Summer is here for the Cal Baseball (36-21) team as the season ended on Monday night after a tough fought 3-1 loss to Texas A&M (49-12) at a raucous, sold-out Blue Bell Park (props to the Texas A&M fans for packing the stadium for all three Cal-Texas A&M games).
It has taken a few years, but the Golden Bears were back in the postseason for the first time since that magical 2011 College World Series run when the program was facing elimination. With a season or two of recruiting classes lost due to the uncertainty surrounding the program, it took 4 years for the program to make it back to the postseason.
Like a brilliant supernova, the 2015 Cal Baseball postseason was short lived but very bright and memorable. Sadly, the peak luminosity of the burst was Saturday night, in that 14 inning thriller - the huge double play induced by Dylan Nelson, Brian Celsi's homerun robbery, and the Mitchell "El Gaucho" Kranson's walk-off homer. Cal, the 3rd seed of the Regional, was within two outs of the Super Regional on Sunday night but couldn't close out the top seed Texas A&M - eventually falling in 12 innings.
NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 1, 2015
On Monday night's College Station Regional finale, both Cal and Texas A&M went to their Friday starters on the mound. Cal called on sophomore ace Daulton Jefferies who was brilliant on Friday against Coastal Carolina. A predominantly fastball throwing control pitcher, Jefferies was hitting about 90 mph on the ESPN/SEC Network radar game in his lone inning of work, about a 3-4 mph less than his usual velocity. Nevertheless, Daulton was painting the corners (open the game with two strikeouts) to set the pace for the rest of the Cal pitching staff. Following my star analogy earlier, head coach David Esquer opt to divide the game pitching-wise into one or two innings per pitcher - like this was a MLB All-Star game.
After Jefferies, freshman RHP Jeff Bain came in for two innings. Junior RHP Ryan Mason (Cal's other ace and usual Saturday starters) came in for one inning. Sophomore RHP Alex Schick following with two innings. Senior LHP Chris Muse-Fisher then threw one inning. Freshman RHP Erik Martinez, who had more work in the past two days than some of the other guys, had some trouble in the 8th (and didn't help his cause by opening the inning with an error - dropping the throw by 1B Chris Paul while covering the first base) - he only got one out in the inning. Senior closer RHP Dylan Nelson came in to clean up the mess and got the other two outs.
It was a different story for Texas A&M when they went with LHP Matt Kent. A crafty lefty, Kent was used in this game like it was any other game - it certainly helped that he was effective. Kent went 7 innings, allowing just one run while registering 5 strikeouts to go with just 5 hits and 2 walks allowed. While the Cal hitting approach may be to blame at times for Kent's effectiveness (and a relatively low pitch count of just 83 pitches thrown in those 7 innings), there is no doubt that if a Regional MVP was awarded - Kent would have won that award for his effort in the Texas Southern game Friday and then this game on Monday.
Texas A&M struck first in this one. Texas A&M loaded the bases against Cal freshman Bain in the 2nd inning. It was good damage control by Bain to only allow one run on a sacrifice fly to the Aggies' catcher Michael Barash. In a recurring theme on the night, Texas A&M flirted with disaster by nearly making a disastrous base running mistake.
On Sunday's game, the Aggies' eventual game winning run was nearly wiped out when the Bears nearly got the tag 3rd out by 3rd base before the run has scored. The screen grab below is from the SBNation recap of Sunday's action.
On Monday night during the 2nd inning, CF Aaron Knapp's throw to 2nd nearly doubled off the Aggies' baserunner. In fact, had Cal 2B Robbie Tenerowicz had recognized that he just needed to tag the base rather than the runner because of the wrong read and bad break by the runner on a fly ball out, the run would not even had scored.
The other near disasters for the Aggies included RF Nick Banks nearly colliding with the CF to allow a potential triple. RF Jonathan Maroney also took a bad route on a ball but recovered in time to make a more difficult over the shoulder basket catch. What was frustrating was that the worst defensive team (by number of errors - not necessarily the best measurement of defense in baseball) in the SEC almost allowed that deficiency to hurt them.
Texas A&M did commit one error, when the sun caused their first baseman to drop a throw, but the Bears couldn't capitalize on that.
Early on in the game, the Bears opt not to bunt the leadoff runner into scoring position. While that was a strategy that I am very comfortable with, the Bears unfortunately grounded into double plays twice to stop the rally.
