikeout and a ground out to end the threat.

"His arm's been bothering him a little bit, and we decided to go with him, but it didn't look great in pre game, and when you're going to play with Daulton Jefferies pitching against Kyle Davis, you want your best defense out there," said Esquer, who then pulled GrandPre in favor of switch-hitting freshman Ripken Reyes.

Naturally, the first ball in the bottom of the second found him, a ripped grounder to the hole by A.J. Ramirez. Reyes backhanded the shot and threw a strike to first, but not in time. Reyes would see another hot shot from the very next batter, Adalberto Carrillo, who scalded a grounder off the lip of the infield grass and up into Reyes's face. He deflected the ball with his shoulder, but it still counted as an infield single.

"He's a tough-minded player," Esquer said of Reyes, who took a one-hopper off his chest in the sixth, but still fired to first for the first out. "He's a gamer. In every definition of the word, that's what Ripken Reyes is. He's a gamer. He's going to stay in front of it, and he's not going to budge an inch. He'll get his shoulder or anything in front of it."

A misplayed bunt by Cumberland off the bat of Lars Nootbaar allowed one run to score, and a groundout to Reyes by Dempster plated another, before Jefferies got Reggie Southall to fly out to end the inning.

"We attacked away with the fastball, and then used slider and change up to get them to either roll over or reach for something, and get weak contact," Jefferies said. "Our defense was lock-down after that. It was a good approach by coach [Thomas] Eager and I, and Brett stuck with it, and I relaxed and made pitches."

Though USC got on the board early, that inning only tied what the Bears had done a frame before, as Cal got three straight one-out singles, including an RBI single on a low slider by senior Brian Celsi, and then a bouncing RBI double by Robbie Tenerowicz over a leaping, drawn-in third baseman to stake Jefferies to a 2-0 lead.

"We scored those first two runs, and I kind of half-jokingly said: We just traded punches; we punched them and we punched ourselves in the bottom of the inning to give two back," Esquer said of the errors in the bottom of the frame.

Celsi has now gotten a hit in 13 of his last 32 at-bats, going 1-for-4 during the Bears 13-hit barrage. 

"He's that guy that picks up the scraps with a big hit, and he's done a really good job," Esquer said.

The last time Jefferies faced USC, allowed seven runs -- all earned -- on seven hits and one walk, striking out four over 5.0 innings. He wasn't about to let the Trojans get to him again. On Thursday, Jefferies went 7.0 innings, scattering nine hits and one walk, allowing four runs (one earned) and tying his career-high with 10 strikeouts. The junior out of Atwater (Calif.) has now struck out nine or more batters in three of his five starts this season, and on Thursday, he had everything working.

"I just kind of controlled what I could control," Jefferies said. "I tried to stay composed, and just execute pitches, not try to do too much, not try to throw balls by guys or anything like that. I just tried to go out there and execute the game plan like we set out, and it worked out for me."

Jefferies pounded the zone all evening, with 80 of his 104 pitches going for strikes, while his opponent -- the same righty he faced last year, Kyle Davis -- threw 72 strikes out of 112. 

"Everything about Daulton's game is better: His fastball location is a little better, his breaking pitch is better, his change up is better, and tonight was one of those nights where he didn't get a lot of help," Esquer said. "He gutted through seven innings and really pitched like a Friday-night starter in the Pac-12."

The game plan against Davis was to swing early in the count, and that worked to Cal's advantage in the second, and later on Cumberland and Kranson's long balls.

"The better the pitcher, the more aggressive you have to be, because it's going to be in the strike zone," Esquer said. "If you wait around too long, you're going to be sitting with two strikes, battling off his two-strike breaking ball or change up or his fastball in. We tried to be aggressive earlier in the count, and our guys did a pretty good job."

Cal added two runs in the top of the third on Kranson and Cumberland's monumental pokes -- Kranson's on a first-pitch change up --with Cumberland's launch starting from no more than 11 inches off the ground.

"He had gotten me out on a change up my first at-bat," Kranson said of his dinger. "I had a good feeling he was going to go change up the first pitch, and I saw it and didn't miss it."

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Cumberland, of course, did him one better.

"His was way farther than mine," Kranson laughed. "That was a great piece of hitting."

The Bears chalked another one up in the fifth, when first baseman Brenden Farney, with the infield drawn in, roped a single to right on a line to cash in Kranson, aboard with a leadoff double that he uncorked on a 3-2 pitch from Davis.

That two-bagger from Kranson -- to dead center field, over the shoulder of Timmy Robinson -- was arguably farther than his home run, as Dedeaux Field is a notoriously difficult place to hit a home run out to center.

Then, USC began to creep back. The home run by Dempster in the sixth -- a slicing drive off the foul pole on a hanging 3-2 slider -- brought the Trojans to within one, and Jefferies allowed a first-pitch leadoff single in the bottom of the seventh to second baseman Frankie Rios -- a sharp grounder up the middle and under a diving Tenerowicz. Rios broke for second with veteran catcher Jeremy Martinez at the dish, and as Cumberland popped up to throw on a first-pitch called strike, he dropped his arm slot down and sent a tailing throw to the right side of second, past the reach of Tenerowicz and into center, putting Rios at third.

A single by Martinez brought home Rios, and closed the gap to 5-4, but Jefferies then fanned the struggling Robinson on four pitches, getting a called third strike on a fastball on the outside corner. Up stepped the dangerous Ramirez, who came into the game hitting .352. Jefferies worked him in and out, finally getting him to bite on a change up, registering his 10th punch-out of the night.

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"It's crazy how the game can speed up on guys that aren't really prepared, and I'm always prepared for that," Jefferies said. "You can't control it, but you have to always be aware of what can happen, and I was kind of prepared for it. I'm not saying that's going to happen all the time -- because it's not -- and our defense is normally lock-down."

Senior reliever Keaton Siomkin tossed a scoreless eighth, striking out Dempster and pinch hitter Dylan Paulsen after a one-out walk.

Closer Erik Martinez then came on in the ninth, fanning Rios on four pitches, and getting a pop out from Oppenheim and a tapper to the mound by Jeremy Martinez to end a quick eight-pitch inning. The sophomore righty out of Pasadena, Calif., has now struck out 17 hitters in 11.0 innings of work, and lowered his season ERA to a microscopic 0.82. Esquer said he's available to go on Saturday, as well.

"He did a really nice job," Esquer said. "I thought our back end of the bullpen had two really strong innings for us, and that was great to see."

Cal is now 9-0 when leading after seven innings, and starters now have an 8-0 mark on the season thanks to that back end of the bullpen, evoking a comparison to 2011, when the Bears used Logan Scott, Kevin Miller and Matt Flemer to shorten games.

"They're fitting into that mold pretty nicely," Esquer said. "Martinez has just been really solid, and Keaton, as well, with more on the way. When Alex Schick comes back, there's another bullet at the end of the game, and I'm looking for our young freshmen, for someone to step up here pretty strong in the near future, whether it's Joey Matulovich or Aaron Shortridge or Tanner Dodson. I think one of them is going to give us another bullet at the end of the game, as well." Top Stories