STANFORD, Calif. -- With senior Brian Celsi out of the lineup for the next three to four weeks -- thanks to a glove-hand thumb broken this week in practice -- California's bench was as boisterous as it's been all season.
With the veteran down, but not out -- leading the spirit squad on the bench -- freshman Jonah Davis stepped up to take his place, going 2-for-4 in his first collegiate start. With Celsi at the fore in the dugout, the energy was infections, as the Bears quickly got to Stanford starter Kris Bubic, rattling off 10 hits in the first four innings en route to a 4-1 win.
"He didn't just buy a ticket and watch the game tonight," head coach David Esquer said of Celsi. "He was going to participate and make sure we were into it, and he did a great job. Our guys, in some sense, are bringing him out to the field with them, and playing for him a little bit."
Cal (25-16, 11-11 in Pac-12) had hit an anemic .243 over its last 14 games.
"He's been getting better," Esquer said of Davis. "Sometimes, guys sit on the bench most of the year and you don't see a lot of improvement, maybe they're frustrated or just haven't gotten enough game time or reps, and his improvement has been visible. All the coaches have noticed it throughout the season. He's getting better and better without a lot of playing time, so we felt really comfortable putting him in the game tonight, expecting him to do it."
With Davis having a night of firsts, Mitchell Kranson went back to hitting first, taking the leadoff honors for the third time this season, proceeded to go 3-for-5 with three singles, a run scored and an RBI, touching off a two-run, three-hit top of the first by nearly taking off Bubic's left foot with a line drive single up the middle.
"That was huge," Kranson said. "I think tonight, we had leadoff runners on three or four times, and those were the only innings we scored, so getting the leadoff guy on is obviously huge."
Kranson rode home on an RBI single ripped to left by catcher Brett Cumberland, and then senior designated hitter Devin Pearson cashed in second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz's single with a grounder to the left side, a shot backhanded by shortstop Tommy Edman, who got the out at second but nothing else.
Kranson now has a modest four-game hitting streak, during which he's 6-for-15. He's also 5-for-13 from the leadoff spot this season.
"He said something about some sabermetric thing, and I just took it as, 'Alright, let's go,'" Kranson said about Esquer putting him back atop the lineup.
With one out in the top of the second, Davis got his first career hit -- an inside-out fly ball single to left center -- and rode home on another Kranson single up the middle, after Preston GrandPre bunted him over to second.
That was all that starter Ryan Mason needed, gutting through a 92-pitch, 6.0-inning outing, scattering six hits and four walks.
"They've got a pretty steep mound here, and we haven't had that since probably Oregon State my junior year, so I had a little more sink on the ball tonight, tougher to control, and the zone was definitely a hitter's zone," Mason said. "If you can throw enough strikes and get weak contact through it, you don't have to have him call a lot of strikes."
Only about two balls were well-hit off of Mason, who got nine groundouts on the evening, but also worked into six three-ball counts.
"He was pitching to a tough zone," Esquer said. "Jim Garmond has been umpiring for a lot of years, and he's one of the best in the business, but it was a tough zone for Ryan tonight, but he gutted through and did a good job."
Mason had particular trouble with Cardinal first baseman Matt Winaker, who reached base the first four times he stepped to the plate, with a single and two walks at the expense of Mason.
The last time Winaker reached, though, first baseman Nick Halamandaris snared a drive by Nico Hoerner up the first base line, and dove back to the bag and tagged out Winaker for the unassisted double play.
There was a sense of dejá vùs floating throughout the park on that play, as, earlier in the top of the third, center fielder Aaron Knapp came up with the bases loaded and one out, and lined out to Winaker for an inning-ending double play, with Winaker doubling off Brenden Farney. The scalded shot had three-run triple written all over it.
Both Halamandaris and Farney, for their part, turned in sparkling defensive plays. Farney helped save Mason's bacon in the bottom of the sixth, when a tiring Mason allowed a leadoff double to catcher Alex Dunlap, then walked designated hitter Brandon Wulff.