The lone Cal run on the night was produced by senior Chris Paul (one of three seniors on the team along with closer Dylan Nelson and reliever Chris Muse-Fisher - all three guys played in this game). With the Bears still trailing 1-0 going into the 7th, Paul led off the inning by hitting a no-doubter off Kent deep over the LF wall to tie the game up.
The best Cal chance to go ahead in this game followed nearly immediately, after Erceg made an out, Bears got back to back singles from Brett Cumberland and Preston Grand Pre to put runners on the corners with just one out. Brian Celsi got ahead in the count and attempted a squeeze on the 3-1 count, only to foul that pitch off. Back to swinging, Celsi hit a sharp ground ball right at the Texas A&M short stop, who promptly turned a huge 6-4-3 double play to return all the momentum to the Aggies.
Aggies broke through in the bottom of the 7th without the courtesy of a hit. Back to back walks by Schick, who was pitching in his 3rd inning, was an awful start, even if the crowd got very very loud after the double play at the top of the inning. Chris Muse-Fisher came in relief and got three outs without yielding a hit. Unfortunately, the first two outs were a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly (by Blake Allemand) that made it 2-1 Aggies.
In the bottom of the 8th, which was the 34th inning played between these two schools on the third day, one team finally went ahead by more than one run. Aggies took advantage of a Cal error to start the inning and finally got a run on a RBI hit (previous two runs driven in were both sacrifice flies). Hunter Melton hit a ball just past the reach of Cal SS Grand Pre. Had that ball been a foot or two in one direction, this would have replicated the 6-4-3 double play hit into by the Bears in the top of the 7th.
Trailing by 2 runs, the Bears needed a miracle akin to what happened against Baylor in the Rice Regional in 2011. Alas, Kranson opened the inning with a ground ball back to the pitcher (Simonds in his 2nd inning of work in relief of Kent). Paul flew out to RF. Lucas Erceg then hit a ground ball to 1st base. Summer break starts on Monday night for the Cal Bears.
Here is the postgame press conference:
Here are a few highlights of what I would remember from this postseason:
The Legend of "El Gaucho" and the overall craziness of the 14 inning thriller
Cal catcher Mitchell Kranson apparently earned the "El Gaucho" nicknamed on the trip to Seattle where he had a great game after eating at an "El Gaucho" steakhouse. Kranson and his aggressive, swinging early in the count, approach worked quite well in the Regional. Kranson went 8 for 18 with 2 homers and 5 RBI's.
Adding to the offensive output, "El Gaucho" also gunned down a would be base stealer on Monday night.
You've been warned -- Don't run on El Gaucho. Mitchell Kranson throws out a runner to end B5. pic.twitter.com/rTErgyt54n— Pac-12 Networks (@Pac12Networks) June 2, 2015
Oh what it could have been
After the Texas A&M LF loses a ball to gift the Bears a triple, Bears went ahead late on Sunday night only to lose the lead in the top of the 9th. If Cal SS Preston Grand Pre was an inch or two taller (or has that much better hop), he may had snagged a key single in that 9th.
Baseball is one of those game where so many things are out of the players' and managers' control. Let's hope our players can become mentally stronger because of this rather than being haunted by the "what ifs".
Rally Cape > Rally Boxes
The Saturday day's final scores only confirms what should be obvious.
is better than this
"The worst thing for Texas A&M would be losing and realizing you spent 3 hours with a cheez-it box on your head." pic.twitter.com/n41N57jqs5— Jazzmyne (@Jalexandria22) May 31, 2015
Experience for the youth
I am not sure if this team will lose any draft eligible juniors to the MLB. If guy like Ryan Mason stays, I think we are in a very good shape to do this all over again next season. Bears will miss the leadership of Chris Paul, Dylan Nelson, and Chris Muse-Fisher but the bulk of the lineup and Daulton Jefferies will be back. Add to it a good recruiting class, we have the recipe of a top 25 team all season long.
With many players going to take part in summer leagues (wood bat leagues across the country such as the famed Cape Cod League), if a few of our young hitters can take that next step forward and improve as much as Chris Paul did between his Junior and Senior season, look out for Cal Baseball in 2016.
Finally, Evans Diamond set an attendance record this year. It might not be as loud and raucous as Blue Bell Park was this weekend, but we're on our way there. Don't be surprised if the Road to Omaha has to go through Berkeley in 2016.