"We could have done more to help ourselves," head coach David Esquer said after California blasted last-place Washington State 11-5 on Sunday in the final game of the final series of the regular season.
"This year," Esquer said, "we expected a little bit more."
At 9 a.m., on Monday, on ESPNU, the field of 64 for the Road to Omaha will be announced by an eight-man committee in Indianapolis. Cal will hope that the committee looks at a now-healthy Daulton Jefferies -- who missed nearly two months with a SLAP tear in his labrum -- as well as a healthy Alex Schick and Brian Celsi as a reason to put the Bears in the postseason field, but, as Esquer said, Cal could have done more to help itself, going 17-13 during Jefferies's absence, and losing six straight Pac-12 series, before taking two of three from the Cougars this weekend.
The Bears won't be holding their breath at the Spokane, Wash., airport. "It's probably not going to happen," Esquer said.
"We know it's a long shot," said senior Devin Pearson. "If it happens, great, but I think, knowing our team, we'll be playing games or having fun with each other for the last time. I don't think we'll be watching. It'll be in the back of our minds, but if we get in, we'll go to business."
Cal was ranked as a top-10 team in three of six preseason polls, and was a consensus top-15 team. With Jefferies healthy at the start of the season, Cal went 5-1 against the Big 12, and 8-1 against the Big 10. The Bears went 18-5 out of conference, led the Pac-12 in ERA, was second in hitting and runs, and first in home runs and in hits, but still finished 14-16 in a relatively weak Pac-12 that saw 24-27 Utah clinch the conference title with a 21-5 win over Washington on Sunday.
The numbers don't add up. A team that was picked to host a Regional will almost certainly not even make the playoffs, and not for lack of talent. With two freshman All-American pitchers returning in Jeff Bain and Matt Ladrech, seven of eight starting position players back, the likely league MVP (and rumored second-round draft pick) in Brett Cumberland, the entire starting rotation returning and experienced relievers in Keaton Siomkin and Erik Martinez, this team should have been able to deal with not having Jefferies.
They'd done it before. Cal lost Jefferies for four weeks last year, and won three of those four Friday night games, making the College Station Regional.
"When you lose him for six or seven weeks, when you work at Cal for a lot of years and you don't have lights and you have half a stadium and you sell concessions from a trailer, and everyone else has a big stadium and a locker room and all that stuff, but you still go to Omaha and go to Regionals, you learn to not worry about what you don't have," Esquer said. "I think when Daulton went down, we were focusing on what we didn't have. A guy who was 7-0 with a 1.08 ERA, that's tough to replace, and that's tough to overlook."
The tension in the dugout, Esquer said, was relieved on Saturday and Sunday. Playing loose and unburdened on Sunday, the Bears certainly looked like their old selves, with senior Ryan Mason giving his head coach a poignant send-off that had Esquer tearing up during a post-game interview. Mason -- who was on the hill for Esquer's 400th career win -- was also the winning pitcher on Sunday for Esquer's 500th -- third-most in program history.
For Mason, it was his 26th career win, moving ahead of current Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price for second place on the all-time program rolls for career victories.
"It was definitely emotional," Mason said. "If it is the last time, it was good to go out with a win, especially because we had something to play for, even if we weren't going to make the playoffs. We had something to play for, in Eskie's 500th win. That means a lot to the seniors to get him that."
While Jefferies tried to give an on-camera interview with the Pac-12 Networks, teammates blew baby powder in his face and then opened up their own jerseys to expose their bare chests, and applied spray-on sunscreen, just as they made Mason the Chiquita Banana woman by stacking two hats, a towel and two batting donuts on his head during his on-screen interview on Saturday.
It was all engineered by senior reliever Jordan Talbot, Mason said. "He was the ringleader," Mason said. The antics were not constructed to go viral and in some way earn points with the selection committee. The team was simply just having fun, Mason said.
"We saw Mason just standing there getting interviewed [on Saturday], and Talbot looked at me and said, 'Hey, let's mess with him,'" said Pearson, who went 3-for-4 with a run and two triples in his swan song. "We decided to go over there and throw as many things as possible on the top of his hat. We knew Daulton was going to get interviewed today, so we were brainstorming ideas since last night, and we came up with the baby powder to the face, and then the sunscreen, which was a little inappropriate, but it worked. My grandparents weren't too fired up about seeing me do that, my mom said. It was fun, though."
