UPDATE 12:15 p.m.: Cumberland has been named the Pac-12 Player of the Week for his 6-for-10, 3 HR, 8 RBI three-game stretch. It's his second honor of the season, and the 50th conference Player of the Week in Cal history.
As soon as the California baseball team got to Chicago, head coach David Esquer had some changes planned. First, the generally stirrups-averse skipper presented the team with the old-fashioned footwear as a means of changing the Bears' fortunes.
"We're trying anything to switch up our routine," Esquer said of his team, which had lost 12 of its previous 19 before heading to Chicago. "We thought we'd let them try something [with the stirrups]."
More materially, he inserted Denis Karas into the lineup -- he's started all three games against Northwestern -- and, right before the first game, told second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz he'd be headed to shortstop, after repping him there in recent weeks during practice, in order to get the "most confident glove at the most confident spot," Esquer said, and in order to relieve Preston GrandPre, who's strong arm had been wild, of late, to the tune of three errors in his last seven games.
The changes have worked, as the Bears swept Sunday's doubleheader against the Wildcats, 15-3 and 13-2, with Karas going 5-for-10 with four runs, six RBIs, a double and a pair of three-run home runs -- one in each game.
Karas had started just six games headed into this weekend's series, but over the three games against Northwestern (13-37), he's gone 6-for-12, upping his average from .176 to .261.
"He had a home run in each game, and that's what we had seen -- he was one of our best players in the fall," Esquer said. "We hadn't been able to get him on track during the season. What we saw today, we'd seen it before, it was just getting him at-bats. The lineup we started with, it was just tough to get him at-bats and get him comfortable. We had an opportunity this weekend to play him and put him and [Sean] Peters in, and a combination of guys that may be a little different, to find a change or a spark. We're going to change what we can instead of just hoping the same lineup hits better. It's more educated guessing. We're not going to tinker at the risk of losing."
Karas and his former Moraga (Calif.) Campolindo teammate Tenerowicz were right in the thick of things on Sunday, between Karas's bat and Tenerowicz's glove pivoting a 1-6-3-2 triple play in the first game of the twin bill. Tenerowicz turned quite the trick in the second tilt, going 0-for-3, but reaching base three times and scoring three runs, reaching on an error once, and walking twice.
"The big part about that was [starting pitcher Tanner] Dodson," Tenerowicz said. "It was first-and-third, the ball went to Dodson, he looked the runner at third back two steps, gave me a good feed, and I threw quickly to Nick [Halamandaris], and Nick wheeled home really quickly, and we had him by two steps."
Once again, though, the real fireworks came from the bat of sophomore Brett Cumberland.
After going 1-for-3 in the first half of the doubleheader, Cumberland came out from behind the plate in favor of Mitchell Kranson, who caught the entire College Station Regional in 2015.
"It's been a while since I got a day off," Cumberland laughed.
With fresh legs as the designated hitter, Cumberland went 2-for-3 with three runs scored, four RBIs and a three-run home run in the top of the fourth of the second game, a drive to left center that put the Bears up, 5-0.
Kranson had not started a game behind the plate since Feb. 28 against Purdue, and Cumberland has started every game at catcher, save for that one and April 19 against Stanford, when Matt Ruff got the nod.
"Having that second game off was huge for my legs," Cumberland said. "I've caught every game except for two, going into today, so as the season wears on, your legs wear down a little bit. That was nice to give my legs a break, and that helped my offensive performance, also, get some more power in my swing."
So far, in the series, Cumberland is 6-for-10 with three home runs (two to the opposite field), eight RBIs, three walks and six runs scored, after having just two hits in his previous 21 at-bats.
"I try to hit the ball where it's thrown, and they've been throwing me outside a little bit, and also, my home run yesterday was with two strikes, so my approach with two strikes is to go up the middle and go the other way with off speed," Cumberland said. "He threw me an outside fastball and I was able to hit it the other way, and that's what happened today. My approach has always been the same, but it's just shown a little bit more this week."
Another boon for Cumberland is the fact that he's seen precious few hittable pitches over the last three weeks -- one or two per game -- and having recognized that, he's more ready for mistakes, now.
"Maybe that has something to do with it, and definitely, in Pac-12 series, sometimes, I've had one pitch to hit all game," Cumberland said. "If you don't do something with it, that's your chance."
Cal (28-18) rattled off 28 hits on the day, and with their 28 total runs, added to the 16 from Saturday's series opener, have now scored 44 runs, surpassing the program record for most runs ever scored in a four-game series under Esquer. With seven more, the Bears would eclipse the most runs scored in a single series under Esquer, a record set in 2008.
Over the course of the series so far, the Bears have cracked seven home runs in three games. Cal had hit just six over its last 11 games, and hadn't hit on since May 1 against Washington.
"That had been a part of our offense that had been missing," Esquer said. "When that left us, we needed to generate runs and score in multiple innings, and we hadn't really been doing that. To see us come up with a couple big swings, we're going to need a few of those down the stretch."
Cal started off the first game of the doubleheader by striking first in the top of the first, when Devin Pearson led off by taking a dose -- his team-leading 15th of the season -- and then moved to second on a one-out single by Kranson, who went 2-for-4 with a run and two RBIs in the front end. A walk to Cumberland loaded the bases, and an RBI groundout by Halamandaris brought Pearson home.
Dodson -- pressed into service one game early after Matt Ladrech fell ill on the trip -- was shaky, giving up six walks in 5.1 innings as he struggled with fastball command and the all-turf mound, but he didn't need to give the Bears much, as the offense continued to roll, and he had some help from the defense, getting out of a two-on, no-out jam in the third with a triple play -- just the 11th in college baseball this season, and the first by a Power Five team.
