Mason had only given up two home runs all season, gave up no longballs last season, one in 2014 and two in 2013, and had never given up more than one home run in a single game, until Saturday against the counter-intuitive Utes, who are 22-25 overall, but lead the conference with a 16-9 record in league play.
"They played fearless tonight against us," said head coach David Esquer.
Before the game, pitching coach Thomas Eager and Esquer noticed that Mason was throwing hard during his bullpen warm-ups, which worried Esquer.
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"I was telling Thomas, ‘I hope he’s not too hyped up and throwing through his sink,’ and Thomas said, ‘He’s throwing pretty hard in the ‘pen,’ and that’s usually not his M.O.," Esquer said. "He’s not a power pitcher. He’s a sinkerball pitcher. To see them get as many balls up in the air was trouble.”
Mason allowed a sacrifice fly and a two-run home run in the second to A.J. Young, and after a fluke RBI single off the third bas bag by Preston GrandPre got the Bears on the board in the bottom half of the frame, Mason allowed a solo shot to Dallas Carroll. Mason's third homer was surrendered to Kody Davis in the top of the fifth inning on a 1-0 offering.
Only five of the first 15 balls put in play against Mason were on the ground.
"In his warm-ups, he was throwing the ball a little firmer than I thought," Eager said. "Sometimes, he gets emotional in a good way, kind of lets it rip, and I think it was a little bit of that, and I also think the first base coach had some pitches, either off Mason or off of [catcher] Brett Cumberland. They were able to relay a few pitches off us that snake bit us."
Whether it was off of Cumberland's signs or Mason's glove, the Bears did change things up in the fifth, with Mason working more in his glove and Cumberland changing his footwork to block off any potential pilfering of signs. The cat-and-mouse game worked, as Mason struck out the final two batters in the fourth, and the first in the fifth, before allowing the third dinger. He worked a quick sixth, with Cumberland hosing Carroll at second after a leadoff single, then a grounder to second and a foul out to right, but couldn't get an out in the top of the seventh.
"At certain moments, he did his stuff, was able to throw the change up and threw the breaking ball, but it's baseball, and sometimes you get hit," Eager said. "He left a couple fastballs up."
Mason allowed two straight groundball singles before walking Young to load the bases, and after 89 pitches, he stepped off of the Evans Diamond mound for the final time.
Reliever Joey Matulovich got a pop out to shallow right, and then got what could have been an inning-ending double play ball. The hot shot up the middle wouldn't have been an easy turn, but shortstop Robbie Tenerowicz did get in front of it with a diving effort, and flipped the ball to GrandPre at second for the second out, though a run did score.
"It didn't get out of his glove quickly enough, and that happens, but it's tough to fault him there," Esquer said. "He saved us two runs by diving and stopping the ball, but just couldn't dig it out of his glove quick enough. It needed to be clean and fast to get that double play."
Senior Cody Scaggari then sent a single up the middle to plate another run, and Matulovich issued back-to-back walks to force in another run. Jeff Bain then came on and struck out Hunter Simmons to stop the bleeding. Bain tossed a scoreless eighth, allowing one hit and striking out one more.
Utah's starter, Jayson Rose, moved to 8-5 on the year, lowering his ERA to 2.45 by allowing just two runs on six hits in 8.0 innings of work, needing 107 pitches and wriggling off the hook in two big spots.
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“We got out-Friday-night-ed tonight. We got out-Friday-night-ed. Their Friday-night pitcher pitched like a Friday-night pitcher, and ours didn’t tonight," Esquer said.
In the bottom of the fourth, senior left fielder Mitchell Kranson -- who, with an outfield assist in the top of the first, has now tallied assists from three spots on the diamond this season (third base, left field, catcher) -- led things off with a rocket single to right. Cumberland, who'd been walked on five pitches earlier in the evening, took a four-pitch free pass to put two men on with no outs for senior first baseman Nick Halamandaris.
One of four wild pitches by Rose allowed Kranson and Cumberland to advance into scoring position, and while a run-scoring groundout to first cut the Utah lead to 4-2, that's all the Bears got, as sophomore Denis Karas and GrandPre each struck out.
Tenerowicz led off the sixth with a double inside the third base bag, and moved to third on a chopper up the middle by Kranson. Tenerowicz, though, was unable to score, because Scaggari, positioned perfectly to glove the single, kept the ball on the infield after a tough kangaroo hop. Cumberland -- who had seen precisely one pitch inside the zone in his previous two at-bats, struck out, and Halamandaris grounded into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play.
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“We could take the blame for everything that we didn’t do well, but the reality is, he pitched very well in those spots," Esquer said. "He pitched like a Friday-night dud to us. I could say Karas struck out twice, with runners in contact positions, and Cumberland struck out with runners in contact positions, but the reality is, that guy out-performed us in those situations.
"They play with great confidence behind that guy, and that's a little bit what we've been missing, when you don't have your Daulton Jefferies out there, who can shut somebody down and win the game on his own, like this kid can. That just provides you a lot of confidence. They play that way."
In the bottom of the seventh, Cal had Karas aboard on an infield single, but a skulled liner to center by pinch hitter Brenden Farney was caught on a dive, and Karas was doubled off at second to end that particular threat. Earlier in the game, left fielder Andre Jackson leaped over the left center field wall to take away a third-inning would-be home run by Tenerowicz. Those plays negated two Utes errors and four wild pitches by starter Rose.
"They came out and had the body language of, 'We've got the better guy. You can do whatever you want, but we're going to take our whacks at your guy. We've got the better guy,' and that's how they played. That's the value of being dominant on Friday night."