The last time California took the field under the lights at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles, ace Erik Johnson out-dueled future first-overall MLB Draft pick Gerrit Cole over seven innings as the Bears defeated host UCLA, 4-0. Johnson would later be drafted 80th overall in that same 2011 draft as a junior, as Cal went on to the College World Series.
This Friday night, though, it was a true freshman -- 6-foot-7 sinkerball artist Ryan Mason -- who did the heavy lifting, throwing 106 pitches over 8.0 innings of work, striking out five Bruins en route to a 5-1 Bears win over No. 11 UCLA -- Cal’s ninth win in its last 10 games.
“It’s huge,” said Mason, who moved to 4-0 on the season, lowering his ERA to 2.31. “I’ve been thinking about these starts for my entire life. I’ve been dreaming of them since I was a little kid, throwing the ball against the couch when I was five-years old, just wanting to be under the lights in a big game like this, and it was nice to get the win out here. My team picked me up the entire game.”
True freshman Devin Pearson -- pressed into service three weeks ago when starting center fielder Derek Campbell went down with a broken leg -- led a seven-hit attack with a 3-for-5 day from the leadoff spot, with one run and one RBI, while sophomore third baseman Chris Paul and redshirt freshman left fielder Brian Celsi each went 2-for-4 with a run. All three youngsters teamed up in a monster seventh inning that chased UCLA ace Adam Plutko, who lasted 6.2 innings, giving up five earned runs on four hits, with five strikeouts and two walks, taking his first loss of the year.
Plutko -- a likely first-round pick in his own right -- retired 15 of the 17 batters he faced from the second through the sixth inning, while Mason walked a bit of a tightrope after a shaky first inning.
“The first two innings, it was probably adrenaline,” said Mason, who threw one wild pitch and allowed two hits, three walks and a hit batsman over the first two frames. “My arm slot went to hell. You’ve got to kind of gather yourself after that and figure it out and get back to your own form.”
After the Bears (14-8, 4-0 in the Pac-12) staked Mason to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first on a leadoff double by true freshman Devin Pearson and two sacrifices, the Bruins (15-4, 3-1) tied things up when Mason got a bit wild in the bottom of the frame, hitting leadoff man Brian Carroll with his second pitch. Carroll stole second and came around to score on an RBI groundout to short to knot things up.
Mason again allowed the leadoff man to reach in the bottom of the second, when he gave up an 0-2 single up the middle to light-hitting senior second baseman Cody Regis. But, junior preseason All-American catcher Andrew Knapp picked up his first-year hurler, gunning down Regis at second -- his conference-leading ninth runner caught stealing. Knapp has now thrown out a staggering 45% of would-be base-stealers.
“That was the big change for me,” Mason said. “Trying to get that lead guy, he gets on, and then Knapp guns him down, because he tries to steal, which was stupid. That was the momentum shifter, when he gets hosed at second.”
In the bottom of the fourth, Mason allowed a 3-1 walk to Regis and an infield single to junior left fielder Brenton Allen, but then fanned ninth-place hitter Kevin Williams swinging and got a first-pitch pop out to first from Carroll.
“I knew they were going to pick me up,” Mason said. “I’ve been in that situation all year. I started out as a closer, and in my first outing was bases-loaded, so when people get on, I know not to worry about it too much, and just keep trying to get the last out.”
Cal exploded for four runs in the top of the seventh to chase the 6-foot-3 righty thanks to timely hitting from Celsi and Pearson.
Knapp drew a full-count walk to lead off the frame, and then, head coach David Esquer elected to pinch hit for big Jacob Wark, who had been mired in a 1-for-14 slump with six strikeouts over the past four games, including an 0-for-2 collar against the Bruins. Up to the plate stepped true freshman Mitchell Kranson -- like his recruiting classmate, squaring off with the veteran Plutko.
Kranson had been removed from the starting lineup on March 1 against Baylor, after going 4-for-26 with one RBI, two walks and five strikeouts over the first eight games of the season, but when called upon on Friday night, the Concord (Calif.) De La Salle product laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to move Knapp to second, setting the stage for the Bears’ big inning.
Paul then sent Plutko’s 1-1 offering slicing down the right field line for a flare double, pulling Cal ahead, 2-1. After true freshman Nick Halamandaris -- seeing his first action of the season after missing the first 21 games with a broken thumb – struck out swinging on three pitches (he went 0-for-4 as the designated hitter, striking out twice), Plutko dealt four wide to sophomore second baseman Brenden Farney putting two on with two outs for Celsi. The speedy lefty slapped Plutko’s 0-1 offering down the left field line, doubling home both Farney and Knapp, staking the Bears to a 4-1 lead and chasing Plutko.
Freshman reliever Cody Poteet then came on to face Pearson, who lined an 0-2 offering back through the box to plate Celsi for the Bears’ fifth run of the game.
“I actually cracked half a smile when that hit got up, because during games, I don’t show any emotion, and when we started hitting him around a little bit -- I know that was kind of a rare event, hitting it off Plutko like that -- it was nice to see everybody come together, the offense getting the lead again,” Mason said. “It was my job after that to just shut it down and give Plutko his first loss.”
At that point, Mason was humming. He had retired the side in order in the third, and after allowing a walk and a single in the fourth, he set down the next 10 Bruins hitters, before hitting Carroll with a 1-0 pitch with two outs in the bottom of the seventh. Mason, though, came right back and got sophomore right fielder Eric Filia to fly out to left on one pitch to finish off the shut-down inning and set momentum squarely in the visitor’s dugout.
“I just felt comfortable on the mound,” Mason said. “Once you get over the fact that they’re 11th in the nation and you’re a freshman throwing against them, you just kind of get settled down and start playing your own game. That happened in the sixth, seventh and eighth.”
After allowing a one-out single in the eighth, Mason used his patented sinker to get first baseman Chris Keck to ground into a double play on his 103rd pitch of the evening.
Mason went out in the top of the ninth with the directive to get a 1-2-3 inning, but after surrendering a 2-1 single through the left side off the bat of catcher Shane Zeile, he was lifted for senior righty Logan Scott.
“The umpire missed a strike call that I had, which would have made it much better, 0-2, but that happens; that’s baseball,” said Mason. “That kid gets a hit, and [pitching coach] Mike [Neu] went to the pen and pulled me. After that, Logan came in and shut it down.”
Scott then got Regis to pop out to short on a fly ball to shallow left that sent shortstop Mike Reuvekamp twisting and turning to make the grab for the first out.
After getting ahead of Allen 0-2, Scott threw three straight balls before ringing him up with a called strike three on the outside corner. Scott then walked Williams after getting ahead 1-2, bringing leadoff man Carroll and his .348 batting average to the plate.
Scott worked the corners to get ahead 0-2, before his third pitch missed just off the plate away, but the veteran reliever with eight saves in his career buckled down and got Carroll on a check-swing strikeout on a pitch just off the inside corner for the final out of the evening.
On Saturday, the Bears will send veteran lefty Justin Jones to the mound for a 2 p.m. start against the Bruins, and he will take his 1-1 record and 4.62 ERA against junior righty Nick Vander Tuig (3-2, 1.80). Over his past four outings, Jones has allowed five earned runs in 14.0 innings -- with two relief appearances mixed in -- striking out nine and surrendering four walks while posting a 3.21 ERA.