BERKELEY -- Before the season, California head coach David Esquer said that Tanner Dodson would have to do a little bit of everything for the Bears, from pitching in the starting rotation to being a middle-of-the-order bat at the plate. While Dodson's start to the season as the Friday starter was a bit rocky -- he allowed 28 hits, 14 earned runs and 12 walks in 27.0 innings on Friday nights -- his work with the bat hasn't suffered; he came into Saturday hitting .263 with 11 runs and 21 RBIs
On Saturday, Dodson started in center field, headed to the hill to shut down Arizona State after the Sun Devils hit back-to-back home runs off of starter Joey Matulovich, and went 3-for-4 at the plate with 2 RBIs, coming a home run short of the cycle and powering a 6-4 Cal win.
"All-around baseball player, and he's not the vocal leader, but he's the demonstrative leader of our team," Esquer said. "People follow him, because he can pitch and hit. He's that baseball guy. It's like on Little League -- the best guy on the team does everything."
"I've been working a lot lately on keeping my hands through, not pulling off the ball," said the switch-hitting Dodson, who's 12-for-28 (.429) since the UCLA series.
For the second game in a row, the Bears let Arizona State back into things late, but, for the second game in a row, the Bears were able to hold on and fend off a late Sun Devils charge -- this time a three-run fifth -- to clinch the weekend series, and move over .500 in Pac-12 play.
"We can't make it ordinary," Esquer said. "We kind of keep the carrot from them, and tell them that an easy win, where we roll it for nine innings, that's OK, it gives us something to aspire to, as we grow up here, a little bit."
Cal now sits at 14-14 overall, and 6-6 in conference play, having won five of its last seven games since the sweep at the hands of the Bruins, with a chance at a second straight sweep of its own behind junior lefty Matt Ladrech on Sunday.
"[We're growing up] little by little, and we're going to keep hitting those speed bumps, but we've just got to be resilient," Esquer said. "We can not stay on the mat or on the ground very long when we get knocked down. It's going to happen, but we've got to continue to just keep getting back up."
The Bears got out to the same kind of quick start they've gotten out to over UCLA, Washington State and Stanford, scoring five runs in the first three innings against Sun Devils freshman lefty Chaz Montoya.
"He had a good curveball, some good stuff, but he was leaving some stuff up to me," Dodson said. "I was able to hit it."
The Bears got three straight one-out singles in the second from Dodson, Matt Ruff and Max Flower to plate one run, and then exploded for four in the bottom of the third. With one out, Montoya walked right fielder Jeffrey Mitchell. White-hot first baseman Andrew Vaughn then lanced a single to the right side, and third baseman Denis Karas moved him to third and plated Mitchell with a 1-0 double to left. Dodson stepped up and poked a first-pitch fastball up into the right field corner to score both Vaughn and Karas, putting the Bears up 5-0 with his first career triple.
Between that and the bottom of the fifth, pitching coach Thomas Eager and his wife Jenna added to their family, as Jenna gave birth to their second son, Blake. Without Eager to counsel him, Bears starter Joey Matulovich allowed just three hits and one walk over the first five innings, striking out four, and getting first-pitch strikes on 15 of the first 18 hitters he faced.
"[Eager]'s been at the hospital since 4 in the morning," Esquer said. "I'll be honest, and I've seen it before: Your team focuses a little bit more [when a coach is gone], in the sense that you want to do it for him, with him not being here, and you know you're down one, and you know you've got to be on your game, and really kind of concentrate."
Dodson led off the bottom of the fifth with a ripped double to left that sat in the turf like it was hit by a lob wedge, and was moved over to second on a Ruff bunt. Montoya tried to field the bunt and throw Dodson out at third, but was too late, allowing Ruff to reach first behind him.
With runners at the corners, left fielder Max Flower then sent a soft grounder to short, a ball that Carter Aldrete had to come in to field, allowing Dodson to score as Aldrete had nowhere to go with the ball, other than second, throwing it back across his body to force Ruff.
