BERKELEY -- Coming into this weekend’s four-game series against Fresno State, the California baseball team was reeling, having lost seven of nine on the road. Sophomore infielder Chris Paul was walking an even tougher road. Hitting .250 with just two extra-base hits over the first 12 games.
While Paul’s average hasn’t budged, his bat certainly started to heat up over the weekend thanks to Bulldogs reliever Tyler Stirewalt, hitting a big three-run home run on Friday off the hard-throwing righty (the first hit he’d surrendered all season) and following up a first-inning bases-clearing double in the first with a loud solo shot in the bottom of the seventh (the second hit Stirewalt had surrendered all season), as the Bears completed a sweep of Fresno State with a resounding 8-4 win in front of a big crowd of over 600 fans at Evans Diamond on Sunday.
“I’m feeling really comfortable and I’m gaining confidence with every game that I play,” said Paul, who finished the weekend 4-for-16 with two home runs, two runs scored and eight RBI. “I’m working with my teammates and hitting extra. It’s just really helping me. After a tough start – everyone saw it – I wasn’t even hitting the ball hard, and now, most of my at-bats, I’m hitting the ball well. Baseball’s a game of failure, but if you give yourself a chance and hit it hard every time, that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Cal (9-7) remained undefeated at home with the four-game sweep, thanks to a four-run seventh touched off by Paul’s second longball of the season, which broke a 4-4 tie.
After Paul circled the bases, Stirewalt dealt Michael Theofanopoulos a five-pitch walk, and sophomore second baseman Brenden Farney blooped a flare single down the right field line, moving Theofanopoulos to third. Rattled, Stirewalt then faced the speedy Brian Celsi, who squared to bunt on the first pitch and sent the ball right back to the mound. Stirewalt froze, thinking about coming home. He then looked to first, but, with first baseman Trent Garrison charging, second baseman Louie Payetta forgot to cover the bag, loading the bases for freshman Devin Pearson.
“[Bunting] is a big part of our offense,” said Esquer, who saw Fresno State misplay five key bunts over the weekend. “We know that we’re kind of that work-in-progress offensive team with a lot of young players, so the one thing about chipping in to our offense, we can’t just rely on guys to come up and double and get those hits. Eventually, we will, but that makes it an even bigger part of our offense. We know those little things -- getting bunts down, moving up on a ball in the dirt and taking away the inner half of the plate -- are a big part of our game.”
Stirewalt dealt four wide to Pearson, pushing Theofanopoulos across to make it 6-4 in favor of the Berkeley Nine. Pesky Mike Reuvekamp -- yet to be retired all day – then took a 1-1 curveball in the middle of the back, forcing in yet another run. A sacrifice fly by Devon Rodriguez -- playing first base for the first time since the final game of the 2011 College World Series after a knee injury before the 2012 season turned into a career -- if not life-threatening -- blood clot, and a jammed shoulder at the end of fall ball four months ago -- then sent a sacrifice fly to left, scoring Celsi for the final tally.
“No matter what happened today,” Rodriguez said, “I was going to be happy, being back out there [at first].”
Rodriguez’s presence at first was a calming influence on the infield, as the Bears made just one error on the day.
“It was just a different look,” said head coach David Esquer. “Even in the last inning, I think Rev (Mike Reuvekamp) threw a ball that faded a little bit to the right, and it was just a matter-of-fact catch. There was no big drama to it. It was kind of a look-see to see how he comes out of it. I don’t know if he’ll play there on Tuesday, but hopefully, more and more, we can get him out there. It’s been a big hole for us for two years.”
Rodriguez finished the day 1-for-3 with two RBI, putting the capper on a monster series where he went 8-for-15 with three RBI and a double.
Junior side-arming righty Trevor Hildenberger -- pitching in relief for the second time this weekend -- tossed 2.1 scoreless innings to earn his second win in four days. Hildenberger fanned two after five other Cal pitchers failed to retire a single Bulldog on strikes on the afternoon.
“It’s huge,” Hildenberger said of the sweep. “It’s huge for out team morale to know that we can come home and we’re almost unbeatable. We have four walk-offs and three other wins. 7-0 at home is a pretty good start, especially when we came home 5-7. Now, we’re able to go into Pac-12 play over .500.”
“It’s big for us,” Esquer said. “I don’t think [Paul] is necessarily locked in yet. I think he’s getting there and working his way there. It’s confidence. There are some things he can do better, covering some pitches better, but he’s competitive now. He’s competing and getting some big at-bats and getting some big hits. A bases-clearing double and the home run, without him, we don’t win.”
Blow by Blow
Despite Paul’s three-run double in the bottom of the first, starter Dylan Nelson -- who had tossed 6.1 brilliant innings against then-No. 19 Rice on Monday – struggled, lasting just 2.0 innings in his second collegiate start, giving up two singles to start the top of the second. Catcher Austin Wynns then moved the runners over with a groundout to second, and left fielder Tyler Ward drew a six-pitch walk to load the bases.