After just missing a called strike three on the outside corner to Duke Kinamon, Mason got the freshman left fielder to swing and miss on a change for the first out. Mike Diekroeger then sent a soft fly to shallow left, where Farney charged in and made a sliding grab for the second out.
Esquer had, just an inning before, thought about making a defensive change, to take Farney out, but elected not to, because Farney was coming up in the next half inning. He joked that pitching coach Thomas Eager would have given him an earful for not making that switch, had that ball fallen.
"It was huge," Mason said. "All the plays in the outfield, all the plays on the infield, every single one of them was drenched in drama tonight. I think every single play I made at first tonight, there's two guys on, so they're wheeling if I don't make that play, and thankfully, Nick bodied them up, Farney made tremendous plays in left, Meat -- Sean Peters -- in left, in the last inning to get the second out, that was huge, Jonah, on a ball going back, and in, Robbie on some pop-ups, everyone was on their game."
Halamandaris -- who was nails on defense all evening -- then made a tough play on a hard hop to first on a grounder by Jack Klein to end the inning.
"He's playing fearless," Esquer said. "They're selling out for each other, and they'll stick their face in front of a ground ball for each other, and he's taken that to heart and playing great over there."
In the third, Mason and Halamandaris teamed up for a play that was equal parts luck and savvy, as Mason stretched to reach a Dunlap roller to the right, and stumbled, as Halamandaris called him off. There was a beat of hesitation, before Mason re-routed to first to record the 3-1 put-out.
"It was one of those in-betweener ball, and I thought, initially, I could get to it, and once it gets by me, I've got to race to the bag," Mason said. "Also, another thing is, it's bang-bang, so he's just going to feed me the ball, so I don't have time to find the bag. I was just doing it with my foot, to see if I could find it, and thankfully, I did. Every pitcher's had it. Every pitcher's had that play, and sometimes it turns out great, sometimes it turns into a broken ankle."
The breaks -- no pun intended -- weren't going that particular way for the Bears on Thursday.
Halamandaris also stayed on top of a grounder by Mikey Diekroeger with two outs, staying with a worm burner and firing to second to erase Kinamon, aboard with an infield single. While the Bears saw four interference calls go against them against Arizona, Cal came down on the other side of the call on Thursday, with Kinamon called for runner's interference on the slide, ending the frame.
"Yeah," Esquer laughed. "Just small little signs that maybe things are turning for us -- interference on the other side, or just a couple of things -- that's what it has to be. If we've had any luck, it's been bad, and maybe to have a little luck on our side has been good."
Cal, though, despite banging out 12 hits -- all singles -- was held hitless from the fifth through the seventh, until Halamandaris led off the eighth with a bouncing single through the right side, then took second on a missed bunt attempt by Sean Peters, with the ball bouncing out of Dunlap's mitt for a passed ball. Halamandaris then rode home on a rocket up the middle by Davis for the freshman outfielder's first career RBI.
After reliever Keaton Siomkin allowed a two-out walk to pinch hitter Austin Barr, and then a fly ball single to left by Kinamon to bring the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the eighth, he was lifted for closer Erik Martinez. After walking Diekroeger on five pitches, Martinez got light-hitting Klein to pop out to second, and leave the bases loaded.
Martinez got some defensive help in the ninth, when, with one out, Peters made a diving grab on a sure double to left by Hoerner, and Martinez then got Edman to pop out to Peters in shallow left to finish off his eighth save of the season.
"The day we play defense," Mason said, "is the day we win."
He's now two saves away from the single-season program record, held by Jesse Ingram and Trevor Hildenberger.
"I think the life's come back to his arm," Esquer said of Martinez. "I feel really comfortable with the ball in his hand, and he's been there before. Like any pitcher, a little bit of a rough patch, but he came back strong tonight."
With the win, Mason moves into a tie for fourth place on the program's all-time win list, with 24. He is tied with 2011 mound hero Justin Jones and Travis Willis (1987-89). It was his first win since April 8, at Oregon.