Pearson has been fighting a shoulder injury all season, and, Esquer said, will only tell him how badly it truly hurt during his exit interview in Berkeley. After hitting .355 with four home runs and 12 doubles last year, Pearson finished his senior campaign hitting .295, with one home run, seven RBIs and three doubles.
"I knew I only had one game left, so I was going to give it all I got," Pearson said. "I let my arm give it one last ride."
"He laid it out on the line to be on the field with us," Esquer said of Pearson.
Mason went 7.0 innings, scattering five hits and allowing two runs, while walking one and striking out three on 91 pitches, 62 for strikes. As he came off the mound at the end of the seventh, he hugged catcher Brett Cumberland, thanking him for the last two years, and then proceeded to hug all of his teammates, walking off into the bullpen with Talbot, his roommate on the road.
"I probably knew in the back of my head knew that this is the last time that I'll ever throw for Cal," Mason said. "Of course, I wanted to give Cumby a big hug for the last two years of his service, catching me. Then, I hugged everyone on the team, and Coach, because of all the things they've done for me, and because I wanted to show them the respect that they deserved."
Esquer teared up when Mason embraced him.
"Thinking about these guys and what they've been through, it's really kind of heartbreaking," Esquer said. "They really did everything we asked, and probably did more than we asked, because we were trying too hard to get things done for us. It's a life lesson. You put everything you have into it, and doesn't always work out. I'd like to say 'Work hard and everything works out,' but not always. There's a great meaning to this in the future for them. I know that for sure. It defines who they are."
Mason said, "I got a little choked up, too."
"He's been there for me forever, and he's done everything in his career, which is a huge milestone, and I wanted to give him the respect he deserves, because he's done a lot for me," Mason said. "I just wanted to show him that he means a lot to me, as well."
Celsi -- who returned from three weeks on the shelf with a broken thumb this weekend -- went 2-for-4 with two RBIs for the second game in a row, while the Bears knocked out 18 hits.
"Pretty remarkable," Esquer said of Celsi. "He hasn't hit off a live pitcher or even a pitching machine in three or four weeks, and to come out there and compete like he did -- he hit every ball hard this weekend that he put a swing on, and I think he struck out once."
All but one Cal starter -- Mitchell Kranson (who had two run-scoring sacrifice flies) -- had at least one hit, with eight players tallying multi-hit days.
"It's always good to see our offense -- they've been good all year, they really have," Mason said. "The pitching's been good all year. The games that we've lost this year have been close, tight games, heartbreakers. They just punched us back when we punched. It's been a tough year in the loss column for us, because 90 percent of those were hard losses, and hard ones to take."
Cal has gone 1-7 in games decided by two runs or fewer since Jefferies went down against Oregon State, while the Beavers -- who that night lost Drew Rasmussen -- have gone 6-8 in such games, while going 19-14 after the series against the Bears, and likely earning a spot in the playoffs.
The numbers don't add up. This was a team that could have been special. Instead, they'll almost certainly be heading home for good before June.
Blow by Blow
Pearson-- who, between his big offensive day, blowing baby powder into Jefferies's face, and applying spray-on sun screen to hold up a handmade sign scrawled with "LET US IN!!! #64" during the Cal ace's on-camera interview with the Pac-12 Networks -- started things off with a pop fly triple to right that Cougars outfielder J.J. Hancock lost in the sun, and then rode home on Kranson's first sacrifice fly. The pitch was a fastball down the middle, Pearson said, but he "just missed it." He missed it, and so did Hancock. It was karma, then, that Pearson's next at-bat resulted in a would-be home run into the teeth of the wind caught at the warning track, Pearson laughed.
"It was funny, because my first college hit was a lost-in-the-sun double at Irvine," Pearson said. "My last game, for my first hit to be a lost-in-the-sun triple, Brian was teasing me about it the whole day. Typical Celsi."
"We said we wanted to make it absurd for our last game," Pearson said. "We wanted to do something that we thought no one had ever thought about, in the combination that we did, so we threw in the sign, for the committee, hoping they would see it."