"It was a comebacker, first and third, and [Dodson] checked the runner at third, and held him, then threw the ball to second base, and as he threw the ball to second base, the guy took off, and he turned the double play, and Nick wheeled and threw it home and beat the runner at home plate," Esquer said. "It was a legit triple play. Dodson made a great feed to second base, and Robbie turned it over and Nick had the alert immediately that the guy was headed home, we had a nice throw to home and a nice catch-tag by Cumberland."
The Bears added a run in the fourth, when Halamandaris -- aboard with a leadoff double, and moved to third by a sacrifice bunt -- scored on a passed ball.
A double to right by Tenerowicz in the fifth was cashed in on a single by Kranson, and after a single by Cumberland through the right side, GrandPre drove both of them home with a single to left center.
Cal tallied another trio of runs in the top of the sixth, when back-to-back singles by Aaron Knapp and Pearson were cashed in by a Tenerowicz triple. Tenerowicz then rode home himself on an RBI groundout by Kranson.
After Dodson got one out in the bottom of the sixth, things unraveled, as Dodson allowed a single to Connor Lind, and Tenerowicz made a costly error at short trying to turn a double play. Dodson followed that up by giving up another single to load the bases, and then walked home a run. With the bases still loaded, Esquer turned to Jeff Bain, who allowed a single, and then walked in another run, before getting Matt Hopfner to ground out to third to stop the bleeding, leaving the bases loaded, but bringing the Wildcats within five, down 8-3.
The Bears answered right back in the top of the seventh, with a Karas double, and an RBI single from Sean Peters, starting his third straight game. A walk and a wild pitch set the stage for Pearson, who doubled home two, and then advanced to third on a wild pitch. A groundout to first by Tenerowicz then brought Pearson home to make the score 12-3.
Karas's three-run home run in the top of the eighth served as the final tally, as he drove home freshman Tyrus Greene and GrandPre.
"It was late in the count, and I was trying to do something, fouled off a few balls, and he left a change up out over the plate, and I put a good swing on it," Karas said.
Bain finished things off by going 3.2 innings, allowing two hits and three walks, striking out three.
Freshman righty Joey Matulovich took over for what would have been Dodson's start, and continued his hot streak on the hill, moving to 1-1 with 6.0 innings of work, giving up two runs (both earned) on three hits and two walks, striking out three.
"Kranny does a good job, and he's low in the zone, so he did a really good job," Esquer said of Kranson's receiving work with Matulovich, who's now given up just three earned runs in his last 21.0 innings of work over eight games, with 13 strikeouts.
The Bears scored in four of the first six innings, with an RBI single from Brenden Farney in the first, and then a comedy of errors leading to another run in the third.
"It's kind of nice," Esquer said, "to have a little help, every now and then. They walked a guy in at one point during the day, made two errors in the outfield, and that definitely helped our offense."
After a leadoff walk to Tenerowicz, and another free pass to Cumberland, Halamandaris sent a fly ball single into right, where a trio of Wildcats converged on the ball, only to see the right fielder, Ben Dickey, dropped the ball. When left fielder Joe Hoscheit bobbled the ball on the throw. Tenerowicz scored on the play, but Cal would wind up leaving the bases loaded, as Tommy Bordignon struck out both Farney and Peters to end the frame.
With two outs in the fourth, Tenerowicz drew a walk, and Kranson took a hit by pitch, setting up Cumberland's 15th home run of the season -- nearly twice as many as the second-place slugger in the Pac-12 (8) -- going the other way on a high, arching drive to left center field, giving Matulovich a 5-0 cushion, which was padded the next inning with an RBI single by Knapp.
In the bottom of the sixth, Matulovich gave up back-to-back hits to start the frame, with Jack Dunn and Zach Jones singling and doubling, respectively, and then each riding home on sacrifice flies by Hopfner and Hoscheit.
That, though, was as close as the Wildcats would get, as Cal exploded for seven runs in the top of the eighth, taking advantage of four hits and two Northwestern errors, and capped by Karas's second three-run home run of the day, this one on a 3-1 fastball from 6-foot-3 freshman lefty reliever Richard Fordon.
"That's huge," Karas said. "All year, we've been talking about finishing games, and being able to put up seven runs in one inning is huge. We've got a lot of good bats in our lineup, and we're capable of doing that more often than we had been, lately. It's big to find that and get that rolling again."
Halamandaris -- who went 4-for-11 on the day, with two runs and three RBIs -- also chipped in with a screaming two-run single up the middle during the frantic eighth. On the series, Halamandaris is 7-for-15 with seven RBIs and four runs scored.
Ladrech will be available, if he's well enough to pitch, on Monday, in the 1 p.m. finale. He was held out on Sunday to give him one more day to shake whatever is ailing him.
Erik Martinez (3-2, 2.94) will certainly be available, however, as will former starter Alex Schick. Martinez notably pitched 5.0 innings of relief against Arizona on April 23, throwing 81 pitches and allowing just one run. After allowing two runs in his first 2.1 innings of work, Schick has thrown 1.2 shutout innings in his last two outings, with two strikeouts, no hits and one walk.
"Hopefully," Esquer said, "that's enough."
Ryan Mason, Saturday's starter, has said he's available, but Esquer is loathe to use him.
"I don't know how seriously we're going to take that, going into next weekend," Esquer said.
Cumberland, for one, is hoping that Mason pays up on his promise to buy him dinner at some point while the team is in Chicago, so he can get a big Chicago deep-dish pizza.
"I have to take him up on that offer," Cumberland said. "That's the plan."
This coming weekend back in Berkeley, the Bears face conference frontrunner Utah. The Utes, despite being 19-25 overall, are 14-9 in Pac-12 play, after taking two of three from Stanford.