A 6-4 fielder’s choice grounder by Brody Russell and a hard slide into second by Ward allowed a run to score, and a bloop single over first by Payetta cut the lead to 3-2.
“I don’t think he came back from his first start as strong as he could,” Esquer said of Nelson. “I thought he looked a little compromised. I don’t think he’s injured, but his body – from going to the pen to starting last week – I don’t think he bounced back. It was obvious from the first inning. I knew he wasn’t throwing the ball downhill and he wasn’t as sharp in his location.”
Cal got another run in the bottom of the second on a sacrifice fly by Rodriguez to give the Bears a 4-2 advantage, but Fresno State quickly responded.
Freshman lefty Jake Schulz came on in the top of the third and promptly gave up a one-out missile to projected first-round pick Aaron Judge over the tractor beyond the temporary fence in left center field for a solo homer, tying the game at 3-3. Schulz continued to struggle in the top of the third, issuing a leadoff walk to Wynns before allowing a first-pitch two-out single to Payetta.
But, the Bulldogs missed a big opportunity to pull ahead when third baseman Jake Alvarez -- who took over for starter Kevin Viers in the hot corner after the freshman misread a steal sign in the top of the first and was consequently gunned down by preseason All-American Andrew Knapp -- took a ball in the dirt on an 0-2 offering. Instead of getting into a rundown and allowing Wynns to score, Payetta barreled into second, only to be cut down by Knapp for his second caught-stealing of the day.
Alvarez led off the top of the fifth with a single over the leaping Paul, and advanced to second on a passed ball, bringing Judge to the plate. After getting ahead of the powerful righty with a swing-and-miss change and a curve on the outside corner, the Bears let Judge get away when Paul fielded a grounder deep in the hole at short on a funny hop and threw up the line to first, putting runners at the corners for Garrison, who reached out and blooped a change up into shallow left to tie the game.
After senior Bears reliever Ryan Wertenberger allowed a single and a walk to lead off the top of the seventh, he was replaced by junkballing lefty Kyle Porter, who needed just eight pitches to retire Garrison and Jordan Brink. Porter then walked Wynns on five pitches for the struggling Ward, who was 0-for-10 on the series.
Enter: Hildenberger. The junior righty out of San Jose (Calif.) Archbishop Mitty needed just three pitches to retire Ward and end the threat, giving Cal all the momentum headed into the bottom of the seventh. After the Bears pushed across four runs, Hildenberger retired Fresno State in order in the top of the eighth, bringing up the heart of the Bulldogs order in the top of the ninth.
First up was shortstop Chris Marsical, who grounded out to short. Up stepped Judge -- who was 12-for-15 in Sunday games entering the game, with nine RBI.
“The first guy I struck out, he got four straight fastballs and wasn’t looking for a fifth, and I was able to sneak one by him,” said Hildenberger, who fanned two after four previous Cal hurlers failed to retire a single Bulldog on strikes on the afternoon. “Judge, he’s a big one. I know he came to the plate, and he asked Knapp – because he played with him in the Cap [Cod League], he asked Knapp if he was going to get a fastball that at-bat, and Knapp said, ‘I can’t promise you anything. Then, first-pitch slider right down the middle. I went two fastballs, missed, and I went back to the slider, and I don’t think he was seeing it very well and he was just anxious.”
The 6-foot-7 slugger waved at the slidepiece and missed, finishing a 1-for-4 game and a 3-for-15 weekend.
After retiring Judge, it was a piece of cake to get Garrison to fly out weakly to right, completing the sweep.
“We couldn’t find anyone to stop them, and they were looking for someone to stop us, and not until we got to Trevor did that happen,” Esquer said. “He’s gotten better every outing. That is a huge -- now that our bullpen is starting games -- it’s big to have somebody who can still be at the back end of the game, because we thought we were losing that by starting [Ryan] Mason and Nelson.”
The Bears next take the field on Tuesday for a 6 p.m. tilt against Santa Clara at Stephen Schott Stadium – the site of Cal’s 2011 Super Regional triumph over Dallas Baptist that sent the Bears to Omaha – with Theofanopoulos looking to get right on the mound after spending the weekend going 2-for-11 at the dish with his first home run of the season.
Cal then goes on the road for its first Pac-12 series of the season against Utah, with Saturday’s 3 p.m. MT contest against the Utes scheduled for broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks.
The Bears continue their nine-game road trip with a Wednesday game at San Jose State (moved so that construction on new light standards can continue uninterrupted) and then head down to Southern California for a three-game set against No. 12 UCLA at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles, before returning to Northern California with a March 26 tilt in the City against San Francisco.
The next time Cal returns home will be on March 28, for the first of a three-game set against former pitching coach Dan Hubbs and his USC Trojans, with the 7 P.M. start time on Friday night signaling the first time since Evans Diamond was constructed in 1933 that the Bears will play under the lights at home.