Cal's baseball team has firmly established itself as a Pac-12 contender with the weekend sweep of mighty Oregon State, which had been ranked No. 3 in the country in one poll.
The Bears (14-6, 4-2 Pac-12) rebounded from losing two of three in a rough opening weekend against USC to dominate the Beavers (16-5, 3-3). Each game had its own personality and was impressive in a different way.
On Thursday night, staff ace Daulton Jefferies, threw a complete game four-hitter in the 6-2 victory. Friday night, Bears right-hander Ryan Mason, who had been having his troubles, was even better as he spun a four-hit shutout. Saturday Cal was not as dominant but might have been more impressive.
After using just two pitchers in the first two games, the Bears needed two to get out of the first inning. Right-hander Jeff Bain, given the start because lefty Matt Ladrech had been struggling, couldn't get two outs. He struck out leadoff man Nick Madrigal, but gave up four hits, including K. J. Harrison's two-run home run, and a walk. By the time Ladrech was summoned from the bullpen the Beavers had scored twice and had the bases loaded with just the one out.
"I had never come into a game like that," he said afterwards. "I said to (catcher Brett) Cumberland, you've got to get me through this."
Ladrech got himself through it, with some help from his defense. The first batter he faced, Kyle Nobach, hit a sinking liner to left field. But Cal's Brenden Farney made a diving catch. The runner from third scored easily on the sac fly, but without Farney's effort the damage could have been a lot worse.
Then the fun started. Ladrech retired eighteen straight Beavers until Nobsch walked in the seventh. He was erased in a double play and Ladrech set down the side in order again in the eighth, meaning he faced the minimum number of hitters in his 7 2/3 innings. Not bad for a guy who came in with a 6.43 ERA.
"I give him a lot of credit," said coach David Esquer. "He didn't feel sorry for himself, he went to work. Got himself right, came out with what we hadn't been seeing before. He was just working hard at it."
Ledrech said his problem was in his delivery, something he obviously corrected. "Just angles," he said. "My direction has been a little bit off, but once you get the angles, now it's easier."
But the Bears still needed to score and in the bottom of the first looked like they didn't even want to. Their first two batters reached base, and were picked off. Devin Pearson was safe on a throwing error, but turned toward second and was tagged out by Harrison, the OSU first baseman. Then Aaron Knapp singled and was picked off by Beavers starter Travis Eckert.
"We probably had the worst first inning of baseball right there," Esquer said. "We give up three runs and get picked off the bases twice. It could have been one of those days. A team is looking for a win and looking for you to give 'em one. They are looking for you not to show up and I thought our guys did a good job of turning it around and showing up in the next eight innings."
It didn't take long for the Bears to turn it around. They scored four times in the second inning with the help of an error and a wild pitch. First baseman Nick Halamandaris drove in the first two runs with an off-field single to left. "I was just trying to get the barrel on the ball," he said. "I went after the first pitch. Lately I have been trying to work the count too much."
Shortstop Preston Grand Pre drove in the other two runs with an off-field single of his own. Knapp atoned for his base-running gaffe when he tripled home an insurance run in the seventh.
"To get down 3-0, it shows kind of the type of team we are," Halamandaris said. "This is kind of the signature that we continue to build on. We're never down, we're never out; we put some hits together and some magic happens. I was just happy to get a big hit there."
Esquer had been lamenting the Bears poor defense prior to the series and evidently the message got through. The Bears did not make an error in the three games, and had several sparkling plays afield on Saturday. Besides Farney's catch, second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz had a couple of nifty catches, and Halamandaris dug three throws out of the dirt at first.
That (defense) was a point of emphasis, that was a part of the game we kind of strapped it on and worked on," Esquer said. "We certainly played good defense and supported our pitching."
Halamandaris had been primarily used in left, but Esquer said the senior will become the regular first baseman.
"We are going to go way that for awhile," he said. "We think that is a settling influence on the defense, That's what we needed to calm ourselves down a little bit. That's the kind of defense I've been looking for all year."
Although Ledrech showed no signs of tiring, Esquer used Erik Martinez for the ninth. The Cal closer survived a walk to record his sixth save in six tries.
Cal hosts USF on Tuesday night and UCLA in a three-game Pac-12 series next weekend.
"We are mentally tough," Esquer said. "We are even tougher than I thought, to be honest with you. I am proud of them."