Pac-12 Player of the Year frontrunner Cumberland -- likely playing in his last game as a Bear -- then sent a wall-scraper home run to left, staking Mason to a 2-0 lead before he even took the mound.
"To see the offense one last time go out there and do their thing, it gives me a chance to get another win, and it was honestly big," Mason said.
In the top of the second, shortstop Tenerowicz (who, it's being said, will get an opportunity in the draft) just missed his sixth home run of the season, skying a triple off the wall in right center field. A first-pitch looper to shallow right center by Celsi stretched the lead to 3-0, as Mason hummed. The 6-foot-6 righty retired the first six hitters he faced, aided by a diving grab at third by sophomore Denis Karas on a ripped shot up the third base line by Justin Harrer.
"The defense was fantastic, as always," Mason said. "I got them a lot of ground balls today, which was good, which means that the arm still feels good. Karas made fantastic plays over there at third, with that hard liner diving play. He did a great job. Robbie [Tenerowicz] at short did a great job, Preston [GrandPre] made a couple really nice plays coming in to his left, and Nick was over there just doing his thing, picking it like he has all year. In the outfield, Aaron Knapp did a great job running down some of the pop ups that he had to come in on. It was an all-around well-executed game by us."
Mason sat 88-89 with his fastball (he's sat as high as 91-93 this season), allowing his sink to get him 10 ground ball outs.
"I've seen Ryan Mason throw as hard as 93 miles per hour, and he came in, in the first inning, he was throwing 88, 89 miles per hour, and I felt like this was going to be a good day," Esquer said. "Sometimes that 93, he throws through his sink, but 89 miles per hour, he is tough to hit."
Mason allowed a pair of singles to Derek Chapman and Jack Strunc to lead off the third, with a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly breaking the seal for Washington State. The Bears didn't waste any time returning the favor, with Karas -- who went 2-for-4 on the day -- driving a pitch away into the right center field gap for an easy double to lead off the fourth, ending a stretch of six straight Cal hitters retired by Cougars starter Scotty Sunitsch.
After a walk to Pearson and a sacrifice bunt by Celsi, second baseman GrandPre sent a flare to right, which bounced over Hancock's head for a two-run knock. Center fielder Knapp rolled an RBI groundball single up the middle for Cal's eighth hit, giving the Bears a 6-0 lead.
A seeing-eye single by Pearson through the right side moved Knapp to third, where he scored on Kranson's second sacrifice fly.
Celsi tallies his second RBI -- and fourth of the series -- with a two-out single in the fifth, and the Cougars scratched across a run in the bottom of the sixth, when a groundball double inside the first base bag by Shane Matheny.
Karas made the second of his two highlight-reel plays in the bottom of the seventh, charging a tough bouncer up the line by Jack Strunc for the second out of the inning.
In the top of the eighth, GrandPr laced the first pitch he saw into the right center field gap for a triple, and rode home easily on an infield hit by Knapp. Knapp's single came on a roller to second; he's probably one of the few players in the country who can get an infield hit to second, and throughout the series, was hitting the ball on the ground, and finally had his legs under him, after a season of flying open early and trying to hit the ball in the air.
Three batters later, Cumberland ripped an RBI single to right, and with the bases loaded on a flare single by Halamandaris and a walk to pinch hitter Brenden Farney, Tenerowicz took a dose to the forearm to bring home the Bears' 11th run of the day.
Just as seniors Farney and Sean Peters got cameos in the top of the eighth, so did senior relievers Siomkin and Talbot. Siomkin pitched a scoreless eighth, while Talbot struggled a bit in the ninth. The side-arming righty allowed a leadoff double to Stefan Van Horn, and then a drive to left by Strunc which was dropped by Jeffrey Mitchell to drive home Van Horn. A sacrifice fly by Dugan Shirer brought home another run, but then Talbot got Hancock to ground out to first to end the game, and his final season.
"It's bittersweet for us," Pearson said. "Having Daulton back is a huge deal, and the way we won yesterday and today, having Daulton and Mason pitch back to back, we could have been pretty special if they'd been together all year, but at the same time, it was nice to end on a strong note, and know that, from where we started, our freshman year, to now, that the program has gotten better."