Matulovich then got a little loose in the sixth, allowing a leadoff home run to Tyler Williams off of the Connor Jackson mural on the wall of the RSF in left, and then a first-pitch solo drive to right off the bat of center fielder Andrew Chaps. Matulovich had been busting Shaps in all day with a fastball, but instead of calling for a fastball away, which was the plan, catcher Tyrus Greene called another inside fastball. Shaps was waiting for it, slugging his fourth circuit shot of the year.
Matulovich allowed a one-out double to left center by second baseman Andrew Snow and left an 0-2 fastball up in the zone for Gage Canning, who promptly deposited a two-out line drive into the left center field gap that dropped in front of Dodson, and then got by him. That cut the lead to 6-3, spelling the end for the sophomore righty. Reliever Zayne Patino got a weak grounder to the mound on just three pitches to end the frame.
"We need Joey to get through that sixth," Esquer said. "If you've got a starting pitcher, you need him to go through that sixth. That's a lot to ask of your pen, and our pen hasn't necessarily been that fifth, sixth inning strong this year. We wanted to get to Dodson for one, at least, and Martinez, and Patino did a nice job for us."
Reliever Alec Marsh came on for Arizona State in the top of the sixth, and held the Bears down over the next 3.0 innings, allowing just 2 hits, as the Sun Devils lineup continued to stir. With two outs in the top of the seventh, Patino walked Williams, and then Shaps golfed a 1-2 breaker down in the zone just inside the right field line, bringing Williams home to make it 6-4, and taking third on the throw home, which got by Greene. Enter: Dodson.
It took just one pitch by the 6-foot-1 Elk Grove, Calif., native to get first baseman Lyle Lin to send a sharp grounder to Karas at third, who gloved the short hop and fired to first to end the frame.
Dodson had to work out of a jam in the top of the eighth, when Snow popped a 1-2 offering high into the clearing sky on the right side. With Vaughn, second baseman Ripken Reyes and Mitchell converging, miscommunication (or lack of communication) forced Vaughn to take the pop, but whiffed on the catch, allowing the ball to drop fair for a pop-fly double. Dodson promptly got two groundouts and struck out late-inning catcher replacement Sam Ferri with a 94-mph fastball on the outside black of the plate for strike two, and then on a nasty, 86-mph slider on the outer half at the knees to end the frame.
"We really wanted to get him a couple positive outings," Esquer said of Dodson, who's now allowed one earned run in 4.1 innings of relief work without a single walk. "He did that. He's throwing the ball well, and I gave him a chance to play center field a little bit today. He's a baseball player, and I think he likes it when he's involved in all parts of the game, even though we all know his future is on the mound, with that arm."
Cal threatened in the bottom of the frame, putting a Greene on with a leadoff walk, but a groundout by Mitchell, while moving the runner over, opened up first, where Arizona State decided to put the next hitter -- Vaughn -- dealing four wide to the .387-hitting Bears first baseman, who went 2-for-3 with a run and two walks.
While Karas had struck out looking the last time Vaughn was intentionally walked in front of him, this time, he sent a line drive to right for a single. Esquer sent Greene around third, but he was cut down by a very comfortable margin on a strong throw from Canning, ending the inning.
"Probably the most difficult outfield to coach third base in is here at Cal, because you can play so shallow," Esquer said. "It's just by the book. We get a base hit, you send him and you make them make a play and throw it. Sometimes, you look like you shouldn't have sent him, but you're not going to count on another hit, or the fifth hit of the inning."
Closer Erik Martinez came on to close things out, getting a fly out to shallow center by Ryan Lillard, and then fanning pinch hitter Hunter Bishop after falling behind 3-0, and then setting the powerful Williams down on strikes to earn his fourth save of the season.
"To be honest, it was all fastballs, except for one -- one that went behind [Williams] -- but to the other guy, I was missing outside and a little low, but I told myself, 'Hey, I'll work middle, and see where the ball runs or tails,'" Martinez said. "I let it work from there. To the lefty, it was leaking away."